Monday, December 20, 2010

Tron: Legacy

Coming out of a screening of Tron: Legacy on Saturday evening, I realized that I'm desperate need of better bullshit detectors when it comes to science fiction film.  A decade of superhero films has trained me pretty well to tell the fun romps from the hot messes--it's pretty easy, for example, to see that The Green Hornet is going to suck, and that we're all going to wish it had been about Cato rather than Seth Rogen's character.  But it's only in the last two years that science fiction has returned to the movie screens in a big way, and I still haven't developed the proper buzz filters, or adopted a protective cynical attitude.  Of the truly impressive number of science fiction films released in 2009 and 2010, I've liked a grand total of one, Moon, and even that was with some reservations, and yet every trailer with a spaceship, or an alien, or anything vaguely cyberpunkish in it, manages to erase that knowledge from my memory and get me excited all over again.  So when the reviews for Tron: Legacy started pouring in on Friday morning with a decidedly negative slant, even the ones from fannish sources, I was genuinely surprised.  The second most anticipated science fiction film of the year!  The sequel to a beloved cult classic!  Groundbreaking CGI!  Standing ovations at Comic Con for three years in a row!  How could it possibly have gone wrong?

So I went through a brief, preemptive mourning period and even considered not going to see the film, then set my expectations at about the sub-basement level and decided to just have a bit of fun.  Maybe it was that, or the fact that I haven't seen the original Tron and am not invested in its characters or plot, but I actually found myself enjoying the film.  Don't get me wrong--Tron: Legacy is an awful, awful movie.  It has great visuals and a fantastic soundtrack, but other than that it's a slow, clomping mess, combining a muddled plot, barely-there characters, buckets-full of New Age claptrap, and a pathetically earnest belief in its own profundity to create one of the most self-important yet incomprehensible films I've ever seen.  The film starts with Sam (Garrett Hedlund), the son of the original Tron's protagonist Flynn (Jeff Bridges) getting sucked into the same computer program, known as The Grid, that has trapped his father for twenty-one years, a program that is now under the control of Clu, Flynn's digital copy (Bridges again, de-aged through the magic of CGI) who has followed his core directive of perfecting the system to its illogical conclusion.  Clu has cemented his hold on the Grid by promising the other programs freedom from users, which is strange a) because the computer in question has been sitting unused for two decades, and b) because this construction of "free software" acts as a bizarre and thematically confusing pun on the film's opening scene, in which Sam steals the new operating system developed by his father's now-evil software company (think Apple taken over by the staff of Microsoft) and distributes it for free online.  For some reason Clu thinks that he can achieve both of his (somewhat contradictory) goals by leaving the Grid--though as the film concludes by revealing that the digitization process works in reverse, Clu would have emerged as nothing more dangerous than a man, and a legally dead one at that--to which end he's lured Sam in, hoping to draw Flynn out from his hideout in the badlands (...of a piece of software).  Sam is rescued by Flynn's disciple, Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who he later learns is the last survivor of a race of artificial intelligences calls isos, who appeared spontaneously in the Grid, and which Clu viewed as an imperfection to be weeded out.  Flynn insists that the isos could revolutionize "medicine, religion, science," but as Quorra is no different from any of the anthropomorphized programs we meet in the film this seems hard to credit.  There's a pretty typical reckless son/cautious father dispute between Flynn and Sam over whether and how to reach the only way out of the system, which is closing due to a randomly-imposed countdown, then they, with Quorra, sort of halfheartedly and without really meaning to start to proceed in that general direction, pausing only for infodumps.  Quorra tells Sam that Flynn could have merged with Clu at any time but that this would destroy him, which again seems random, and anyway after two decades in a computer I think I'd be tempted nonetheless.  At any rate, this is the gun on the mantelpiece, because Flynn does just this in order to buy Sam and Quorra time to escape, which means that Quorra becomes human and loses the very qualities that made her so vital to both Flynn and Clu.  The end (or is it?  Yes, it probably is).  The original Tron shows up at some point, perverted by Clu and later redeemed for no particular reason, and this might be significant to fans of the first film but felt entirely extraneous to the story as far as I was concerned.

So yeah, this film is a shapeless mess, and to add insult to injury the action scenes are as stately as patterned dances and a lot less exciting, with Sam winning or losing various games in order to suit the needs of the writer--or the animator--which also determine the games' rules and the physics of the virtual world.  The plot is revealed through lengthy infodumps that halt the already-glacial pace of the film, seem designed to show off the design crew's work rather than move the story, and emphasize all the wrong plot elements.  The two questions that underpin the film's plot, and which would have given it urgency if properly answered--why is Clu dangerous?  Why is Quorra important?--are glossed over and treated as incidentals, while long minutes are spent explaining why Flynn can't leave the system or how his and Clu's lightvehicles work.  On one level, then, I enjoyed Tron: Legacy simply for its unapologetic badness.  It's simply hilarious that so many people, on both the creative and business ends, were so certain of this film's success that they even planted blatant hooks for a sequel in its ending.  The film's plot is so muddled, and its characters are so faint, that they hardly interrupt one's amusement at this total lack of perspective--or of the groovy visuals and music.

There's another reason, though, that I can't hate Tron: Legacy as it deserve to be hated.  It's become accepted that effects-laden science fiction films are more about spectacle than substance, and at first glance it might seem that this is what scuttled Tron: Legacy.  When I started thinking about the film's plot description for this post, however, I realized that its basic story--Clu tries to access the open network; Flynn tries to stop him and also to get Quorra outside to safety--has the makings of a good, meat-and-potatoes SF adventure.  You'd have to handwave away the notion that a man cut off from the world since 1989 would understand just how disastrous it would be for a creature like Clu, obsessed with perfection and order, to be unleashed on the internet in 2010, and to get rid of Quorra becoming human (which seems intended solely to enable, or possibly just make less weird, her faint-to-the-point-of-nonexistence romance with Sam), but it sounds like a film I would have enjoyed watching.  Though the vague contours of this story can be dimly discerned in Tron: Legacy as it was released, they are obscured by a fug of Stuff--infodumps, beautiful compositions, explanations of how the system works and what its rules are, and mostly cod-philosophy and -religion, which reposition Flynn as a cross between The Dude and a Jedi knight, and attainment of mastery over the Grid as enlightenment.  Tron: Legacy doesn't fail because its writers didn't give any thought to its plot, but because they gave it--as well as their worldbuilding and themes and philosophy--far too much thought, and felt compelled to spew the results of that process all over the screen.  Which, oddly, is the reason that the film charms me.

If I were attached to the Tron story or its world, the decision to sacrifice story, coherence, and anything resembling fun on the altar of a false profundity would probably outrage me, the way it has in the past when a similar choice destroyed stories I cared about.  Coming to the film as a more dispassionate observer, I can't help but view its choices as quintessentially geeky, and thus a little bit lovable.  When you've spent so much time loving and thinking about a story, and making it more complicated and intricate in your head, it might be hard to accept that what it's actually about is action figures and video games.  It has to be deep, man; it has to be meaningful.  And really, why wouldn't people who truly love Star Wars want to know how the Imperial Senate works?  Why not stop the action of The Matrix: Reloaded for a ten-minute speech about free will versus predestination?  Why isn't it more important to discuss the abnegation of the self than to learn how to win a disk-battle?  Tron: Legacy feels like a film made by science fiction fans, for science fiction fans, and this is the source of its finest moments, when its visuals achieve the trippy combination of wonder and alienation that is found in the best science fiction stories, as well as its lowest, when it becomes steeped in a clomping earnestness that seems to validate every stereotype of nerds as pasty, detail-obsessed, anorak-wearing weirdos who care more about technical minutiae than human emotion.  Even Quorra, the most vibrant character in the film (not, to be fair, a particularly tough category to beat) embodies these two warring aspects of geekdom, the charmingly inept and the offputtingly inhuman.  On one hand, she's a geek fantasy girl, ridiculously hot and decked out in skintight spandex.  But on the other hand, she's a geek herself, and the one character in the film who seems to be having any fun, to be genuinely enjoying the chance to play around inside a video game.  Whether she's gleeful about getting to break out a new set of wheels in order to rescue Sam, or nervously explaining that Jules Verne is her favorite writer, it's hard not to see a little bit of ourselves in her.

It often seems to me that science fiction films boil down, almost inevitably, to geekish wish-fulfillment fantasies.  They might be ruthlessly skewering that fantasy, as in Watchmen, or conferring it upon a non-geek who never wanted it to begin with, as in District 9, but at the end of the day the science fiction films that Hollywood makes are the ones driven by their creators' inner eight-year-olds, the ones who want to be Han Solo and Kevin Flynn.  I'm no more immune to these fantasies than the next geek, which may be why I haven't managed to develop bullshit detectors for science fiction films.  I know that I should know better, but I can't help but hope that the next new film will sweep me away the way that only a very few have managed to do.  In the past I've found myself breathtakingly angry with some of these curdled fantasies--when they've bought into their inflated sense of coolness or importance, or propagated vicious and hurtful messages--and maybe the reason that I'm so indulgent towards Tron: Legacy is that its version of the wish-fulfillment fantasy is so benign (which is not to say that this film is unproblematic--of the two female characters, one is a good love interest and the other a bad one, and with only a few very minor exceptions the cast is lily-white).  Sam Flynn doesn't want to be a warrior or a starship captain or a hero.  He doesn't want his heroism to be enabled by a native people facing genocide, or a spaceship full of more qualified, more experienced officers, or a woman who is way out of his league.  He just wants to play video games with his father, and gently flirt with a gamine-yet-secretly(-but-really-not-that-secretly)-hot girl.

For all its pretensions to wisdom and philosophical profundity, for all its New Age cladding, Tron: Legacy is still a kids' film, with a kid's aspirations, and a kid's fascination with meaningless minutiae.  It's ridiculous that it was made at all, much less with the expectation of attracting a large audience of ordinary, non-geekish adults who, quite reasonably, go into an effects-laden wannabe blockbuster expecting things like story and characters and fun action scenes to take precedence over the muddled philosophy of machine sentience or a perfect motion-capture recreation of 35-year-old Jeff Bridges's face.  No one who cares about moviemaking should put the latter ahead of the former, and I wouldn't want to create the impression that Tron: Legacy is a stealth masterpiece too esoteric to be appreciated by the muggle horde.  As I said at the beginning of the this post, this is an awful, awful film.  But it's awful in ways that I recognize, and for reasons that I think I can sympathize with, even if I've outgrown them myself.  So I can't help but be a little bit charmed by, and maybe even grateful for, its existence.

10 comments:

Adam Roberts said...

We-e-e-e-ll ... I don't want to be the sneery, supercilious Englishman (howevermuch my nationhood has fitted me for the role), but

Sam Flynn doesn't want to be a warrior or a starship captain or a hero. He doesn't want his heroism to be enabled by a native people facing genocide, or a spaceship full of more qualified, more experienced officers, or a woman who is way out of his league.

No? His heroism is indeed enabled by the almost complete genocide of the 'native people' of the Grid. And Sam does indeed want to play with all the cool high-tech toys and cyberbikes and Tie-Fighter-analogues. And Quorra clearly is way out of his league.

ibmiller said...

Hmmm. While I tend to agree that the writing was a bunch of basil-flavored exposition combined with loop-de-loops to nowhere, I think calling Quorra "way out of Sam's league" is oversimplifying quite a bit. Not, Sam's not terribly mature, but neither is he a slacker with an entitlement complex. At no point after he is sucked into Tron does he quibble about wanting to shirk the responsibility of taking the hero role - he tends to be firmly in favor of taking action to save the world, not abdicate.

And I think that the genocides in Avatar and Tron: Legacy affect the hero's role a bit differently - that of the latter seems to enhance, not create the hero's sense of duty.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I agree with ibmiller, Adam: I never got a sense that Tron: Legacy was about Sam's heroism in the same way that Avatar was about Jake Sully's, or Star Trek was about Jim Kirk's. Yes, he gets to be a hero, but the story doesn't seem to have been waiting for him to arrive, more that he's fallen into it and is now going to play his part - in fact if there's a classic hero in Tron: Legacy I think it's Flynn.

Some of this, of course, is due to the fact that Sam is so faintly sketched, and that his emotions - towards his father and his love interest - are those of a child, not a young man. But this still strikes me as more attractive than the quasi-fascist underpinnings of Avatar or Star Trek.

Anonymous said...

"Clu has cemented his hold on the Grid by promising the other programs freedom from users, which is strange a) because the computer in question has been sitting unused for two decades, and b) because this construction of "free software" acts as a bizarre and thematically confusing pun on the film's opening scene, in which Sam steals the new operating system developed by his father's now-evil software company (think Apple taken over by the staff of Microsoft) and distributes it for free online."

a)CLU's claim is that users (first of all Kevin Flynn) are keeping them prisoner, which situation is dependent upon the computer not being used. Finding it strange that CLU complains about the users is missing a pretty basic plot point. Perhaps they needed more exposition?

b)CLU addressing his army repeats or inverts dialog Kevin Flynn uses in addressing his acolytes. The use of irony in a brainless action movie admittedly is a risky business. And since CLU is basically Flynn, turning the hero of the first movie into both the sacrificial hero and the villain is equally risky. Especially since the movie is pretty strongly implying that Flynn's philosophy is BS and never made a lick of sense.

As for Sam, the movie allows the viewer to see him as a privleged lout, whose freeing software might be a mistake. (Not his only one.) In the end, keeping CLU prisoner but freeing Quorra is not a thematic confusion but a character choice. What it means depends on what it means for CLU or Quorra to get out of the Grid. Which, despite the complaints about infodumps, is not explained (in this movie anyhow.)

Possibly the Grid is such a childish notion (a world inside a computer is awfully like those cartoons that imagine the inside of the human body as a city,) there's no real way to explain how it can relate to anything. But the movie is set up as a contest and we're supposed to root for our team when they can't even explain what's at stake. What will CLU do with that army?

The Tron story is unmotivated and poorly integrated. It appears to be a survivor of a previous draft.

Anonymous said...

I think you shouldve watched the 1st tron before watching tron 2, it wouldve been easier to understand the plot and the characters

The Overgrown Hobbit said...

My take on the original Tron is much as yours--which is why, absent glowing "OMG! This is the most fun since Star Wars!" I'v'e never planned to do other than watch it on DVD. But I have to pay for a baby-sitter these days, so I'm a tougher sell.

A side comment: I followed the link through to your review of Avatar, (which I have not seen, and won't until my no. in the library holds queue comes up: I have enough stupid in my life, without having to pay for it) and thought I should share this.

Take it for what it's worth: I'm a small town librarian: in the U.S., that's like being a bartender for the sober (mostly) So here's the thing: I get to listen to folks raving (or ranting) about the media they love; and I encourage it. Usually books, but sometimes movies. And an middle-aged women and her kid were raving, just raving about AVATAR. What they really, really appreciated? How cool and heroic the blue-skinned Native American stand ins were. And before you start--she and her son are members of the local Snoqualmie Tribe.

So there you are. I've heard a gazillian-and-one middle-class, chattering-class, white writers (of which I am one) react in revulsion to the Dancing-With-Aliens Amerind-spoilation movie. The only Amerind voices I ever heard, OTOH were tickled pink.

Heh.

Jakob Schmidt said...

As someone who watched the original Tron about fifty times in my childhood and who finally had the opportunity to watch Legacy two days ago, just let me say that this review brought a tear to my eyes. You're right, it is an awful movie. There are actually some very valid motives to it - they could have made something out of turning the notion of free software around in several interesting ways. In theory, it's always interesting when the ideas of the protagonist, his just causes (like freeing software) are re-cast in a more sinister light. But they just didn't do anything interesting with it.

However, to me it was a touching movie, benign, as you said. And for some reason, it reminded me of how I felt when reading Neuromancer. The reason might be that when reading Neuromancer, I thought about the original Tron ... anyway, that in itself made watching Legacy worthwile.

Jakob Schmidt said...

Oh, and also: I didn't watch Avatar (I'm allergic against stories about white heroes who are enabled by clean-spirited "natives"), but it seems to me that the difference would be that in Tron Legacy, the murder of the ISOs is the backdrop to the plot and not anything that enables Sam. It's a terrible crime that the bad guy has commited, but it's not cynically invested with meaning by turning it into a vehicle for Sam to become more heroic. After all, Sam is not running around and telling ISOs to fight and die for their freedom just so that he can feel like a great hero leading a bunch of primitive good guys into battle.
In that regard, I certainly prefer Tron Legacy to the Matrix movies and probably to Avatar (if I had seen the latter).

whotithi said...

What made TRON special, was that it was so new. To me it firmly implanted CGI in the cinema, and did so with style and sardonic panache ("MCP"). TRON II is nowhere that special - except perhaps for the courageous use of black to offset the lighted costumes and vehicles. It seems to have very little relevance to real life, whereas TRON was a vivid extension of what we were living at the time - the step into the cool (s.f.?) future due to the global breakthrough of video arcades, leaving the drabness of real life behind. /KB

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree, TRON: Legacy was awful...and next time could use the word profundity a few more times?

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