This is not the new Daft Punk album. It’s a score for a Disney franchise film that cost an estimated $200 million to make. As such, there are lots of classical-inspired strings and horns played by an 85-strong orchestra. Most of the soundtrack’s 22 pieces don’t last more than three minutes; only a few could be considered actual songs. And while we knew this was going to be a score since it was first reported nearly two years ago, it’s tough to shake the gloom of blown expectations while listening to the same ominous theme as it repeats in slightly mutated forms across the hour-long soundtrack. The French duo’s current move is almost undeniably disappointing, but it’s also not a surprise.
Daft Punk aren’t the same two guys who made Homework and Discovery. Over the course of the last decade, Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have increasingly relied on images to complement– and sometimes justify– their music. Since their last proper LP, 2005’s Human After All, the pair staged the greatest dance music tour of all time– one that blasted its audience with enough visual stimuli to leave them blinking stars for hours. The pyramid, the gleaming helmets, and the lite-bright leather jackets brought Daft Punk’s greatest hits to a holy, undiscovered realm. Their 2006 art-house indulgence Electroma went even further as it was directed by the twosome yet featured no new music. Daft Punk haven’t even attempted a can’t-miss song in at least five years, and the Tron: Legacy soundtrack keeps that unfortunate streak alive.
The score keeps another trend going, too. Bangalter and de Homem-Christo have flexed their robot obsession for years, but its nature has changed. On Discovery tracks like “Digital Love”, “Something About Us”, and “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger”, they employed robotic voice effects to bring out the childlike naïveté of artificial intelligence. And Discovery‘s accompanying animated movie, Interstella 5555, was a bright and fun technicolor cartoon. But their mechanized fantasies have gotten continually darker since then– consider the much more sinister robo effects on Human After All‘s “The Brainwasher” and “Television Rules the Nation”. Electroma‘s two metal-machine leads commit harrowing self-destruct suicides. Most of the robot doomsaying can’t compare with their ebullient side; their apocalyptic visions are hardly Philip K. Dick-worthy, and they’re oftentimes a huge bummer to boot.
Tron: Legacy is rated PG and aimed at igniting the imaginations of 10-year-old boys. When I watched it in IMAX 3D it was easy to revert back to my younger self and just gawk at the exquisite whiz-bang of it all. That said, it’s pretty fucking dark. Most of the movie takes place in a virtual world that doesn’t know sunlight– it’s like a futuristic version of Tolkien’s Mordor. Almost all of the post-Han Solo humor that buoyed the original Tron is replaced by a thunderous seriousness (and blue-black color scheme) more akin to The Dark Knight. And the music follows suit with endless crescendos of pounding timpani drums and monolithic strings. Naturally, the music synchs a hell of a lot better when you’re watching the stunning images it was made to accompany. Daft Punk’s score plays a vital role in making this poorly scripted mega movie seem bigger and more important than it actually is.
Even so, it hems frustratingly close to the sweeping classical film music style pioneered by John Williams (Star Wars) and picked up by Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings) and Hans Zimmer (The Dark Knight). The Tron: Legacy score’s supposed innovation is combining an orchestra style with electronics, but the meshing of the two styles is rare and rudimentary. More often than not, each piece is either mostly synth-based (including filter-house also-rans “Derezzed” and “Tron Legacy (End Titles)”) or symphonic (“Nocturne”, “Outlands”). When they pull off the combo– as on the blistering “The Game Has Changed”– it’s thrilling even without an IMAX screen hijacking your senses. And while the classical arrangements mark a new style for Daft Punk, it’s hardly revelatory in the sphere of movie scores at large.
Watching the movie, I couldn’t help but think that this was Daft Punk’s attempt at topping their legendary pyramid tour. Theoretically, by teaming up with Disney and the most high-tech cameras and surround-sound systems and recording facilities known to man, the two could could dive bomb into the minds of millions of people in one immense opening weekend and stay consistent with their man vs. machine ideology– all without leaving the comfort of their own homes. But the tour was phenomenal because they were the central characters– not just a side act– and because it was delusionally fun. Tron: Legacy has flashes of that sort of brilliance, but it’s downright puny compared to the sheer joy that is “One More Time” or “Around the World”. Daft Punk used to be a couple of guys hellbent on making genius dance music who happened to wear goofy robot helmets. Along the way, though, their priorities seem to have changed.
— Ryan Dombal, December 10, 2010