This post contains spoilers for Pixar’s Lightyear.
Chris Evans sent the tweet that launched a thousand memes when he tied himself in knots trying to explain the premise of Lightyear, and even after 18 months of Disney/Pixar’s marketing machine preparing the path, the movie still feels the need to open with a recapitulation of its premise: “In 1995, a boy named Andy got a Buzz Lightyear toy for his birthday. It was from his favorite movie. This is that movie.” That eccentric setup—this isn’t the origin of Toy Story’s bellicose action figure, but the concept behind him—at least frees the movie from needing to dovetail seamlessly with its source IP. (What a state of affairs that that’s even an intelligible sentence.) As befits the idea that we’re watching a human actor rather than a sentient chunk of plastic, Lightyear’s Buzz is a slightly more nuanced creation. (It doesn’t hurt that he’s voiced this time by Chris Evans, who even when he’s imitating Tim Allen’s stentorian cadence still has a broader range.) But the movie’s attempt to make Buzz Lightyear a hero worthy of his own adventure eventually strains it to the breaking point, especially when it comes time to reveal the true identify of its antagonist, the mysterious Zurg.
In the Toy Story movies, Emperor Zurg dresses like Ming the Merciless and sounds like Darth Vader, threatening to destroy the galaxy in the name of ruling it and throwing Buzz off-balance by claiming to be his real father. (The Toy Story wiki is bitterly conflicted about whether to take this utterance at face value.) In Lightyear, Zurg’s motivations are even more opaque. After Buzz crash-lands a colony ship on a hostile alien planet, the daring space pilot becomes obsessed with completing his original mission, reconstructing the technology that would allow the ship to reach hyperspeed and leave the planet behind. Meanwhile, the colonists decide to do what they set out to do, even if the location has changed: They set about making a new planet their home. It’s not exactly the ideal situation, what with the prehensile vines that keep bursting out of the ground and threatening to carry the humans off to who knows where, but it’s good enough, and eventually even Buzz’s fellow Space Ranger, Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) decides to give up their mission and settle down. Meanwhile, Buzz keeps taking test flights, trying out new versions of spaceship fuel that get him close enough to the speed of light for time dilation effects to kick in. Each time he ventures into space, years pass on the surface. Everyone he knows grows old and dies, and all he has left is his mission. (Well, almost all—this being a Pixar movie, he also acquires a friendly robot cat.)
Eventually Buzz perfects the formula, hits the speed of light—although fortunately, unlike in one of Disney’s other unnecessary sci-fi spinoffs, we are spared the moment when he acquires his surname—and rushes back to inform the colonists they can finally leave. But he’s jumped even further into the future this time, and the colony has a new problem: Zurg’s army of robot sentinels, who want the fuel for themselves. It’s not entirely clear why, until Buzz finally comes face to face with Zurg himself—or rather (and here comes the big reveal), Zurg/himself. Beneath his mechanized suit, Emperor Zurg turns out to be none other than Buzz from another timeline, an older, embittered version (voiced by James Brolin) from a future that’s figured out how to use Buzz’s fuel to travel through time.
Zurg, it’s made clear, isn’t simply Buzz several decades hence: As Chris Evans might put it, this isn’t an older Buzz Lightyear, but the extrapolation of the single-minded dedication to duty that Buzz Lightyear is based on. This Buzz—let’s call him Bad Buzz—is so focused on completing his mission that he doesn’t care how much damage it does, or even whether it undermines the point of the mission itself. His plan is to use Buzz’s fuel to travel further back in time (his own supply has been exhausted getting to this point) and prevent the ship from getting stranded in the first place. That sounds like a great idea until Buzz considers everything that would wipe out: his old partner’s happy marriage, the son she had, and the granddaughter (Keke Palmer) who has become Buzz’s new comrade in arms. Bad Buzz reasons that the people were alive back then will never know the difference, and the ones who won’t even be born won’t be around to complain. Bad Buzz will have fulfilled his duty, and he’ll finally be able to get back to doing what he does best—flying from one planet to the next, never putting down roots, sentient or otherwise.
Good Buzz, however, isn’t having it. He’s learned that other people, and the connections you make with them, matter, and that no mission is more important than the people it’s meant to serve. In essence, this is a revamped version of the lesson that Buzz keeps learning in the Toy Story movies: Teamwork is better than going it alone, and it’s better to have friends than subordinates. (It doesn’t explain why the Toy Story Buzz seems to have forgotten that his archenemy is actually himself, but maybe that was more than they could fit on the back of the blister pack.) Lightyear attempts to give it a psychodramatic spin by having Buzz learn from a shadow version of himself (I could swear the movie tries to gaslight us into thinking that “Zurg” is “Buzz” backwards) rather than a cheery old-time cowboy, but it’s fundamentally the same idea, albeit with a more sober undercurrent. In 1995, it might have seemed like the worst consequence of letting boys follow their solitary inclinations was that they’d end up without friends. But now we understand better what happens if they grow to adulthood with that isolating devotion to absolutes intact, and it’s darker than Lightyear can handle.