“I like it” and other thoughts on TRON: Legacy

When Sam Pevensie looks behind the old TRON video game machine in the back of the dusty, decades-closed video game parlor abandoned by his father, he enters a WORLD BEYOND HIS IMAGINATION! In this world, Aslan the Programmer sits in Manichean silence, waiting… for what, exactly? While the specific thing he was waiting for is never made clear, generally, he’s waiting for an opportunity defeat the bad guy, a fascist of his own creation. Then his son arrives, messing up his Zen thing, man.

No, no. Actually, not, or at least there’s more than that. There are plenty of ways to be unkind to the plot of TRON: Legacy. “It’s a Disney movie,” for instance. Or you can spend the entire movie saying, “this is like Star Wars.” Or The Matrix, or The Chronicles of Narnia, or The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers… or … well, you get the idea. It’s a fantasy quest movie, and a sequel to a movie which inaugurated a film genre–the virtual-reality-computer-land. Which means that it draws from the same well as all fantasy quest movies, and its progenitor invented some of the tropes we’ve come to expect from these kinds of movies, so of course it’s going to remind of us other movies.

The same goes for the visuals. Tight science-fictiony clothes? Got em. Cloaks, hoods, robes, and full-face masks? Got em. Martial arts-y fights? Got em. Car chases, motor cycle chases, aerial dog-fights? Got em.

However, TRON: Legacy does its own thing with these elements. And it does them because it is carrying forward these elements from 1982’s TRON. 1982. The mystic hippie programmer? He’s here now because he was here then. The sleek glowing colorfulness in a black and white world? In 1982 that’s what the future looked like. Crazy hair cuts, and make-up, and the cool kids sitting on low couches at loud dance clubs? That’s been the future since A Clockwork Orange, at least, and possibly even as far back as Metropolis, which TRON owes quite a bit to anyway, and is an aesthetic which reached its high point (if you will) in the middle 1980’s–exactly the moment when Aslan, excuse me, Kevin Flynn got trapped in the machine of his own creation by his highly motivated, if narrow-minded, doppelgänger, Clu. My point is that neither the look and feel, nor the story, of TRON: Legacy is unacceptably derivative; rather, it’s an exemplar of its type (of story), and the times during which it was (within the story) supposed to be created.

There are even a couple of sub-plots with some actual suspense. One is pretty obvious, really, and all I’ll say about it is that it would be nice to have more of the character Tron and more of the actor Bruce Boxleitner in this movie. The other is pretty well done–there are a couple of characters about whom your initial expectations are toyed with before things are made clear.

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t spent a lot of time on what the plot actually is. You know: who does what, where, and why. Well, partly it’s because it’s a straight-forward ‘gotta rescue my dad from the bad guy, and save the world’ sort of thing. Partly because if I get into much detail beyond that, it’ll start to look weaker than it is. Here’s why: the movie tells an impossible story. The events in this movie cannot possibly happen. The entire TRON adventure cycle rests on a premise which is simply not possible. You cannot scan a person and then have that person transported into a computer. In the first movie we see the technology at work on an orange, and then we see Kevin Flynn get physically transported by a laser scanner sitting right behind him, strangely, pointed at the work station by which it is controlled. In the new movie, the fact that people are literally transported into the computer is driven home by the fact that Sam Flynn bleeds–which makes it apparent to one and all that he’s not a program: he’s a user.

Anyway. The impossibility of the premise is not a flaw with the movies. But once you’ve accepted that, somehow, these characters are actually–physically–transported into the computer, then there’s really no point in crabbing about the rest of it. It’s internally consistent, it moves from here to there, and the two major Flynns get to grow from where they were at the beginning to where they end up at the end. What more could we reasonably expect from a plot?

About that internal consistency. It’s pretty strange, actually. Water? Smoke? Roast pigs? But, here’s the thing about all that. Kevin Flynn, even in the first movie, has always had remarkable control over the environment within the computer. It’s never explained, beyond “he’s a user” and “he’s the creator.” In the first movie, Kevin notes that it’s elementary physics that energy can always be diverted. He can also revive profoundly damaged programs–he does it in both movies. Perhaps some of this relies on the convertibility of energy and matter. Maybe not. This is all Kevin’s world in a very literal way, though he does not have complete control over the actions of the programs running around within it.

But really, the point of TRON: Legacy isn’t what Kevin Flynn can manipulate within the computer, or what Sam Flynn can do with the light cycles, or ad hoc decision making to attain his goal of rescuing his father and ending tyranny. The point is that, though Kevin and Sam each have the knowledge to manipulate portions of the system, neither has a very clear idea of why they do things. This is not a profound conflict. But the TRON adventure cycle is not a profound story. It’s a dreamland, or–if you will–a four-color sliver age of comics story. There are good guys, there are bad guys, there’s some mumbo-jumbo, there are obstructions, and then things work out.

And here’s where I want to leave it. When things work out, they just sort of work out, and things just sort of keep rolling along. It’s fairly mature, I think. Go back to the earlier comparisons with Star Wars or The Matrix, or even the ending of TRON. In TRON: Legacy, the climactic battle occurs several minutes before the final show-down, which is personal in a way that traditional ‘this time it’s personal’ show-downs cannot even begin to approach. The show-down allows the successes, but only apocalyptically. The successes and failures happen, and when the good guys win (as they must), they’re actually not all that happy about it. It’s kind of a downer of an ending. Well, no. AMC’s The Prisoner had a downer of an ending. TRON: Legacy has, if not a downer, exactly, then certainly not the kind of ending where the world is remade, rather it has an ending where some things change, because things have to change, it’s the way of things, and some things just keep on, man, cause the more things change, the more they stay the same.