I think we can all appreciate a well-told story in film. A tight narrative, satisfying character arcs, and compelling performances are, after all, so often the bedrock of a satisfying movie. That said, sometimes our insistence on using story structure, a lack of plot holes, or a character’s journey as the sole barometer by which a movie’s quality can be judged distracts from an all-important X-factor: that of vibes.
Not every great movie has great vibes and sometimes bad movies have better vibes than great ones. Sometimes Mad Max: Fury Road happens and you get both at once. And when it comes to movies that thrive on vibes, you can’t do much better than Tron or Tron: Legacy. For that reason, I’m hoping new director Garth Davis keeps this in mind as he helms the long-delayed third Tron film, which was made official this week with Jared Leto set to star. (Some are claiming the film will be titled Tron: Ares, though there's no official word on or proof for that beyond a suspect screenshot of a now-nonexistent tweet that might have been from Leto's account.)
The original Tron film’s longevity comes less from a strong story or a well-executed character arc than it does from the revolutionary technology that brought the film to life. Tron operated on the cutting edge of computer-generated special effects upon its initial release and turned out to be a true game-changer. The landscape of CGI as a tool for building worlds in film started with Tron, leaving everything from Avengers: Endgame to Avatar in its debt.
Starring Jeff Bridges, Tron told the story of computer programmer/hacker Kevin Flynn, who finds himself trapped in the world of a mainframe computer, eventually taking up arms as a freedom fighter against the oppressive Master Control Program. It’s a cool story, sure, but narrative takes a firm backseat to design, special effects, and a relishing in the very idea that a computer system could function as a self-contained environment. The film developed a cult following and eventually received a sequel order nearly 30 years after its original 1982 release. That sequel became Tron: Legacy, one of the more hotly contested blockbusters of the modern era.
Depending on whom you ask, Tron: Legacy is either a nonsensical disappointment or an underappreciated banger that should have garnered a sequel ages ago. Neither is entirely right or wrong. Narratively, Legacy is a bit of a mess and features a less-than-compelling lead in Garrett Hedlund’s Sam Flynn (CGI Young Jeff Bridges is also for sure on the wrong side of the uncanny valley).
What the film does right is, well, pretty much everything else that makes film as a visual medium exciting. The digital effects that make up The Grid and its residents remain breathtaking to this day. It’s the sort of work that demands the film be seen on the largest screen possible, and preferably with a high-quality sound system to match so as to best pump the now-iconic Daft Punk score. Tron: Legacy’s visuals and audio, when meshed with the facets of the narrative that work well, create a cinematic experience of pure vibes. It’s less like watching a movie and more like experiencing music personified, which is not to say that the film is a music video so much as it creates a feeling and experience that washes over you the same way a great song might.
It’s this unique accomplishment that has allowed the film to resonate with its fans over the last decade. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find folks who have been clamoring to know what Sam bringing Quora into the real world leads to or whether or not we’ve seen the last of Tron himself. Rather, the fans who have long anticipated this third film want another experience like the ones Tron and Tron: Legacy present, from the wonder of discovery as their worlds are further fleshed out to the pounding synth of a Daft Punk joint over a Disc Wars battle.
With the third film finally being made official, I find myself thinking about stories from the production of the Mission: Impossible films over the years. Oftentimes a Mission: Impossible film goes into production with a script only loosely in place (at best), with production instead structured around stunts and setpieces. The who, when, why, and how of it all is established later; the important thing is that production knows that this movie has to feature Tom Cruise jumping off of the Burj Khalifa. Oftentimes M:I movies feature complex if not utterly nonsensical plots nearly impossible to recount after watching the film. Rarely does it matter. Nobody watches those movies for their airtight narratives or satisfying character arcs. We watch them for the spectacle they bring, and their production over the years has honed in on that.
It’s a risky approach to filmmaking, so I don’t necessarily mean to imply that Tron 3 would be best served by going into production without a script in place. Moreso it seems that if this film is going to move forward, I hope it does so with the creators behind it knowing what worked about the prior films and how to best bring that same spirit to this new installment. If there’s a great story, compelling performances, and emotional character arcs, I don’t think anybody is going to complain. But fans of these movies largely go for the vibes — here’s hoping Tron 3 brings the vibes.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.