TRON: Legacy needs a CLU, gets a “journey without a goal”

I wanted to like this movie.  I have such fond memories of the original TRON.  It was ahead of its time in many ways back then, and probably a little cheesy too…  It was wrapped up in religion a bit, which wasn’t bad— it gave programs a “culture,” a “faith.”  TRON: Legacy has kept up with the digital explosion in movies and taken it to grand heights, but it abandoned good writing and good characters along the way.  I found it hard not to roll my eyes, and even with such great visuals, found myself bored during the last quarter of the film.  How did they fumble such a beautiful opportunity?  I don’t know, but I have some ideas.  I offer these up for consideration.  I’m no Roger Ebert (but I’m a huge fan, Roger) but I think most critics have already agreed that the plot lacks something. The original TRON received 69% on the tomatometer from Rotten Tomatoes, the new Tron 49%.  Though, oddly the audience seems to like the second one more.  Critics agreed the light show and “glitter” are fun, and who can beat that soundtrack?  I loved the light show, the competitions, the music, but the plot is an epic fail.

1.  Fast train to TRONville.  No set-up.  I can hear the producers saying to the writers: “get him on the grid as fast as possible.”  The opening sequence of the movie is funny, but completely ignorable, as its goal is to barely set up why Sam Flynn goes into the grid.  There’s no extraneous or unnecessary character-building.  It’s broad strokes for Sam’s character: “rebel wounded son on bike”.  For Bruce Boxleitner, it’s “old partner who still works for firm.”

The break-in sequence: It’s so eeeeasy to break into a major technology company.  They have one security guard, cameras that just blink off when you shine light at them (note to self when I’m breaking into Microsoft: bring penlight), they have a stack of computer towers and Sam knows just which one to tap into (because his father was the computer genius, ergo the son is a natch), and his escape onto the roof walking along a handy crane (who leaves these here??) that he will leap off of for cinematic effect.  Give that man a Batman suit!   I found it completely unrealistic; no obstacles means that he could do this more often and doesn’t…. why?  No obstacles means no tension.  No tension means no possibility for anything else happening.  What does it tell us?  He’s a rebel. Does he have a job?  A girlfriend?  A life?  We don’t know.

Boxleitner comes into Sam’s garage in the Under Bridge District, throws him a quarter and says for him to go visit the old arcade to find out who sent him a page nearly 20 years later!  I keep my old cell phone in a drawer, but I don’t keep it charged…. but then I’m not expecting Jeff Bridges to contact me.

Sam drives to the old arcade in the Standard Slum District, void of people, where expensive nostalgic games are all preserved and ready to be turned back on after twenty years.  No one’s broken in!  And if I’m Sam, I want to tip toe in and not make a noise to alert everyone else that something’s happening in this place.  So I’ll turn on the 1980s music full blast—Journey’s so quiet when you’re breaking into an old arcade in the slum…. and I’ll use that quarter that Boxleitner threw me.

2. The Fumble of Dropped Character Development:  Sam Flynn played by Garrett Hedland is a swaggering one-note actor in this piece.  I’m gonna say he was handed a nothing script to work with because Jeff Bridges is also flat in this movie and I’m sure in True Grit and his oscar-piece Crazy Heart he shines BECAUSE of a good script.  But the writers hand NOTHING to Garrett and Jeff.  The actors should have gone rogue and come up with better dialogue on the spot.  This has the idea of the TEMPEST: complete with marooned on an “island” Prospero, Caliban who has threatened to take over the island, Tron, the Ariel under control of another master, and Miranda, the good innocent woman who’s been reading Dostoyevsky and something a bit ironic, “Journey Without a Goal”–the tantric wisdom of Buddha….  which could be a summation of this movie.

Sam is about to meet his father that he LOVED and deeply missed, after 20 years.  He’s thrown into a GAME, where he doesn’t know what’s going on, and he’s not the least bit thrown.  But neither is Cora when she’s brought into the real world either.  SO much potential for lost father/son interactions.  See Frequency for the same motif done SO much better.  Where is the part of the script that builds the father/son relationship?  Is it those lousy beach scenes that come in as silent flashbacks?  Eek.  That’s it? Their reunion is just dumb.  Worst reunion ever because you don’t do anything with it.

3.  Missed Plot moments: When Sam meets CLU, it would have been so much better to have CLU fool him for awhile.  He could have taunted Kevin with his own son: see Hook for the use of this motif.  But that idea’s tossed away.

Why has Kevin Flynn sat PASSIVE for twenty years?  His own son has caused irreparable damage to a computer company in one night.  Kevin Flynn brought down Master Control.  What the hell?  This is NO excuse for inactivity.   Oops the portal disappeared; I’m trapped and I might as well live as a zen refugee off the grid….  with my honey, Cora….  Kevin shows us at the end that he has the ability to reprogram every single program, and by touching floors and walls, he can change the nature of situations….but no.  We’re reserving that power for the END of the movie.  (shudder of disbelief)  I don’t buy the “if I fight him, CLU gets stronger” excuse.

TRON reprogrammed:  you can’t thrown in a twist like this without a set up, or more clues…. and certainly you can’t have TRON decide to switch sides in time for the final moment of the battle to knock CLU on his ass.  Epic Deus Ex Machina.

Zeus was over-the-top–but had potential.  Who knew what Zeus looked like?  Sam didn’t.  Sam could have been fooled by anyone.  Why didn’t the writers milk this?  There’s even a blatant Casablanca reference here to resonate and honor that film, but Humphrey Bogart’s character was much more complex…. See Casablanca.

Kevin is UPSET at his son for trying to rescue him because he’s ruining “his zen thing”??— a non-linear, new POV, could have turned this into an intriguing concept (in fact, Flynn’s flashbacks might have made a better movie).  The Zen in the face of the inevitable would have been a great sequel:  TRON: Zen.  But here it makes Kevin Flynn look like a jerk.

4.  Monologuing on the Slow Train. So Flynn puts the portal outside the city but builds a GIANT TRAIN to it.  The TRAIN goes slower than any other vehicle on the whole grid.  This is to contain the forty minutes of monologuing that the three main good characters do.  It contains the only moment of actual real dialogue between Flynn and Flynn, but it’s so relaxed as if the whole movie is actually over.  Tension drops to NOTHING.  Characters could have made it faster to the portal in the dunebuggy….  I was bored out of my mind during this sequence.  Nothing is happening.  Characters are just chatting…. infodumps abound.  See Star Wars with how you chat on a flight to keep the tension (and don’t tell me they didn’t check out Star Wars when they created the gun turret at the rear end of the plane….)

5.  Monologuing in front of your Army. Hey, three good characters are out in the world running around causing mischief, but I, as the big villain, am going to give a motivational speech to my Army….of “programmed” soldiers who don’t need motivation: they have programming.  I could lose everything if they beat me to the portal, or if they cause mischief, but I’m oblivious because I’m doing EPIC monologuing…

6.  Journey without a goal. If the goal was to rescue the Dad, the movie actually fails.  Sam doesn’t seem to mind; he just lets his dad go.  We always knew though that because CLU and Kevin were made from the same person/program, that they would have to be “reintegrated” and that “the re-integrating would kill Kevin”—why?  Because it’s necessary to the plot.  Though Kevin is a flesh and blood person, and CLU is a program—why they would have to be reintegrated is beyond me.  In fact, it seemed beyond them too—-they were going to go into the portal with Kevin and leave CLU behind.  So much for integrating.

7.  Where is the COMPUTER in this TRON? The first TRON was about being inside of a game, or inside a computer, living life as a program.  This movie was made 18 years after the first one, computers have blown us away!  They are amazing!  They have changed so much.  I know, this is TRON; he’s trapped in an old server.  Still….  where is the computer language?  Where is the metaphor?  Where is the world-building that was a staple for TRON?  Sam Flynn might have just transported to Iceland for all we know?  The Matrix had more world-building (of course, it had excellent world building).  They need to map out what is and isn’t possible in a computerized life.   How does a USER have blood in the game?  How does a suckling pig end up in the game?  How does a flesh and blood person survive inside a digital world without FOOD?  Water?  It doesn’t matter…. There’s no WORLD-BUILDING this time, not like they did with TRON.  They cannibalized TRON, the movie, to get a “world” and then did nothing to it.   See Tron for a movie on how to deal with people suddenly pulled into a computer.

So, at the end, Sam, upon coming back into the real world, does what should have been done at the Beginning of Sam’s orphaning: make Bruce Boxleitner CEO of the company.  Why wasn’t he?  And he goes off with the girl to see a sunrise.

On a larger note, I’m disturbed by the industry’s mistaken belief that if they throw a younger actor into an 80s blockbuster, complete with the old gang, they can pass the torch to a new audience, and cash in on some of that mojo.  Shia LeBoeuf can’t act and shouldn’t have been let inside an Indiana Jones–but it’s this mentality in Hollywood that they can insert a younger, hotter actor into a formula that works.  My memo to Hollywood.  Stop it.  Get creative.  Create plots.  Create stories.  Create Characters that twenty years from now Hollywood will want to recycle and re-invent.  See Abrams’ Star Trek for a well done way to do this.  The bottom line, writers, is see better movies.  Copy their skills, not their backdrops.

I was entertained during the competition sequences, during the special effects, and wished all the actors, if they had nothing interesting to say, had kept their mouths shut.  At least then, it could have been a nice music video.  I’m going to watch True Grit now and see what Jeff Bridges can do with a script.  What if the Coen Brothers had done TRON??  Imagine the beauty…..

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