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.
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.
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.
In addition to working wonders with the digital camera, Kosinski has also developed quite the reputation for bringing in unconventional artists to score his films. Oblivion featured an original score by M83’s Anthony Gonzalez, who collaborated with Joseph Trapanese. Maverick, true to its maximalist form, features a score co-composed by four people — Hans Zimmer, his protege Lorne Balfe, the original film’s Harold Faltermeyer, and somewhat dazzlingly, Lady Gaga.
Tron: Legacy was released back in 2010. It made $400 million worldwide, which seems like a decent chunk of change, but clearly not enough for Disney to invest in a sequel. This was the same year in which Disney released The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which reunited the team behind the hit National Treasure series—star Nicolas Cage, director Jon Turteltaub, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer—in an effort to spawn another franchise. It bombed, and essentially ended Cage’s career as a viable star. The final nail(s) in the coffin came in 2012, 2013 and 2015, when Disney released three of the biggest box office bombs in history—John Carter, The Lone Ranger, and Tomorrowland.
This, in my opinion, was the five-year period in which Disney’s creative strategy transitioned irrevocably into what we see today—a slate dominated by essentially two franchises, Marvel and Star Wars, with the occasional Pixar sequel thrown in. Whether or not a third Tron film is made is unclear, but it’s sort of fitting that Tron: Legacy concludes on an optimistic yet ambiguous note. You can drag a person to a good idea, it suggests, but you can’t force them to follow through on it.