Movies: Tron: Legacy
The Best Science Writing of 2018, edited by Sam Kean
Like it says on the tin, this is a curated collection of science journalism from 2018.
And it's pretty much the book you expect: a collection of top-notch articles from across the world of science. And the content is basically what you'd expect. There are a few fascinating articles about the frontiers of modern discovery — some highlights were a 538 piece about astronomers getting a bonanza of data out of a neutron-star collision, and a pretty exhaustive overview of the current fight against cancer. And there are a lot of articles about how monumentally fucked we are, from Scott Pruitt fucking over the EPA to an Alaskan veterinary coroner noting how the warming arctic regions are a ticking timebomb of disease. (Obama pens a piece about how things are looking great for green energy! and it just feels dismally naïve.) And then there's a low point for me: a piece by a researcher working with doomed lab monkeys while her mother goes into the same hospital for chemotherapy.
Still, the nice thing about an anthology is, if you're bummed out by the current piece, it's not too long 'til it's over. And overall, this was a satisfying read, and I'm tempted to come back and buy the compilations every year, just to have a snapshot of today's science journalism.
This is the 2010 sequel to the 1982 adventure set in a magical world inside of a computer. In the sequel, the original lead has disappeared into "The Grid", and his son ends up on a quest to find him.
Oh, Tron: Legacy, you great, silly trash fire.
I showed up to this movie for two things and two things only: to listen to a great Daft Punk score, and to ogle beloved American comedy director Olivia Wilde.
What I got was... interesting. The movie was made in 2010. And in a way, it's trying to be the simplest, most basic encapsulation of what a 2010 tentpole movie was. In terms of storytelling, it's the safest possible movie from that year, conservatively competent in many respects, but... it's not good, because it has no ambition to be good. It makes all the cautious storytelling choices that a 2010 tentpole possibly can, and in so doing, ensures that it says nothing. Its only messages are accidental, and problematic.
For instance: our lead is basically a bad guy from a season-two Veronica Mars episode.¹ Yes, we're supposed to be on his *side*, and he's supposed to be our viewpoint character, but the whole time I'm thinking his name is Chad or Berkeley or Mason and dammit, *he's* the one who stole the documents at Neptune's annual "yacht party". The character's dad is Kevin Flynn, the ex-CEO of Encom — because of course he is, because you take one look at the lead and you just assume he's going to bark, "Do you KNOW who my FATHER is?!!1" at some well-meaning security guard.
In this movie, he says more-or-less this to a guard that's overweight and Latino, and makes him look like an idiot, because that's the kind of misstep this well-meaning Golden Retriever of a movie tends to do.
And I just want to rest on this for a moment: our hero is a 20-something, conventionally-attractive, very masc white dude who is a multibazillionaire because his daddy is someone important. We all know full well that in a movie in the 80s, this character is played by James Spader and he'll get his comeuppance from some scrappy goofball from the wrong side of the tracks. Likewise, in a movie in the 90s, this is the guy who's dad owns the ski lodge and is going to make sure that our xtreme heroes don't win the ski contest, by god, and he too will lose.
And here we are in that bleak stage of capitalism where the movies bleat at us that, no, white children of unimaginable privilege are the bestest heroes ever, and only *they* can save us from ruin.
This happens a lot these days.
I can only figure it's the result of Hollywood itself getting slowly taken over by scions of powerful families — consider the Game of Thrones showrunner whose dad *ran Goldman Sachs*. Getting into the business requires so many years of essentially unpaid labor that only the rich kids can do it. So of course they'll all want stories where the rich kids from the powerful families are the *good guys*. And of course these are rich kids that 'don't play by the *rules*', because they themselves put aside a promising sinecure in the financial sector so they could go play Hollywood. (And of course they're dudes because the business has been so abusive and so sexist for so long.)
Anyway, this personified can of Axe body spray is our lead. His name is Sam.
And for at least the first forty minutes — arguably the first hour — Sam doesn't really *do* anything. Yes, there's an opening sequence with the vaguely defined prank on Encom, but that's already in progress as we start, and so Sam is just reacting to the security measures there, and then fleeing the building, and then fleeing the cops.
And then Alan comes by to give him a talking-to. And you, the viewer, have three thoughts. First: "Oh shit, Bruce Boxleitner is acting circles around this movie's lead. We're doomed." Then second: "Actually, y'know what? Bruce Boxleitner is great. He doesn't get enough credit, and I wish he were getting more work." Then third: "But we're still doomed." As the scene concludes, Alan prods Sam to go to his dad's old arcade.
Then Sam happens to notice some gouges in the floor, only by coincidence — his coin happens to land on said gouges. Sam's one brilliant insight through this whole movie: realizing that an arcade machine must have been moved across that bit of the floor. Suddenly he finds a secret passage into his dad's old office. And then he's typing at a console. It's to the movie's credit that Sam enters Unix commands that might have worked on a system in 1989.² That credit is revoked when Sam notices, hey, there's a device named "LASER" and immediately activates it. So yes, technically he *did* something, but to no particular purpose, and in a way that's more worthy of a Darwin Award than admiration.
Then he's in The Grid, and more things *happen to* him: he's captured, he's forced to compete, briefly, in the games that were the crux of the first movie, and then he's rescued, and then he's talked at by his dad, and then he's sent off to a bar to see a guy, and then he's attacked, and then he's rescued again... eventually Kevin Flynn (AKA dad) shouts at him, "What have you done?!"
I sternly told the TV, "Nothing. He's done nothing."
And arguably, Sam *does* nothing because he *wants* nothing. The opening scenes don't define anything that he really wants to do. He plays the prank on Encom, but apparently this isn't even a special thing — apparently it's the same thing he does *every* year (way to undercut the significance of your own plot, Tron: Legacy). Alan lectures him about how he should take over the company (the one that he, apparently, owns?), and he doesn't say much beyond "Yeah, whatevs." At best, we have a 'negative objective' for him: we know he does *not* want to run a Fortune 500 software company.
"Avoiding running a Fortune 500 software company" is not a difficult objective to achieve. Somehow, I do this every day without breaking a sweat, but maybe it's more challenging for others?
Joking aside: it *is* possible for a movie to set up a character like that with an objective even when they apparently want nothing. It's possible to make it very clear that a character wants or needs something without them even admitting it to themselves.³ But that's a level of nuance and sophistication that this movie doesn't have. So as it goes, Ski Lodge Chad doesn't want anything, and doesn't do anything, and gets batted along through the story like a badminton birdie.
It's also possible to do something a little sophisticated, and make the viewpoint character of the story different from the hero of the story. You could argue that The Great Gatsby is really *Gatsby's* tragedy, whereas Nick Carraway's just an onlooker. But there are two quibbles here: first, any story sophisticated enough to make the hero someone *other* than the viewpoint character? that's a story that's sophisticated enough to give *that viewpoint character* a journey of their own, too: you can argue that Gatsby is just as much about Carraway's disillusionment as it is about Gatsby's doomed romanticism.
And second, Tron: Legacy is nonetheless *structured* as Sam's story. He starts with the vaguely-specified problem of "he's not running Encom and he should"; he ends with realizing oh no he *does* want to run Encom — for no apparent reason.⁴
The story *structure* is there, but the *content* isn't. It tries to tell us this is a hero who wants something, who pursues it in the face of adversity, and who is changed for the better by the experience — but that's just not what's happening here.
And this is a shame, because many other aspects of the film are competent. They do a fine, journeyman job of setting things up and paying them off. The opening sequence establishes that Sam is good with motorcycles; the closing sequence clumsily pays off his initial jump off of Encom tower. Making Clu an 80s-vintage copy of Flynn gone awry is an interesting idea, even if it doesn't have anything to do with anything thematically. Their use of Tron himself is a nice setup and (albeit arbitrary and unearned) payoff.
And the storytelling itself does a fine job of going through the paces of a 2010-era tentpole: yes, there are action sequences every ten minutes; yes, they reveal that the whole world is at stake by the end; yeah, it ends with an action set-piece that requires three people to coordinate different actions at the same time. It competently gets from place to place, even if it doesn't really add up to a story.
And the performances — apart from the vapid talking hairdo of a lead — were surprisingly well-done. Everyone does great work with the sludge they're given. Sure, the de-aging on Jeff Bridges makes him look like a deepfake of himself, but it's okay for Clu to seem off-putting and uncanny, and Mr. Bridges' villain performance is delightfully scenery-chewing. Again, Bruce Boxleitner is underrated, and I wish he got more work these days. And beloved American comedy director Olivia Wilde creates a charismatic and interesting sidekick.
Ah yes. Let's talk about Quorra.
Full marks to the amazing Lindsay Ellis for absolutely nailing this trope that she calls "Born Sexy Yesterday". In this trope, you have a female sci-fi character, usually played by a gorgeous, white, 20-something model. And this character, for whatever reason, has a consciousness that's only, say, a few months old — and that makes her personality childlike, and undemanding, and pliable. And the hero ends up fucking her.
If you're thinking, "No, that's terrible, and icky, and rapey," then congratulations, you're smarter than this movie. I give Ms. Wilde full marks for playing the character as enthusiastic, and perceptive, and genuinely *into* Yacht Chad, but the script works to make me feel like a bad person for being into her.
It doesn't help that we simultaneously get the "Hermione problem" — our protagonist failson has a female sidekick who is brilliant, knowledgeable about the Grid, and an accomplished fighter. But she is not the Chosen One, and so she only gets to look on adoringly as the dude somehow stumbles towards victory. At this point, I'd happily watch the movie where the schlubby idiot dude gets killed as the inciting incident of act one, leaving the hypercompetent lady to go on a well-deserved adventure.
But again, Ms. Wilde has a fun take on the character, and at least they don't lean too heavily into sexytimes with a "childlike" woman.
One last good thing: the designs are fun.
Let's be clear, nobody's going to reproduce what the original Tron did. This is because the 1982 film was trying to create a fantasy world inside of a computer using a fraction of the computing power of your phone's clock app. Likewise, the soundtrack is pushing the Moog about as far as it could go at the time. So you end up with this weird, specific style, the sort of thing you can only get when people are pushing very primitive technology absolutely as far as it can go.
In Tron: Legacy, the Daft Punk score is phenomenal — their cameo is a bit drawn out, but their love for the original soundtrack is obvious, and their work is gorgeous and dramatic. And the designs look very pretty, if a bit too teal-and-orange. For any fan of the first film, it's a lot of fun to see what all those old Tron designs look like with "real" computer animation.
But with so many synth scores, and so much CGI in the world now, it can never feel *unique*. Just competent.
For the most part, though, I got what I wanted out of this movie. It was pretty, and the soundtrack was fun. It went through the motions of a tentpole in a perfunctory way, without much of a story behind it, but things went pew-pew and exploded on a satisfactory schedule. The closing scene, where we finally get out of the teal-and-orange hellscape into a place with trees, was genuinely affecting. I hated the lead, but I enjoyed hating the lead.
And now I'll go back to watching real movies.
For next week: still have to write about Logan Lucky, Untitled Goose Game, and season three of The Dragon Prince. </i>I'm currently watching the TV shows The Mandalorian, The Good Place, and Club de Cuervos. I'm watching The Princess and the Frog and will soon start on Herzog's masterpiece Aguirre, The Wrath of God. I'm now readingSaga (in Spanish) and Shoot That One (in English), and listening to an audiocourse about the science of flight.
¹ Full credit to Lindsey for this joke.
² The rest of the film feels like it's from the perspective of somebody who hasn't ever used a computer for anything — except perhaps harassing women, I suppose.
³ I'm four episodes into The Mandalorian, and they're doing a fine job of this.
⁴ And I know this is petty, but I despair for the future of a company that'll be run by someone with zero business experience. Knowledge of how to run a software megacorporation is, alas, not genetically transmitted.