The computer fantasy film, “Tron: Legacy,” topped the weekend box office with more than $43 million – not quite the $50 million that Disney reportedly hoped for. But the domestic total is a far cry from the $8 million that the original “Tron” made back in 1982 when it opened, points out Sean Phillips, executive producer of Yahoo! Movies.
The first film, he adds, “was pretty much a bomb.” This faltering performance leads to the obvious question: Why bring back a story that didn’t resonate the first time around?
Partly because Disney can, says Hezekiah Lewis, a filmmaker and professor at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. The initial movie was produced long before the heady world of today’s computer-enhanced special-effects wizardry, he points out. And the story of a man who gets trapped inside a digital universe could barely be realized onscreen in those days.
“But today, the special-effects industry required to make that story come alive onscreen has totally come of age,” Professor Lewis says.
Beyond that, from a marketing standpoint, the studio had less to lose with a recognizable product, points out Max Dawson, a film professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “It takes much more work to develop a brand-new concept than to tinker with an old one,” he says.
There is a pointed irony, however, between the two films. Whereas the 1982 iteration was a cautionary tale about the dangers of technology running amuck and overwhelming humanity, the current version appears to be resonating with a generation weaned on personal computers, video-game consoles, and special-effects-laden movies.
As Mr. Phillips notes, “There are some pretty good thrill rides in the movie, but any social message is pretty much lost.” Instead, he says, the filmmakers focus on the father-son relationship that frames the new film.
Yet the real focus this time around, says Phillips, is the ancillary merchandising of the film’s cool gadgets. “We live in an era of iPods, cellphones, and personal computers,” he says. “We like our shiny new toys, and our films are just following suit.”
The message is there, but we are different, argues Julian Chambliss, a history professor at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla., and a comic-book expert. “There is no question the morality tale about power and control that shaped the first movie continues into this one,” he says via e-mail. “[B]ut like Sam (Flynn's son and the movie's hero) the average American is struggling to reconcile the belief and understand the decision that creates the system we live in, even as we discard and change it with the new digital tools at our disposal.“
Will we see more underperformers from the Disney vault being resurrected? “The Black Hole,” one of the company’s spectacular flops, is currently in development for another go-round.
But the very lack of mainstream success is what makes certain films important cultural markers, says Glenn Platt, co-director of the Armstrong Institute for Interactive Media Studies (AIMS) at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. “Tron” was the first big-budget movie to romanticize the epic struggle of hackers against "the man." This appealed to the first generation of geeks, raised on RadioShack TRS-80 and Commodore 64 computers, notes Mr. Platt, who sent a blog post via e-mail.
The film was also the first to grasp the heart of the video-game experience, he says. Most movie-themed games up to that point were simply overlaying movie imagery on unrelated games, but the “Tron” game was entirely consistent with the film. Most important, it let the player be the character in the movie.
“The player could ride the light cycles or shoot at and from the flying two-legged Recognizers,” Platt notes.
Not many people saw the first “Tron,” he adds. But, he writes, “It was an inspirational film and underdog of a film that helped to define a digital future. I feel quite sure much of our digital life would look different were it not for inspiration ‘Tron’ provided for a generation of geeks that now create the virtual ....”