Monday, 20 December 2010

Tron: Legacy (2010)

Under two heads

Narrative and characters. This is a stupid movie, its plot vacuous to a degree hard to believe. Kevin Flynn (played by Jeff Bridges) has created a virtual world called the Grid, and set up an e-clone of himself called ‘Clu’ (played by a Plasticine Golem Caricature of Jeff Bridges) to run it. But Clu has turned into a fascist dictator, and Kevin has become trapped inside his creation. In the real world everyone assumes he is dead-- his now grown-up son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) says ‘he’s either high in some bar in Puerto Rico Costa Rica, or dead’, before adding, confusingly, ‘or both.’ Sam is now a young hunk of twentisomethingness, his 'personality' approximated from an improbable mix of playboy swank, parcours physical skill and cliché wounded heart. He gets a page from his Dad (a pager-message that is, not a sheet of paper), and following this up, via a magical video games arcade and a laser cannon powered by narratons (which is to say: with a wave of the screenwriter's wavy hand) young Sam finds himself inside the Grid. Straightaway he’s seized by Clu’s quasi-fascist police, forced to compete in Tronny gladiatorial to-the-death games whilst Clu watches, survives against incredible odds—including a mano-a-mano deathfight with a video master-warrior called, unless my ears deceived me. Rizzler—and is rescued by young Tronnie called Quorra (Olivia Wilde looking very toothsome). She drives him away to his father's covert pad which, for a secret hideaway, was (I thought) rather ostentatiously displayed, all bright-lit ceiling-to-floor windows, on the side of a huge mountain directly facing the headquarters of the evil Clu. From here the plot got stupider and stupider. Amongst the more egregious holes were:

The twist that the page summoning Sam into the Grid was sent not by Kevin but by Clu, as a strategy for winning the game—in which case, you have to wonder why the first thing Clu does with the just-summoned Sam is immediately try to eliminate him in gladiatorial combat.

The portal between the Grid and reality. This, we're told, is located on the far horizons of the Grid (‘your father didn’t want stray programs wandering through it’, says Quorra—even though exit is only possible with the magic key of Kevin’s own disk) although Sam himself entered through this same portal, arriving not on the far horizons but right in the middle of Trontown. Tronto. Trondon. Why not go back the way he came?

Martin Michael Sheen’s performance. He plays the supposedly sinister-camp owner of a cyber cabaret (an if-you-will ‘cyberet’). This is not a plot hole per se, but it is just awful. Awful.

The Martin Sheen character works for Clu, and presumably has done so for a while. He serves his master well: betraying Kevin and Sam and delivering Kevin's cosmic master-key. In return, Clu blows up him, and his club, and everyone inside. It's not explained why. Perhaps that's because it makes no sense.

A race of aboriginal e-beings (what? how? what?) who are somehow already there inside the Grid even though the Grid was invented by Kevin, and who are backstory-mentioned at one point in the movie only to be backstory-disposed-of two minutes later, a staggering genocide, leaving only one survivor, Quorra herself. Like -- what? What the fuck?

Tron himself. Unable either properly to revisit, or to let well alone, the film introduces the character ‘Tron’ in a desultory way, has him fight for the baddies, convert randomly to the goodies instants before being left, literally in midair, falling towards something, it’s not spelled out what: an awkwardly literalised loose end.

Sam, Dad and Quorn take an e-train across the wildnerness to reach the portal; but the freight being transported is people (e-people, at any rate), who are there to be turned into stormtroopers to invade the real world! Since operating in our world requires, you know, corporeal existence, and since these soldiers lack that, it’s never made clear how this will work. Presumably the narraton-gun, working in reverse, magically gifts strings of zeros-and-ones with calcium, blood vessels and blood, nerves, lymph, muscles, skin and all the rest of it.

A root problem is that once the film goes into the Grid it forgets that the Grid exists as the metaphorization of data, and treats it instead as just another place; a kind of high tech Faeryland. When he arrives, Sam is kitted out for gladiatorial combat by four slinky programs in fetish gear and stacked heels. This, we assume, is their function: they modify ('dress') programs that are designed to interact competitively ('fight') so as to enhance them. But later, after escaping the arena and returning to Trontown (Trondheim, Trumptron) Sam meets one of these slinky programs (Beau Garrett) wandering the streets under an umbrella. Because that’s what computer programs do, inside your laptop! They work for a portion of the day, and then they clock off to go wandering about the motherboard, idly looking to pick up other programs! And whisk them away to a fetish club!

The CGI-animated young Jeff Bridges is as poorly rendered as you have heard. But in a way I found the old Jeff Bridges more puzzling. For a long time I looked at him, thinking ‘you remind me of somebody … who is it?’ which is puzzling only in the sense that he didn't look like or patricularly remind me of Jeff Bridges. The penny dropped about halfway through; in this role he looks like Terry Gilliam, with a dash of older Rip Torn. It’s surprisingly distracting.

Look. This is a great movie. The design is great, the cinematography is great, the style is just superb. The pastiche of the latter scenes of 2001 in particular was beautifully incongruous; the machines and the costumes were supercool. Of course, the styling was retro; but that’s a feature, not a bug. Because SF only appears to be about the future; it is actually always about the past – Star Wars (also inventively pastiched in this movie) has more in common with the Dam Busters and medieval Japan than any future space empire; Philip K Dick writing in the 1960s and 1970s always about 1950s US suburbia, Dune taking us back to medieval Arabia rather than forward into the future. And so on. This movie understands that, at least on the level of its visual logic. And what a visual logic! The eye could feast upon the neon glory, exquisite design and natty devices for hours and hours, irrespective of the shoddy plot.


Miles said...

Haha, did you mean to call Michael Sheen Martin Sheen? I, uh, don't think they're related.

Also (I say, adjusting my glasses) I believe Sam suggests Kevin is in Costa Rica, not Puerto Rico.

These factual errors clearly prove your opinions about this movie are wrong.

Miles said...

More seriously, though, as far as the narrative goes I really think you're asking the wrong kind of questions.

The plot makes very little sense, logically. It's true. It would always have been true of any movie with this premise, in every parallel universe where they made another Tron movie.

But who cares? A narrative can function on its own conventions without needing to make much real sense. Characters have to make at least semi-plausible choices, the action has to move along at a certain pace, the heroes have to have their up and down beats (likewise the villains), and the magic of flickering images and persistence of vision take care of the rest.

Better questions for this type of film might be whether it succeeds in bringing the kinds of emotions it's going for in the places it's trying to put them. Is this action movie boring or thrilling? Are the relationships between the characters compelling? Are the villains frightening enough? (Surely the uncanny-valleyed visage of young Jeff Bridges ought to get points here.)

If you judge it on this basis, I tend to think you'll find it succeeds more than it fails. It's not a classic by any stretch, but my feeling coming away was that it was about as good as anyone could have done a new Tron movie.

Adam Roberts said...

Miles: quite right! Michael not Martin; Costa Rica not Puerto Rico. It is also true, as you point out, that these errors invalidate my other comments.

I suppose I agree with you that there's an element of breaking a butterfly upon a wheel in critiquing the plot of picture like this. I suppose I wish they'd had the courage of their convictions, abandoned plot altogether and just indulged themselves in a cyber-Tarkovskiian visial text.

Tom said...

Are the visuals and music not the point of this movie though?

I kinda think of it like ballet, essentially an audio-visual experience which is structured around a narrative, but where the narrative is nobody's reason for going to see it.

For me the really interesting thing about Tron Jeremy was the 3-D. in every other movie I've seen, 3-D was either a gimmick, or actually got in the way, as the minute loss in focus on the screen obstructed my ability to get a handle on what was actually going on. But here, where what was actually going on was 90% irrelevant to my enjoyment,3-D was actually integral to the experience. It added both literal and metaphorical depth to what was otherwise a thoroughly shallow movie.