Tron Legacy Vs. Hanna

Name Your Link

I watched both Tron Legacy and Hanna recently. The two films are set in alternate realities where the main character is fighting some monolithic authoritarian entity, and both have scores composed by popular electronic duos who have never scored a film before. In one case the score is remarkably successful. In the other it’s disappointing at best.

I must admit, when I saw that The Chemical Brothers did the score for Hanna, I didn’t expect it to be very good. Not that I don’t appreciate their work. Quite the contrary. But as I’ve said before, film scoring is a tricky business, and novices don’t often get it right on the first go-round. With the score for Hanna, the Brothers don’t stray far from their usual format—electronica for rock fans—but that genre happens to suit the film perfectly, and they clearly grasp many of the subtleties of film music.

You might think that since this is at least partially an action movie, they would stick to their usual formula of big beats and distorted synths throughout the film. They don’t. “Hanna’s Theme” is a unique and somewhat unnerving mixture of clockwork bells and ethereal voices. It provides the perfect combination of childlike naivete and creepy menace that the film requires. And “Container Park,” one of my favorite moments of the film, sets a frightening chase scene to a gauzy, meditative throb of intertwining keyboards. It shouldn’t work, but it totally does.

A few Chemical Brothers fans have complained that this album isn’t among their best work when listened to on its own. I’m not reviewing it in that context. As a film score, I think it’s extremely successful, and the score is a great lesson on using contemporary technology effectively in a film. It may not be the finest example of that use, but they’ve made some truly interesting choices that I know will keep me inspired for a while.

On the flip side there’s Tron Legacy. You would think that Daft Punk would be the perfect group to score the sequel to Tron. They’re popular, fun, high tech, and they pretend to be robots anyway, so it seems like a perfect fit. Alas, the score (like the movie, truth be told) is a bland, colorless affair. It’s like they hired one of the anthropomorphized computer programs from the movie to create the music. If this is what robots think music is, I’ll take flesh-and-blood composers any day of the week.

I shouldn’t fault Daft Punk too much. It is a Disney movie, so there was undoubtedly pressure from the suits to keep the music family-friendly, which I guess translates to “boring.” But that doesn’t mean the French duo needed to completely abandon all uses of melody and most of their quirky, cheesy eccentricities. The score is mostly whole notes and burbling arpeggiated synth lines. Massively tame stuff, even by modern standards. The main theme is as close as we get to an actual melody, and that’s only three notes. It’s pretty, but not very interesting.

As an example, listen to “Solar Sailer.” The only thing I find even moderately compelling about this cue is the turnaround at the end of each musical phrase. Otherwise it’s just a repetitive string pad with a synthesized rhythm. My film scoring professor used to talk about the rule of three: you can repeat something three times, but after that you’d better vary it or people will get bored. This cue, already musically weak to begin with, violates that rule by about 10. One of the comments on a different YouTube clip was, “This was about the point when I fell asleep in the theater. So relaxing.” As if tedium was a good thing!

Just so this review isn’t completely negative, I will say that “Adagio for TRON” is an appealing piece. Apparently, the title is meant to evoke Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” which is one of my favorite pieces of music ever written. “Adagio for TRON” pales mightily in comparison, but in the context of the rest of the score the piece stands out. It’s also one of the few pieces where the orchestra gets something relatively interesting to do. The “Overture” isn’t terrible either (featuring the three-note Tron theme mentioned earlier), and could have been wonderful if pushed further.

There has been much publicity about the Punks doing this score, and they claim to have worked on it for two years. I’m not sure I’d so proudly make that claim if I were them. It feels like they used the time to process all the life out of the thing (along with most of the notes). I can’t imagine what they were doing for so long, aside from programming the perfect pulsating rhythms on their arpeggiators and researching how long French horn players can hold a single note. I really wish they’d spent the time exploring the territory that makes their own music so interesting—their sense of fun and technological playfulness that can be so alluring. I fear they thought their brand of goofy electronic disco wasn’t serious enough for this film, and it probably wouldn’t have been, but unfortunately they went too far in the opposite direction. They end up taking themselves so seriously that they’ve stripped their music of all its interesting elements.

If you’re a diehard Tron fan, you’ve no doubt already seen the movie. If you’re not, you may want to steer clear. It’s a lush and beautiful, but dull, retread of what was a groundbreaking picture back in 1982. Like the computerized characters in the film, it’s got no soul. It’s all gloss and no guts. Unfortunately, so is the music. One the flip-side, if you haven’t seen Hanna, go out and rent it. It’s a hip, inventive twist on the typical action film, and the music takes it to an even higher level.


  1. Eric G

    I loved Hanna. I wasn’t crazy about Chem Bros score, thought it could have gone a little further, musically, but I agree with you — it was very effective for the film. There are some truly amazing moments, where diegetic sound design becomes elements in the score. I think it should win an Oscar for sound design. I haven’t heard anything else that comes close.

  2. Dave

    With respect I’d have to disagree with a lot of what you’ve said. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to argue that Tron was a good soundtrack and, on balance, I think I just about prefer Hanna. But I think there is an element to this review of having decided ‘Hanna good, Tron bad’ and then painting quite a black and white picture. For instance, whilst Tron certainly doesn’t enjoy any strong melodies, Hanna is actually far weaker in that respect. I only found two – the main theme, which was utterly aimless drivel, to the extent that I couldn’t remember it immediately afterwards; and the pentatonic ditty in ‘The Devil’s in the Detail’ which is possibly the most annoyingly trite melody I’ve ever heard in my life – I wanted to drag my nails down a chalkboard for some relief. Also, whilst I would agree that Tron was far too repetitive, it never actually got on my nerves too much – it was noticeable whilst listening to the soundtrack as an album, but not so much during the film; whereas the Chemical Brothers chose to have their most repetitive moment (something like a bazillion repeats I think) with the aforementioned most annoying tune in the world – it completely made me stop focusing on the film.

    And the main theme? Well I guess it’s a matter of personal taste, but I didn’t find the voices ethereal – I found they sounded like someone with laryngitis straining away at the crack between their registers, and again found the production distracting me from the music. The Enya-esque overlay on the closing credits version was much better.

    Overall I think I’d agree that Hanna is a better soundtrack, but the annoying moments came close to sinking it altogether for me.

  3. Jeff Tolbert

    @Dave: I see your point about “Devil Is In the Details,” although it didn’t bother me in the film. Listening to it on it’s own is a bit challenging, and it does violate the rule of three mentioned above (by one), but I disagree that it’s more repetitive than anything in Tron Legacy though. It has some variation and development. Not much, but just enough.
    It’s not my favorite cue in Hanna by a long shot, but I have to give the Chems props for trying to push the boundaries a little. “The Devil Is In the Details” is a good example—you may find the melody annoying and the sounds grating, but at least they’re attempting to do something unique.

    True, Hanna may not employ many traditional melodies, but there are plenty of tunes to be found. “Escape 700” is a good example. There’s no theme, per se, but the snaking synth line generates plenty of musical interest (enough for me, anyway). Tron Legacy’s “Derezzed” also has a lot of notes, but they’re so automated and repetitive that they don’t work as melody for me. I find that cue much more annoying than “Devil Is In the Details,” frankly.

    As for “Hanna good, Tron bad,” I’ll grant you that is pretty much the way I feel. I thought Hanna was a really good movie with a really interesting score. I found Tron Legacy to be a boring CGI-fest, and the score did nothing to aid it. I can only guess, but had the music in Tron been more compelling, I may have enjoyed the film more. Then again, the music may have taken too prominent a role and dominated the film. Bottom line: my review was a little black-and-white, but it is a review, and naturally my opinion of the scores (and the films) is going to enter into it. You’re encouraged to disagree, and please, if you have something to add to the discussion, post a comment below.

    • Dave

      Actually Jeff, I’m starting to agree with you more as I listen repeatedly to the album of Hanna. Despite being, I’m sure, largely programmed, it often sounds like humans actually making music – I’m loving some of the microtonal inflections. There’s more to be admired than I originally recognised.

      On the other hand, I think my dislike of Tron was somewhat ameliorated by the fact that it makes great music to run to -sadly that’s because it lacks every last hint of deviation fom an absolutely strict beat, and is simply loud all the time. Listening to it again as underscore I’m becoming less impressed.