Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Tron: Legacy/ Tron: Betrayal, a two-for-one movie and book review

Also a review with footnotes. Lots of footnotes. You have been warned.

I finally, finally saw Tron: Legacy and, being a completist(1), grabbed Tron: Betrayal out of the library the next day.

Short version of the movie review: Raises a lot of deep philosophical questions, mostly by inference, and rather than dealing with them, waves shiny graphics at the audience as a distraction. Fun, but flat.

Short version of the graphic novel: Doesn't really give that much more of the story, and I had a terrible time figuring out who was who, visually.

And now onto the reviews proper:

Tron: Legacy

The visuals are Tron: Legacy's strongest point, which means that I missed out on its best part by watching it on a small screen(2), and not in 3-D. From what I saw, though, the movie takes the graphics from Tron and updates them impressively, making for some great eye-candy.

The de-aging wasn't as impressive as I'd hoped. Even in miniature, I could tell that a lot of work was being done with nostalgia-lighting and just plain old shadows to make it even start to work. It's a promising idea, but not good enough yet that Tron could appear unmasked and in any sort of major role in the third film.

This leads to what I still tend to think of the most important part of any movie: the story: A creature rebels against its creator; like Frankenstein's monster, it has a point. Also like the monster, it takes revenge on those its maker loves. Unlike the monster, it has plans for world-dominance. These involve setting a complicated trap to catch Kevin Flynn, steal his identity disk(3) and bringing a bunch of soldiers who have, quite literally, been programmed to believe in him and follow his every order out into Our World for a little old-fashioned conquest(4).

This is where Sam, Kevin's son, and the new protagonist comes into play. As far as he can tell, his father simply walked out on him when he was twelve, leaving him to be raised by his grandparents, with some additional guidance from his father's best friend. Now an adult, he's uninterested in taking control of Encom and apparently spends his time doing... I'm not sure what. Some combination of hacking, athletic activity, and vaguely mentioned charity-work. When the film begins, he learns that his father, or someone, has sent a page from Kevin Flynn's old arcade phone, unused since he disappeared(5). Going to investigate, he's pulled into the Grid, like his father before him, and, also like his father, has to compete in the Games. Then he has to figure out how to stop Clu's plans, save himself, his father, and the Girl, aka Quorra.

It wasn't exactly a bad story, but it wasn't exactly a good story, either, and the best bits have been told before(6). Most of the really powerful emotional stuff happens in flashbacks and often off-screen--told rather than shown--which strikes me as a very strange way to structure a movie.

The confrontation between Clu and Kevin Flynn, for example, is mostly described by Flynn with a very short filmed flashback. It's a pity, too, because between what Flynn says and what we see of Clu's memory, there's some deep emotional tension between the two, and Clu has a right to feel betrayed. Unfortunately, it's one of the things the movie brushes over in shorthand, leaving it to the audience to fill in (and if I know anything about fanfic, the audience probably has). We know it's there, but we don't really get a sense of how either character views it, or what Clu's motives in destroying the Isos were. Perfection? Getting back at Flynn for caring about them more than him? Both? Neither? Were there regrets along the way? Attempts at reconciliation?

Sam and Clu get very, very little time together, most of it spent on light-cycles. What we know from Legacy suggests Clu could feel some serious sibling rivalry and/or hatred for Sam, but it's not shown. It's left to us to guess at. Betrayal actually makes this worse: Kevin Flynn leaves at a critical point in the Grid's growth to get to Sam's birth, and then, presumably, spends long periods of time out of the Grid tending Sam. Given the time difference between the two worlds, this means one "child" has been left alone for, potentially, hundreds of years in favor of another child's growth. Very, very little of this makes it on screen (Two lines and an expression, actually. Clu asks Flynn why he's taking such risks "for him," Kevin Flynn says "He's my son." Clu looks--hurt? Something emotional that may actually transfer better on a bigger screen).

And then there are the Isos, the "new life" that spontaneously rose in the Grid. Why did Flynn care so much about them? They're going to "change everything," but how? Why? Who were they? Legacy gives us very little to go on: A shot of them walking in the dark, the story of their death, and Quorra. As the sole representatives of the vanished race, Quorra is not enough. I'm not really sure what "profoundly naive yet unimaginably wise" is supposed to look like, but Quorra generally just looks blank. Honestly, I cared more about whether or not Gem, a relatively minor character, lived than what happened to Quorra, which is a shame, since she's a major character and default love-interest for Sam. Oh, and she has some snazzy DNA, which may or may not mean anything on our side of reality. The Isos ought to be central to everything that happens, and yet there is a hole right in their part of the story.

So, in the end, we're left with a movie about father-son relationships in which very little relating happens, and a movie about changing the world in which the status-quo is maintained with much effort. A pity.

Oh. Tron? He's not in the movie. Well, he kind of is, but given that he's been reprogrammed to someone else for 99% of it, he's not. This is a pity because he's Tron's unambiguous hero(7), and it would have been nice to cheer for him again. Or, failing that, to feel like anyone actually cared what happened to him. Flynn expresses some regret over his death, but no one has time to comment on his reprogramming or makes any sort of effort whatsoever to undo it or to regret being unable to undo it when they learn about it. Talk about lost opportunities. His short scene as Tron was memorable, though, and I hope to see him again in the next film--as himself, even if he has to wear a mask(8) (see de-aging, above).

Tron, the original, told a fairly straightforward story of adventure, friendship, and heroism that was set in a visually stunning environment. Tron: Legacy raises all the tangled philosophical and emotional issues of a man creating his worst enemy(8), of father-son relationships gone wrong, and the difficulties of beginning again once a dream has been smashed. It gave us the genesis of a new race, and rather than deal with these matters, it waves pretty graphics at the world.

Tron: Betrayal
Tron: Betrayal, unlike the movie, is not visually impressive. Whenever Tron, Clu, or Flynn was on the page, and especially when all three were, I had a hard time keeping track of which was which. Yes, I know Clu and Flynn are identical, but it was irritating to keep having to check clothing and hair details (and all three wore black) to see who was speaking, and Tron certainly isn't supposed to look like either. In our world, Jordan (Flynn's wife), looks like Lora, and both of them look like the random-woman-in-pink standing behind Flynn in one of his Encom scenes (Unless the random-woman-in-pink is meant to be one or the other. I can't tell).

We learn nothing more about the Isos: They seem sort of stuck-up in the one scene where Flynn talks to them, they dress strangely (or at least, Ophelia does), and they are killed. That's not much help.

The Flynns get little development, either. Kevin Flynn is moderately irresponsible, which we already knew. Sam is a baby. And Mommy Flynn? I briefly discussed the movie with the Entity who wanted to know whether Kevin Flynn's wife even had a name, or if she existed just "to squirt out Sam." I defended her absence on the ground that the death-of-the-parents is a pretty traditional way to start fairy tales, which is more or less the genre I'd stick the Tron series in, if I were stashing it somewhere.

Tron: Betrayal answers the Entity's questions rather differently: Yes, Flynn's wife has a name (Jordan), and, yes, her sole purpose is to give birth to Sam. Her scenes come up as Flynn arrives at the doctor's office just in time to see the sonogram of little Sam, Flynn arrives at the doctor's office just in time for Sam's actual birth, and as Flynn carries toddler Sam to her gravestone. When alive, she's astoundingly cheerful about her husband's frequent absences and amazingly chipper about his missing her entire labor. When dead she is, of course, completely silent.

The book also adds an additional Grid-world character, Shaddox, who spends his time hanging out with Tron, Flynn, and Clu, commenting on things and who seems to be someone important. I don't know who he is in the scheme of things, as he's not in the movie, that I saw, and he's not introduced in Betrayal itself. I do know I could always identify him, since he was the black guy with the beard, something which strikes me as an embarrassment of riches. He could have been black and someone else could have had the beard, and I would have spent less time wondering which character was talking.(10)

An aside: Is anyone else find the kinder, gentler Encom-that-should-be a bit annoying? It seems sot of a quick method of making Kevin and Sam seem like Genuinely Good people. If they were running the company, we keep being told, things would be different. Schools would not be over-charged for the programs, the company would make environmentally friendly choices, and everything would be just fine and dandy. In both book and movie, we're given a whole room full of cardboard cutout, money-grubbing, corporate types to serve as "contrast" to this idea. The thing is, neither Sam nor Kevin actually does run the company, so we never find out whether or not their idealistic visions would actually work, nor what sort of compromises they'd make. Both spend their on-screen/in-book time walking away from the company, leaving Alan to be their voice-on-the-inside, one with very little real decision-making power(11). Both make use of the money made by said corrupt corporation, so their defection is suspect. Alan calls both of them on it, in a mild sort of way, but I got the impression that we were supposed to read the Flynn duo's corporate idealism straight and take it as a sign that they were Good People at heart, and thus it becomes another irritating bit of shorthand.


(1)Of sorts. I'm not going hunting for the video game, and I may or may not read all the back story stuff allegedly stashed here and there on the official website.
(2) By which I mean a really small screen, not just non-movie.

(3)A record of everything he's done? Or everything he is? Neither Tron movie is terribly clear on this, but, then, most questions about just exactly how the Grid world runs are best left unexamined. It runs. The viewer believes and enjoys the story, or doesn't and is kicked straight out. Thoughts about what the Paintbrush program thinks when I call it up, or whether it exists as a separate entity in each computer or as an existential whole spread through all computers, and whether or not a given personality can be backed up (Are there two Trons now? One in Flynn's Grid and one in Encom's computer(s?)), are best left to one side. This is not, in itself, really a problem. Tell me a good story and I'll believe anything you say, for as long as it lasts. And the Grid world is, at least, an interesting world.
(4) Always assuming this is actually possible in the movie-universe, and that Quorra's ability to transfer doesn't come from her being an Iso, Clu has a point about Kevin Flynn's decision to isolate them in one Grid rather than letting them cross-borders. Thoughts of what an electronic influx would do to our world are a bit dizzying, but all the same... And this is another one of those points where I start thinking I'm over-thinking, or at least, thinking more than the movie's creators want me to think.
(5) Kevin Flynn may have very bad luck with his computer creations, but he has astoundingly good luck with his real-world friends. Not only does his wife forgive his perpetual lateness to important events, his friend not only helps raise his son, he carries around an obsolete pager for years, just because he once asked him to.
(6) And told better. To give one ever-so-random example, Frankenstein (the book, that is. The movies are all over the place).
(7) By which I mean the hero who is unambiguously heroic. I'm well aware that he shares the protagonist role with Kevin Flynn, the hero who has to learn how to be heroic.
(8) Yes, I'm planning on seeing the third movie. I'm probably crazy; this one had so many holes, but hope springs eternal, and I really liked Tron.
(9)Try Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (the book), for another version of this tale. Or, if you want a later story of a man releasing his shadow on the world and then spending his life dealing with the consequences, read Wizard of Earthsea and The Farthest Shore (That's part of what they deal with, at any rate). No, it's not fair to blame a movie for not being a book, and usually I don't do this sort of comparison, but, honestly, Tron: Legacy asked for it. Don't raise questions if you're not going to at least attempt to deal with them!
(10) "But what about his personality?" you ask. What about his personality? He has two identifying traits. You expect character development as well?
(11)This being the only way in which Alan resembles Clu.


Huh. Ok, as a reentry into reviewing, this was long. More succinct next time? Maybe.

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