Tron Legacy: Before Top Gun Maverick, director Joseph Kosinski made one of the most audacious big-budget debuts of all time

Post Credits Scene: Director Joseph Kosinski was handpicked by Tom Cruise to helm the long-delayed Top Gun: Maverick, and now is an ideal time to revisit Kosinski’s under-appreciated cult hit Tron: Legacy, with which he made one of the most spectacular big-budget debuts in recent memory.

The common belief these days, as it has been for some years now, is that Tom Cruise no longer works with directors that he can’t push around. This didn’t always use to be the case. Early in his career, Cruise appeared to be checking off directors on his wish-list with the fevered mania of a playboy carving notches on his bedpost. He worked with the likes of Cameron Crowe and Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese and Stanley Kubrick. Oliver Stone, Sydney Pollack, Steven Spielberg, Brian DePalma, Paul Thomas Anderson… It’s really quite impressive.
But now, having cultivated a famously over-involved taskmaster persona, Cruise is often the highest authority on his sets, and perhaps the only movie star in the world who can still get his way with studios. Just last year, he convinced Paramount to not only funnel more money into the already over-budget seventh Mission: Impossible movie, but persuaded them to let him begin working on the eighth one even before Dead Reckoning Part One had been completed. There is, however, a correlation between Cruise’s franchise-minded recent output and the general shift of the American film industry towards IP-driven ‘content’.,Post Credits Scene is a column in which we dissect new releases every week, with particular focus on context, craft, and characters. Because there’s always something to fixate about once the dust has settled.
Cruise has now worked with director Christopher McQuarrie on four Mission: Impossible movies in a row, but their professional partnership goes back even further. McQuarrie has been performing script rewrites on Tom Cruise movies going back to Valkyrie. In the last decade, barring exactly two instances—The Mummy and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back—Cruise has worked with the same set of directors. McQuarrie has done the Mission: Impossible movies, but also the first Jack Reacher. Doug Liman directed him in Edge of Tomorrow and American Made. But the third director on this list is perhaps the least well-known. Joseph Kosinski first worked with Cruise on the underseen 2013 science-fiction movie Oblivion. He will reunite with the star on this week’s Top Gun: Maverick.
Maverick is just his fourth feature, but in his relatively short career, Kosinski has established himself as one of the most distinct big-budget filmmakers currently working in Hollywood. This should come as no surprise; his debut film underperformed at the box office and earned mixed reviews, but has since achieved cult status for its breath-taking visual ambition and Matrix-like fascination for fridge-magnet philosophy. It was also among the last few Disney movies that dared to swing for the fences; a relic of a particularly brave period in recent Mouse House history that will perhaps never be replicated. The movie is Tron: Legacy, and it remains, even more than a decade after its release, one of the most audacious big-budget debuts in recent memory.
Kosinski tapped into his background in visual effects and architecture for the film, most of which is set inside the CGI-heavy interiors of a computer world called The Grid. The universe that Kosinski imagined borrows from the designs of the original Tron movie, which became a cult hit back in the 1980s, but reimagines it almost entirely. Dominated by granite-like blacks and fluorescent blues, The Grid can be a gladiator arena or a demolition derby; it can resemble the inside of an Apple store or look like the neoclassical bedroom at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Jeff Bridges plays both Kevin Flynn, the Godlike creator of The Grid, and Clu, the genocidal villain that Flynn created in his own image. This isn’t the film’s only reference to Christian theology; Flynn’s apostle of sorts, Quorra, is modelled after Joan of Arc. But on other occasions, Flynn appears to be a Buddha-like figure; a non-violent man who has decided that the best action that he can take against Clu is inaction. “You’re messing with my Zen thing, man,” he drawls in trademark Jeff Bridges fashion, when his long-lost son Sam arrives at his doorstep, having found his way into The Grid.
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More than a classic tale about the hubris of man, Tron: Legacy is, in its motherboard of motherboards, a story about a father-son relationship. Flynn disappeared without a trace when Sam was 12, leaving him to live a life plagued by abandonment issues. It’s also a cautionary tale about the dangers of technology, particularly technology that lies in the control of amoral men. Flynn was an outlier; a vocal advocate for open source software. It’s no coincidence that one of the lessons that he teaches Quorra is the ‘art of selflessness’.
Tron: Legacy was also one of the first major films to use the digital de-ageing technology, which filmmakers now use as a crutch. There is, however, no defending the jarringly bad final result. Kosinski’s behind-the-scenes crew included Claudio Miranda—who scored an Oscar nomination for his digital cinematography on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and would go on to shoot each of Kosinski’s subsequent films—and perhaps most notably, the French icons Daft Punk, whose banger of an original score integrated lush orchestrations with their trademark electronic music.