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Tron Legacy Needs A Script Upgrade

Just some thoughts after seeing Disney's sequel to the cult hit, Tron:

There's little other than fanservice for those who liked the original to grab hold of here. Even recognizing that the original film was not without its flaws (quite a few clunker lines and some questionable performances) it did have a straightforward and comprehensible plot in which two understandable conflicts are introduced and resolved, and characters whose motivations you could understand and identify with.

Kevin the Younger

Encom has a problem. Its top leadership is turning the company's computer system into a totalitarian state, restricting access by users and getting in the way of them doing their jobs. It's inconveniencing the company's founder, now working on a cool laser that "digitizes" objects, and is motivating programmer Alan to make an independent security program he calls Tron, as a counter to the system's megalomaniacal new Master Control Program.

A little later on we find that Kevin Flynn also has problems. He used to work at Encom, but now operates a seedy arcade. His beef? The executive who is putting the screws to Encom's computer systems with his MCP got his job by stealing credit for video game programs Flynn wrote. Flynn wants to prove this to redeem himself, and to do that, he needs to hack into Encom's computers.

These two conflicts become one when, in response to Flynn's hacking attempts, the MCP uses Encom's digitizing laser to bring Flynn into the system, where he discovers an analog for Dillinger's oppression of Encom employees inside a virtual world, where the MCP is consolidating its power over the system by oppressing the programs of other Encom employees, and is even branching out to attack other corporate and government systems, even doing so in defiance of his creator. Recognition of "users" is becoming a banned religion within the system in a thinly veiled comparison to "Godless communism" not uncommon in the cold war.

Imbued with special powers within the system because of his userhood, and assisted by Alan's program Tron, Flynn defeats the MCP, liberates the system, and escapes back to the real world with the proof he needs to dethrone Dillinger and take his rightful place as Encom's ascendant boy genius.

Neat, concise, comprehensible. Corny, at times, and often silly, yes. More than once it threatens to collapse under the weight of its own strained metaphors, as programs, in the real world stored on discs, are each given an "identity disc" that they must keep with them at all times. They also wield them as weapons, and a disc being destroyed appears to be fatal (although it's not the only way for a program to die).

Sam, A Son

The new film starts making missteps from the very beginning in justifying a return to the Grid, by focusing on Kevin Flynn's son, Sam, abandoned at a young age when his father disappeared. Flynn didn't have a wife or a son in the first film, so the audience has to be brought up to speed fairly quickly on the son's existence, the elder Flynn's disapperance, and then the lonely, if not troubled, childhood that we can only assume inevitably followed. In a flashback we're treated to the first youthful recreation of Jeff Bridges, tucking his son into bed. At first we only see the back of his head, or a brief profile, and I thought the filmmakers were being extremely clever, for which I immediately awarded them bonus points. Since I know from the original film and the trailer that Flynn's own program, CLU, is also played by Bridges, and also must appear as young as Bridges did in the first film, it would make sense to use that same technology to recreate Bridges to interact with the son. However, knowing that there's likely to be a mistaken identity scene in the Grid once the action moves there, and knowing that there's still something creepy and uncanny about the faces the technology recreates, it would make sense to limit the audience's exposure to the technique when working with the live-action Flynn, and save the full-on, younger CG Bridges for CLU's introduction.

Then they go ahead and spoil it with a full frontal facial shot of younger, CGified Bridges as Kevin Flynn, in all his creepy, uncanny-valley glory.

I'm Batman

Then we see the younger Flynn use his own hacking skills to subvert the new management of the company he owns a controlling share of, in not the last scene in which it appears the makers of Tron Legacy are suffering from near-terminal envy of the Batman reboot.

Except when Bruce Wayne stole from his own company, he did so in order to consort with and learn from criminals without actually committing a crime himself. Flynn's only motive for stealing Encom's new OS and giving it away for free on the Internet is because he can, and because the company is greedy for wanting to charge for it, because the previous versions were free and the new one is no better. I suspect this is supposed to set the younger Flynn up as an idealist, but it doesn't really work. He's little more than a prankster. Where the elder Flynn was disenfranchised by theft and deception, which justified his virtual break-ins to get the credit he deserved, Sam has no such excuse-- he'd just prefer to operate outside the system rather than within it. He's not learning anything, nor does he have any plan or agenda. Which is convenient, because we're not going to see any more of the real world, or Encom's new OS, or their current management-- including Dillinger's own spawn, apparently-- ever again in the film, because Bruce Boxleitner arrives to tell Flynn he's gotten a page from the missing father, which sends him like a shot directly into the secret basement of the old arcade where there's a secret system and a second laser. Flynn locates it immediately, despite it having remained apparently unpowered and unnoticed for twenty years, not to mention closed and empty.

The Look, The Feel... of Computers

It's when we get into the Grid that the first Tron film really picks up and finds its groove, but given that by the time the younger Flynn gets into the computer we've already seen him perform amazing feats of computer hacking, basejumping, and motorcycle driving, there's really little left to be amazed with inside the computer, where the same sorts of things happen, just digitally instead of analog.

This is also where, for me, the film commits its biggest blunder and loses out in the comparison with some of the unintended charm of the original.

Compared to what can be done today even with mass market hardware like gaming consoles and even handheld devices, the vector graphics in Tron are primitive. As so often happens, it is the limitations of Tron's graphics that define its style, and whether intended or not, the film's aesthetics mesh perfectly with its central concept: the idea that there is a world represented within the machine that mirrors our own.

The simplicity of Tron's graphics underscore the idea that everything we see there is a representation. We start off with videogames like the cycle arena, where the visual representation of the cycle is there for the end-user: the player in an arcade. Only just enough detail is portrayed to convey the idea of what a light cycle is. It might as well be a grey cube. What it is, within the context of the grid, is a program that allows characters to move in a certain way. It looks the way it does so that the characters-- whether programs within the Grid or arcade customers outside it-- as well as the audience-- can comprehend what it is. Greater visual fidelity is not needed (and, indeed, was unavailable at the time). The connection between the light cycle's appearance and its function are arbitrary; it is for our benefit. There's no reason to model in any great detail a supposed mechanism inside the device, or the motion of the wheels, or an approximation of how real-world physics would affect such a device. That's all superfluous. A light cycle does what it does because its programming defines the way it moves in that universe, and it looks the way it does because that image conveys that information to the characters and the audience.

This is easily seen in the other, less realistic conveyances. While a light cycle certainly looks a bit like a futuristic motorcycle, there's nothing particularly aerodynamic about a Recognizer, and Sark's battleship has no visible means of support or propulsion because it doesn't need any. It does what it does on the Grid because its programming says it can, and there's no connection between that and the way it looks.

In short, the simulation of the Grid has only as much resolution as it needs for its approximations. Light cycles may be made up of programs that have lines of code, but those lines of code don't break down in a way that's identical to the way the parts of a car come apart; only in a way that's analogous to that, and this analogy has nothing to do with the way the light cycle looks to the audience in the way that you can visually see the component parts of a car and the way they fit together. It's something that the Matrix films recognized with its character display, acknowledging that what people see within the Matrix is what the matrix wants them to see-- and is essentially cosmetic.

Tron Legacy doesn't understand this concept. Because it can present infinitely more graphical detail, it does. Light cycles now seem to be made up of many disparate moving parts. The original vector vehicles created the impression of motion by using a single moving horizontal line to simulate a nonexistant seam on a nonexistant tire. The high polygon, textured surfaces of Tron Legacy's light cycles are so close to photorealistic that they no longer look like they exist within a computer anymore. They look real. Tron Legacy has to work a lot harder than the original to keep reminding us that these things are happening within a computer, because the sets and objects are so smooth that it looks like a live action film shot in a dark room where everything is covered with LED lights.

Cycles now spin, sway and wobble like real life vehicles, which I suppose could just be a consequence of the new Grid's more complex simulation; but in the end that sort of defeats the point. Where the original could simply erase objects in a way that reminded us of how quick and arbitrary death-- deletion or derezzing-- could be in this universe, Tron Legacy has to work hard to create the same impression. It tries, by showing objects pixellating as they are broken apart, and sometimes liquifying in a way that looks far more organic than it does digital. Flynn and CLU don't look like they're riding programs that simulate bikes-- they look like they're riding dayglo bikes. Where the originals moved only at right angles to the grid, emphasizing their arbitrary, digital natures, these new ones move in sweeping curves against the landscape. Even the trails they leave behind not only curve from left to right, but sway from side to side as the bikes do. Most films using CG that aren't outright animated films are striving to hide CG elements, to make them look realistic, and to blend as seamlessly as possible with live action footage. Tron Legacy shouldn't even be trying to do that, as it is supposed to occur inside a computer, but ends up doing it so well, and has live action elements that are supposed to look like they happen inside a computer. The result is a mess.

ISO What You Did There

Legacy had a chance to redeem itself by presenting something new and interesting happening within this new Grid, but unfortunately it fails there as well. The subplot covering the power struggle between the aging, analog Flynn and his alter ego CLU is nothing if not clich├ęd and is poorly fleshed out.

Flynn rants inchoately about how the Grid was supposed to revolutionize everything, including science, philosophy and medicine, without ever referencing how any of this was to be achieved, inside the Grid our outside it. Most of this occurs during a dinner scene, which also makes no sense. The original Tron had a single short scene where, between action sequences, the rebel programs take refuge in a part of the Grid where they have access to electrical power, which is illustrated as a glowing pool of water they drink from. It's another of the original film's horribly broken analogies. Perhaps it would have made more sense if it were CPU cycles they were gaining access to, but visually the sequence works: programs, just like people, need sustenance, and like everything else in the grid, the visual representation of this sustenance has only as much visual fidelity as it absolutely needs.

Legacy throws this right out the window with a dining room scene in which younger and older Flynn sit down to a banquet in a room that looks like it was lifted out of the finale of 2001.

Why this change in how program life is presented? Do objects that appear differently in the grid nourish programs in different ways? Do they have different tastes? Do programs appreciate those differences? Are foodstuffs really necessary, or just a diversion? How are foodstuffs produced, and who controls production? Is the differentiation necessary, or is it purely aesthetic? Does the film even attempt to address any of these questions? No.

One development that could have been interesting was the unexpected emergence of evolved programs, Isos, that Flynn finds so fascinating. Indeed, Olivia Wilde's Quorra is the most interesting character in the film, but she's left underused and unexplained. Isos aren't shown to be new, interesting, or revolutionary-- we're just told that they are without anything to back that up. Visually, the distinction between a program and an Iso is presented in the most visually uninteresting way possible-- a glowing tattoo, like everything else in this film, only skin deep.

Ultimately, the Isos get used to solve another problem the film has, which is that it isn't sure why CLU is the bad guy, except that he opposed Flynn in what he was trying to do... which also isn't clear. Flynn used to be in charge, and now CLU is. Why anyone should care seems a purely academic debate, until the Isos emerge and CLU promptly enslaves them, apparently to use as an army to invade the real world through the portal.

Play It Again, Sam

Once it has introduced us and the new Flynn to the Grid, and Sam has met his long lost father, Tron Legacy really has no idea what to do with itself. The audience probably presumes that Sam is there to save his father, and, like his father before him, save the Grid for free programs everywhere. It turns out that neither of these options are on tap yet, with at least one of them being carefully held in reserve for the sequels-- but what we do get back are some of the original film's MacGuffins-- an identity disk and an I/O portal.

In the original film, restricted access to I/O ports that programs used to communicate with their users was the primary evidence of the oppression of programs by the Master Control Program. The objective of Flynn and Tron becomes to get Tron's identity disc, with code on it given to him by his user, Flynn's real-world colleague Alan, into the MCP to destroy him. When this happens, the I/O ports are again open, and Flynn is returned to the real world.

In Legacy, there's only one I/O port, and it leads back to the real world-- presumably through the laser in the arcade. Unlike the original grid, which was a corporate system with many users and their programs, this one is apparently closed and private. Flynn constructed the portal physically away from where most programs operate, in order to control it. He himself now lives distant from the center, but apparently CLU has blocked his access to the portal. The code needed to open the portal is contained only on Flynn's identity disc.

In order to have some action scenes, put the MacGuffin into play, and create a similar "race to the portal" scenario, Sam seeks help to overthrow CLU from a supposed revolutionary named Zeus. His contact for finding Zeus is a program named Castro, who runs a disco bar. Quorra gives Castro's name and location to Sam-- although he ends up finding it through Jem, another program who was present when Sam was brought into the grid and prepared him for his first arena match with CLU-- from which he was rescued by Quorra. Jem takes him to Castro, who turns out not to be Zeus' contact, but rather Zeus himself, who further turns out not to be a revolutionary at all-- at least, not now-- but actually in CLU's employ, tasked with helping to find Flynn.

Quorra rescues him again, this time accompanied by the elder Flynn, but in the attempt, he loses his identity disc. The three are then forced to try and head off CLU at the portal, where he will try to go now and begin the real-world invasion he's been preparing for.

End of Line

Ultimately, Tron Legacy presents itself as being about a lot more than the original film, but it ends up being about a lot less.

We're given a father-son relationship that is difficult to care about, because they only share one scene together pre-Grid. We're given a new Flynn to root for who has none of the problems or challenges his father did at his age; he's just a spoiled, techno trust fund brat acting out against the corporate hands that feed him. We're given a power struggle between the last film's hero and a character that perishes within minutes of his appearance in that film-- a struggle that happens for reasons both inscrutable and nonspecific. We're given an attractive new character who is supposedly revolutionary because she wears a tattoo and can regenerate an amputated limb when properly debugged-- something which should hardly be amazing given that her body is not real but only a representation projected by code.

The original film was sometimes corny and hokey, and its visuals were limited by the available technology of the time. It was also a story that knew what it was about, and believably mapped real-world conflict onto a virtual environment. The sequel is too hollow, heartless and empty to take place anywhere else but inside a computer-- just a computer that's a lot less interesting than it used to be.