The summer of 1982 was an extended cinematic Christmas for science fiction, horror, and fantasy fans. Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial dominated the summer’s box office, and the canon of classic genre movies added many more entries that summer, with Conan the Barbarian and George Miller’s The Road Warrior in May, and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and John Carpenter’s The Thing in June. But right around the July 4 holiday that year, two visually groundbreaking science fiction films were released to mild box-office returns, unremarkable reviews, and eventually passionate fanbases: Blade Runner and Tron.
Both Blade Runner and Tron are unlikely cult hits. Both are considered state-of-the-art examples of science fiction cinema. (Blade Runner’s visual impact is well-established, but the same goes for Tron, which Pixar honcho John Lasseter said paved the way for Toy Story. This, in spite of the fact that by 1995, Tron was a punchline for The Simpsons, specifically regarding how quickly it was forgotten.) Both have ardent fans who grew up, entered the movie business, and pushed for improbable, big-budget sequels. Walt Disney Pictures released Tron: Legacy during the 2010 holiday season, and Warner Bros. and Columbia Pictures recently released Blade Runner 2049. Though these sequels are largely as dissimilar as their predecessors were, a few parallels are striking and unavoidable.
The Blade Runner movies are much darker than the Tron films. (Both Blade Runners are rated R, and both are graphically violent, while Tron and Tron: Legacy were rated PG.) But Blade Runner 2049 and Tron: Legacy have similar themes of obsession over family legacies. 2049 focuses on K (Ryan Gosling), an LAPD android-hunter who’s tasked with investigating the story of a female replicant who gave birth to a child. Then he’s ordered to destroy all possible evidence, including that unknown child. K is a replicant himself, a model made by the Wallace Corporation, which has supplanted the original film’s Tyrell Corporation. As K’s investigation proceeds, he sees evidence that suggests he might be the mystery child, and that his parents are none other than Blade Runner’s Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) and Rachael (Sean Young).
This hunt to track down a missing parent is mirrored in the setup to Tron: Legacy. In the 2010 sequel, Garrett Hedlund plays Sam Flynn, son of the missing-in-action Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), one of the heroes of the 1982 original. Sam, whose father’s company is now a massively powerful worldwide conglomerate, is encouraged by Kevin’s old friend Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) to investigate the origin of a message emanating from the arcade where the two older men once worked. There, Sam is inexplicably transported into the virtual-reality world known as The Grid. Inside the Grid, the digital inhabitants quickly identify Sam as a human, and bring him to their leader, Clu, who looks exactly like Kevin did as a young man. Eventually, Sam learns that his actual father is also inside the Grid, hiding from its dangerous ruler.
Upon its release, Tron: Legacy felt like a massive gamble. The original film grossed just $33 million at the box office (notably, it out-earned the original Blade Runner by nearly $10 million). Yet here was a sequel targeted at an audience that didn’t even grow up watching the first one in theaters. Tron: Legacy featured well-known actors Bridges, Olivia Wilde, and Michael Sheen, but relied just as much on its audience being familiar with the premise as they were with its stars. The director, Joseph Kosinski, was making his feature debut as well. Disney, to its credit, spared no expense: the announced budget was $170 million. The gamble, depending on your outlook, barely paid off, or didn’t pay off enough. The film’s worldwide box office was just over $400 million, and a third Tron is once again struggling to get off the ground, having been greenlit in March 2015, un-greenlit in May 2015, and now possibly becoming a starring vehicle for currently controversial Very Serious Actor™ Jared Leto.
Blade Runner 2049, in its own way, is an even bigger gamble. Gosling and Harrison Ford are both A-listers, even with Ford in his twilight years. Ridley Scott didn’t return to direct, but new director Denis Villeneuve is fresh off a Best Director Oscar nomination for last year’s Arrival. The film’s reported budget of $155 million or $185 million, depending on who you ask, is nearly astronomical; its runtime of 163 minutes is equally so. So far, Blade Runner 2049 has been following in the original film’s footsteps by underperforming at the box office. (It made just $36 million in its opening weekend; Tron: Legacy took in nearly $45 million in its first weekend.) Adjusted for inflation, Blade Runner made more than $80 million in its original release. 2049 has edged into the $150 million range in worldwide release, but that’s still barely above its lowest reported production cost — the sign of a movie that’s lost a significant amount of money.
Mercifully, box office aside, Blade Runner 2049 is a much better film than Tron: Legacy. So much of the 2010 movie relies on believing that Sam and his father are facing off against a virtual-reality creation that looks like a young Jeff Bridges, which means that much of the film relies on that virtual Bridges looking real. Presumably, a large amount of Tron: Legacy’s budget was dedicated to the crucial FX surrounding Clu, but the final product is a big stumble. Clu feels less like an authentically young Jeff Bridges, and more like an offshoot of the motion-capture horror-show of films like The Polar Express or Beowulf: both too real and too unreal, a visceral example of the dangers of the uncanny-valley effect.
Leaving aside that effect, while the rest of Tron: Legacy’s visual palette and its pulsating Daft Punk soundtrack are striking, the story, characters, and dialogue fall flat. As much as it may be a kick just to see Jeff Bridges in Big Lebowski mode as the elder Flynn, no one can sell an unironic line of dialogue like “It’s biodigital jazz, man!” That is admittedly the film’s clunkiest line, meant to describe the technological power of the Grid, but representative of its largely uninspired screenplay. While Kosinski is making his directorial feature debut, he acquits himself well enough with the other visuals, and both Hedlund and Wilde have shown strong talent in other films. Tron: Legacy just wasn’t the right material.
Like Tron: Legacy, Blade Runner 2049 has a booming (at times nearly deafening) soundtrack, remarkable visuals, and a sense of portent permeating the story. Though the film suffers from its ponderous tone, and could stand to be about 20 minutes shorter, it boasts multi-dimensional, complex performances from its two above-the-line leads. (Coincidentally, for a brief moment in the final hour, 2049 delves into the same kind of special-effects wizardry as Tron: Legacy, as (spoiler ahead) Rick Deckard is presented with a new version of Rachael, looking just as she did in the original. The digital re-creation effect is more impressive than the work on Clu in Legacy, but it also helps that she’s only on screen for a minute.) The film’s biggest selling point is Roger Deakins’ jaw-dropping cinematography — audiences really need to see this on the biggest screen possible, if only for the imagery — but Ryan Gosling’s performance is among his very best. K is an internal, subtly emotional character with a full, satisfactory arc, and Gosling brings an appropriate, welcome sense of complexity to the role. The script is perhaps overly solemn, and leaves some plot strands untied, but 2049 still has a sense of completeness and intelligence that’s unfortunately absent from Legacy.
Tron: Legacy was notably designed to kickstart a new franchise; in its first act, Sam plays a prank on the current leaders of his father’s corporation, including one played by Cillian Murphy, as the son of the first film’s villain. Murphy doesn’t show up again, but it’s unlikely he was cast for a throwaway cameo. If we do end up getting a third Tron, with or without Leto (which would, of course, further the connection between this and Blade Runner), it likely won’t be the follow-up to Legacy. If, however, we ever got a new Blade Runner — 2049 has an open-ended finale like its predecessor — it would probably continue directly from where this film left off. Third entries in either of these series might seem unlikely, but it’s genuinely remarkable that two mild failures at the summer 1982 box office got studio-funded revivals at all. At least for Blade Runner 2049, it creatively paid off.