In 'Tron: Legacy,' Jeff Bridges gets top billing. But is he the movie's star?

'Tron: Legacy' is further evidence that Hollywood is catering to a new generation of moviegoers whose appetite for video games and reality TV has changed the very nature of stardom.

Disney Enterprises Inc./AP
In this publicity image released by Disney, a computerized avatar of actor Jeff Bridges, left, and Garrett Hedlund are shown in a scene from, 'Tron: Legacy.'

Jeff Bridges is hot in Disney Studios’ cyber-caper sequel, “Tron: Legacy.” But not as his usual, award-winning, rumpled, and very human self.

Rather, in this big-budget follow-up to a 1982 cult hit, he portrays a man lost inside a completely computerized environment. What’s more, he has become a digitized version of himself.

The film topped the weekend box office with $43.6 million. And perhaps more tellingly for Hollywood trend-trackers, the special-effects-laden film thoroughly trounced one that in another era would have been considered a shoo-in for some top spot in December movie-theater going.

Directed by Oscar-winning James Brooks, “How Do You Know?” also boasted Hollywood star names – Reese Witherspoon and Jack Nicholson – and its own healthy budget, estimated at close to the reported $150 million for Disney’s “Tron.” Yet, it limped into the No. 8 spot for its opening weekend.

The question naturally arises, once again: What is the future of the Hollywood movie star, when special effects have become so powerful in their ability to not just create big explosions but, as in the megahit "Avatar," to create whole worlds, including people, plants, and animals?

The answer to that question lies partly in a changing notion of stardom.

The viewer as star

“This trend probably speaks to the demographics of the audience for these films,” says Susan Mackey-Kallis, associate professor of communications at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, adding that the look and feel of digital gaming drives the look and feel of popular films. Although she points out that the films may draw an audience from the over-40 crowd, most of the audience for these films taps a generation grown up with video gaming that increasingly employs digitally rich graphical environments.

“The ‘stars’ of these video games are not Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt but rather the gamers themselves projected through their own computer-generated avatars,” Ms. Mackey-Kallis notes. While she shies away from seeming too technologically deterministic, “the 3-D craze and the success of a CGI film like ‘Avatar,’ shot in both 3-D and regular formats, indicates to the studios that this is the future of filmmaking, at least for the foreseeable future.”

But is the star dead? Probably not, she says. However, they have certainly been taken down a notch thanks to the phenomenal success of reality television where the “star” can be you.

Mackey-Kallis references cinema theorists like Christian Metz who argue that it isn’t the star of the film with whom we identify in cinema, rather we identify with ourselves in the pure act of perception. The old-time draw of the lustrous Hollywood star has lost its hold on younger generations.

“Video game avatars, who are our projections, and reality television ‘stars,’ who are just like us, strengthen this experience,” she adds.

Concept shares top billing

But movie stars are in no danger of being completely eclipsed, says Paul Dergarabedian, a box office analyst for Increasingly, however, they will be sharing top billing with a movie’s concept.

“While it used to be enough to put a major star in a movie, these days, a name and a great concept are a much better path to success,” he points out. And while even a so-so movie used to have a chance to make some money if it had a big name starring in it, these days the other side of a technology-rich world means that word-of-mouth that used to trickle out over a weekend, now zings around the globe in an hour or less.

“Marketing people need every bow in their quivers these days,” he says, adding that more and more often, stars alone are not enough.

The sheer draw of the latest gee-whiz technology dates back to the dawn of the movie industry, notes cultural pundit Robert Thompson, founder of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York. “We first went to the Nickelodeon just to see picures that moved,” he says with a laugh.

The big difference in this latest technological advance is the ability to replace the human role, he says. “It is now possible,” he points out, “to create a human experience onscreen without actually using human beings.”

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