A lot has been happening recently, what with the upcoming move to Scotland, our recent trip to Sydney and the general madness of the season, but I’m not going to blog about that, partly because it was exhausting the first time around, but mostly because writing about packing boxes is only slightly less interesting than reading about packing boxes. So! Instead, you get a long, spoilery review of Tron: Legacy, which we saw this evening, because unpacking the weirdness of Hollywood cinema is like candy unto my soul, with the added bonus of not involving boxes of any kind.
It is worth noting from the outset that I am yet to see the original Tron. Saying so out loud, where “out loud” can be read as “on the internet”, makes me feel something of a traitor to my own geekhood. More importantly, this means that, while there were clearly a multitude of references to the first film in Legacy, I was in no position to gauge how faithful they were, or how meaningful: instead, I can simply vouch that they were there, and didn’t appear to add much.
The main gambit of Legacy – wherein a technological/scientific maverick father either dies, vanishes mysteriously, becomes a crazy recluse or is killed along with his equally brilliant wife (assuming she hadn’t already died of unspecified causes some years previous), leaving their genius offspring to grow up in isolation from the grand and noble calling that is their birthright until such time as Our Story Starts – is a stalwart backbone of the SF/F genre. This is where Batman, Tony Stark, Astro Boy and Luke Skywalker all got their motivation, and as such, I’m not about to knock it as a premise. However! It is also, as such, a plotline that comes with baggage. Either the Absentee Maverick Dad serves as a key-but-background motivator for the protagonist, or Uncovering What Really Happened That Fateful Night is the driving force behind the story. That’s a black and white way of doing disservice to a complex and potentially powerful plot device: what I mean to say is, movies have time limits. Unlike in TV shows, serial comics or novels, films have a very limited space in which to disseminate key information, particularly as regards backstory, and unless an extremely cunning and original scriptwriter/director team is at the wheel – or possibly unless they have the well-defined space of a trilogy in which to operate – it behoves moviemakers to pick one version or the other and then stick with it.
Legacy does not do this, which is why a comparatively simple three-act narrative has ended up with a runtime of just over two hours. We begin with the traditional Bedtime Story scene, wherein the Maverick Parent – here computing legend Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) – imparts the Secret Of What Is To Come in the form of a fairytale to his wide-eyed, cherubic spawn. Then, of course, he ups and vanishes, leaving us to watch as the Company That Was His Brainchild Is Taken Over By Unscrupulous Businessmen Who Do Not Share His Dream. In fairness, these early scenes were some of the best in the film: they did a good job of introducing us to protagonist Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) and created a strong build-up to the main event. Unfortunately, once Sam enters the world of Tron – emphasis on world, for reasons that will hopefully become apparent – this tension is soon lost.
Even to moviegoers completely lacking in narrative presience, it should be obvious that any danger faced by the protagonist before the halfway point will not – cannot – prove fatal, and instead must only serve to move the plot forward. Under those circumstances, only secondary characters are at risk, and at this point in Legacy, there were none. So when Sam is instantly thrust into the gladiatorial games portion of the Tronverse, it is very, very hard to feel anything even vaguely like apprehension. Yes, those scenes looked lovely in 3D, but twenty minutes later, the only thing to have been achieved was, finally, the introduction of Clu, aka Evil Jeff Bridges, whose next move as the villain – having first decided not to execute Sam in order to talk at him for a bit – was to send him back into the games so that the two of them could fight, on bikes, with matched teams of Nameless Dudes. At which point, I started to hear Scott Evil yelling in my head about how stupid Doctor Evil is for repeatedly trying to kill Austin Powers using a ridiculously slow-moving torture device instead of just shooting him on the spot. But, whatever. It’s not like Legacy is alone in having this fault, and it’s certainly never stopped me from enjoying James Bond. I dealt with it and moved on.
Not unsurprisingly, the following action scene involves the glittery, exploding-into-pixels deaths of all Sam’s fellow bike-riding Namless Dudes, about which I did not care because they were henchmen written into the plot for the sole purpose of being rent asunder. And then – lo! – we have the introduction of Hot Chick, aka Quorra (Olivia Wilde), who performs the ever-so-textbook Heroine Rescuing A Hero Only He Doesn’t Know She’s A Girl Yet Because She Is Mysterious And Wearing A Helmet shtick by driving her all-terrain quad-jeep-bike-thing into the grid and yanking him out of harm’s way. Once they’ve put some distance between them and the bad guys, she takes off her voice-distorting helmet (which we never see again) and reveals herself, to the requisite jaw-dropped approval of our hero.
It is at this point, gentle reader, that we start to run into difficulties.
You see, when Sam looks back over his shoulder and remarks on the fact that Evil Jeff Bridges and his Orange Evil Henchmen are not following, Quorra replies that this because they can’t – unlike their own vehicle, which has special grippy tyres for traversing rocky terrain, the bikes used by their enemies won’t work off grid. Which would be fine and dandy, if they were not actually inside a digital environment where tyres do not matter, and even if there was a good reason for this to be so, Evil Jeff Bridges totally has like a million badass flying devices, surely he can chase them somehow, etc. But again, whatevs, let us move forward to the bit where Sam has a Touching Reunion With The Real Jeff Bridges, his dad who has been trapped in the Tronverse for quite a while now, and who is all zen and hippyish and continually refers to his own son by saying things like, ‘listen, man’ and using the word ‘jazzed’ unironically. At this point, my inner movie-referencing monologue switched from Austin Powers to Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, because there is something decidedly chessboard about the Tronverse. It’s not just the Colours As Alignments thing or the fact that, ultimately, we are meant to be in a gamespace: it’s that Maverick Dad, dressed in yogic white and living in a totally white house, likes to stand on his balcony and stare wistfully at the Dark And Brooding Lair of the Evil Jeff Bridges while espousing a theory of passive non-violence a la Anne Hathaway’s White Queen. Which is, if you dwell on it for too long, a deeply weird comparison to make.
And then they all have dinner.
There are so many problems with this.
Now, I get the point of this scene. I do! It is cute and unexpected and sort of sweetly awkward while also providing a striking contrast between the stark, futuristic decor and the homeliness of three people sitting down to a medieval meal of roast suckling pig. (Seriously.) But again, as with the tyres: we are in a computer world. Admittedly, it is a sketchily defined computer world into which the physical bodies (rather than just the minds) of Maverick Dad and Sam have been magically transported, but given that the only other occupants of said world are computer programs, and given also that the world itself appears to be restricted to a nebulously defined cityspace surrounded by blank rock and deep water, and given again that Maverick Dad’s powers in this world are limited to the ability to manipulate what he himself has created, and given finally that any food made in this world must be made of code, which is presumably ill-suited as a form of human nourishment, then where did the goddam pig come from and why the hell can they eat it?
And then, then we have the explanation of what Maverick Dad was so excited about all those years ago: within this digital realm, a race of sentient computer-beings called isos had spontaneously came into being, creatures whose very existence would have changed the face of absolutely everything ever if not for the fact that Evil Jeff Bridges, who was originally designed as a program-copy of Maverick Dad to run the world of Tron, viewed them as a chaotic threat to his perfect order and wiped them all out in a hideous genocide known as the Purge. (Anyone who does not instantly recognise that Quorra must be the sole surviving iso gets a smack on the wrist, for that is how this story goes, forever and ever, amen.) Timewise, we are now at about the halfway point – that is to say, about an hour or so in – when we finally learn what is meant to be happening. Evil Jeff Bridges paged someone in the real world so that Sam would come to Tron, which was the only way of opening the portal to the outside world. There is, of course, an ever-narrowing window before the portal closes again, prior to which Sam wants to take Dad and Quorra and get the hell out of Dodge. But! If they use the roads that lead to the portal, Evil Jeff Bridges will catch them and steal Maverick Dad’s disc, which contains all his knowledge on how to operate the Tronverse, thus allowing him to escape into the real world and wreak havoc (think the end of The Lawnmower Man, but in reverse). Dad is also unwilling to try and reprogram his evil twin, because this will result in both their deaths. For some reason. So instead, he wants to sit tight until – wait for it! – the native programs revolt and overthrow the government.
It is one thing to rely on traditional plots and narrative devices to bump your story along and bulk out your characterisation. Indeed, in action movies, it’s sort of the point, because of that whole lack-of-time thing we talked about earlier. But a complete abandonment of causal, emotional and narrative logic? Is not even in the same ballpark.
How about this for a suggestion: Maverick Dad destroys his disc, on account of how he doesn’t need it to live or utilise his awesome powers or remember anything about the Tronverse, whips up a goddamed super-speed plane seeing as how he is sort of the god of this universe and also a kickass engineer, flies all three of them to the portal, and then deletes Evil Jeff Bridges from the outside as Sam keeps suggesting they do? This is not so hard. Instead, he refuses to do anything, which is the cue for Quorra to sneakily help Sam by giving him the coordinates needed to find a rabble-rousing program named Zeus who can help him get to the portal. Maybe. If anyone can. (Dramatic chord.) So Sam steals his dad’s Awesome Grid Bike and rides it straight down the road that connects their hideout to the centre of the city, seriously you would think the bad guys might have noticed that before getting scared away by their lack of grippy tyres. And then? Then he trades the bike for a cloak so he can escape detection by going into a fashionable club where the first thing Zeus does is identify him loudly in front of everyone.
A moment of pause, dear readers! Because my constant use of italics might be leading you to suspect that I was sitting in my cinema seat, teeth clenched and frothing at the mouth with every successive outrage. In fact, this was not so. Yes, I spotted these things, and yes, they irked me. But despite its complete and utter lack of sense, there was something sort of charming about the plot, and after so much drifty, father-and-son-reuniony chat, it finally felt like we were getting somewhere. I have a very high threshold for bullshit in my cinema. Specifically, I do not care how ridiculous a plot might be, provided it is not endeavouring to take itself too seriously. This tends to make me a very charitable watcher of trash, and a very scatching watcher of anything intellectual, because if you are going to make a film whose sole purpose is to try and wring me out emotionally so as to Connect With The Big Issues Of Our Times, you had damned well better not go and break the logic which sustains your heartfelt premise by, say, setting a snake on fire. All of which is a long way of saying that, up until this point, I had been relatively on board with the whole (as my husband dubbed it afterwards) electro-opera thing.
Then the bad guys found the Awesome Grid Bike, and announced that now, finally, at long last, they could trace it back to its point of origin – the hidden lair of Maverick Dad.
Early on in Legacy, there was a scene where Evil Jeff Bridges steepled his fingers and expressed a desire for Maverick Dad to make the next move, as though the two of them were perennially locked in a game of wits over dominion of the Tronverse – not an unreasonable supposition, given that Maverick was trapped there for twenty years with only Quorra for company. What with the grid-bike road leading right to his house, the Evil Citadel being visible from the Maverick’s balcony and the fact that the whole point of bringing Sam to the Tronverse was to simultaneously open the portal while luring Maverick into the open, I’d sort of assumed that the bad guys knew where he was, but couldn’t penetrate his defences, given that creators tend to be fairly good at defending their home turf in a hostile universe which also they made themselves.
He was hidden! All this time! Just a short ride – or, presumably, walk – away! In a straight line! Down a road! With no defences whatsoever! Holding the one thing that Evil Jeff Bridges really wants! With nobody looking for him! Ever!
UNTIL THEY TOTALLY FOUND HIS BIKE AND SOMEHOW COULD TELL WHERE IT CAME FROM, EVEN THOUGH THAT MAKES NO SENSE AT ALL.
A lot happens after this. By which I mean, not a lot happens at all, only it takes another hour. The bad guys go to the hidden lair and poke around only to find that (duh) Maverick Dad and Quorra have already gone to go help Sam, which results in Quorra getting part of her arm cut off, Maverick’s disc being stolen and the supposedly good rabble-rouser guy being revealed as TOTALLY A VILLAIN SURPRISE! (Hint: this was not a surprise.) And then they all hitch a lift on a magic goods train, which goes through the sky looking pretty and glowy for about a bajillion years while Sam catches his dad up on the war in Iraq and wifi and is in turn told that yes, Quorra is an iso who has never seen a sunrise ever and it is at this point, dear reader, that I realised exactly what was causing Legacy’s problems, viz: it is an epic fantasy movie in every important respect and not, in fact, sci-fi, because while even soft SF and space opera dignify their worldbuilding by saying, ‘Alien technology!’ or ‘Telekenesis!’ or ‘Unobtanium!’ or ‘Lightsabres!’, Legacy was basically just shouting, ‘Magic!’, but without anything that backs it up.
Take a moment to consider the plot thus far in terms of fantasy tropes. You have a Maverick Dad who, in the Time of Backstory, discovered a portal to another world, one where a rigidly enforced class divide between the rulers and ruled had resulted in a tradition of violent gladiatorial games for the amusement of the masses. Befriending a sympathetic fighter, the two of them overthrew the regime and installed a democracy, with the Maverick’s trusted lieutenant left in charge while he commuted between worlds. But then, a coup! The lieutenant went insane and ordered the genocide of hundreds of thousands of innocent newcomers to their territory, crowning himself king. Appalled and with no means of escape, the Maverick turned to mystical contemplation and confinement in an ivory tower, until the imminent fruition of the Evil King’s plans caused his now-grown son to reopen the portal. Stranded in a world whose rules he knew from the fairytales and bedtime stories of his childhood, the son did battle in the gladiatorial games of old, fell in love with the last survivor of the genocide and, together with his father, plotted the downfall of the Evil King, who – we are about to find out – has built an army of drones with which to invade Earth. Having finally captured the magic secrets of the Maverick in the previous battle, the enemy is now on the brink of success. Only by exploiting his mystical bond with the Evil King – the destruction of which results in both their deaths – is the Maverick finally able to save both his son and female protege, who return to our world as guardians of the secrets of this second, magic realm, and who will totally have makeouts in the not-too-distant future after she sees her first Earth sunrise.
Also, yes: that is bascially how the film ends.
There’s still some other random silliness packed into that scenario, the chief insult being that Quorra inexplicably decides to throw herself at the enemy to … do something. We’re not quite sure what, because the enemy hasn’t spotted their group, nobody else knows she’s an iso yet and she’s not trying to heroically distract the guards so the menfolk can sneak by (or at least, if she is, it’s not explained as such). So far as I can tell, the only point of this scene is to stretch the film out by another fifteen minutes with damsel-rescuing, ensuring that Quorra’s introduction as a Kickass SF Chick is completely undermined by the end of the film. Because after that first rescue scene, where she’s all awesome and mysterious? No skills whatsoever. Even the scene where her arm gets snapped off contrives to make her a damsel rather than a fallen warrior, and only seems to happen so that Maverick Dad could regrow it while she slept and thereby demonstrate her magical iso-ness to Sam. Plus and also: the genocide timeline is screwy. Only a day passes on Earth after Maverick Dad first discovers the isos before Evil Jeff Bridges kills them all, but when Quorra tells the story, she’d been living in a city for some time when it happened, and had to flee her home as everyone she knew was killed around her, at which point Maverick effected a Miraculous And Poorly-Explained Rescue That Makes No Sense.
So, yes. Tron: Legacy is a fantasy film in denial, which, given the SF context, becomes very problematic very quickly. Take that as you will. There’s a few nice moments packed in there amidst all the senseless plotting, and a weird consistency in the background details that belies the total lack of logic elsewhere. These include: fireworks that explode in geometric pixel designs rather than soft circles; the Maverick Dad’s use of 80s slang, which, while naff, makes sense when you consider that he’s been in a computer for twenty years reading zen texts and therefore hasn’t had cause to update his argot; and an enemy program picking up one of the Maverick’s books by the corner and then flipping through it sideways, because he’s obviously never seen one before. The 3D is nice, but only really gets a workout during the action scenes, which are surprisingly few and far between. The bulk of the film is dialogue, with not a lot going on and not a lot of sense to string it together. But, as has been mentioned previously, I have low standards. It was fun. The music was truly awesome. And at least it gave me a lot to think about.
Also, as a bonus for those who are curious, I started thinking about stories where the genius child of the absentee Maverick Parent is a daughter rather than a son, and was able to come up with three examples: Ritsuko from Neon Genesis Evangelion; Kimiko Sarai Kusanagi, aka Kim Ross from the webcomic Dresden Codak, and Deunan Knute from Appleseed. The two other uses of the bedtime story technique which sprang to mind are Inkheart and National Treasure. If you can think of any others in either case, I’d be interested in hearing about them!