Friday, December 24, 2010

Tron Legacy as an allegory of internal conflict and of "legacy" as the obstacle between father and son

For all the drubbing this film has gotten from critics I enjoyed it. Yeah, it's not exactly 2001 or Lawrence of Arabia or Citizen Kane by any conceivable stretch of the imagination. It's a big, dumb, special-effects saturated popcorn movie. Was it as po-faced and pretentious as The Stranger called it? Meh .. I'd reserve that put-down for Terence Malick before I'd ascribe it to a movie that calls itself Tron Legacy. Does anyone even remember these days what Tron refers to? TRace ON and TRace OFF were old commands in a computer language, BASIC, that was commonly used at the time.

Now, sure, people could say that thirty years later we don't need a sequel to Tron. Sure, we can keep saying that. But no movie of any kind is, strictly speaking, strictly necessary. All cinema is the result of consumerism, period. No matter how high flown your aesthetics of cinema may be the person who goes to see The Sorrow and the Pity or The Black Swan or Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or Toy Story or American Beauty or whatever film is going for the same reason, that person has the leisure time, disposable income and the will to spend hours of his or her life immersed in a divertisment that is not necessarily for living. The reason I can be so laid back about what appears to be the shallowness of this or that pop culture manifestation is because we all excuse our hobbies while denouncing the hobbies of things we don't like. Some guy could denounce Twilight as absurdly unrealistic and promoting delusional ideas about love and romance while enjoying the TV show 24, which promotes delusional ideas about patriotism and national security risks.

So while I obviously have a place in my heart and mind for all art to address matters of utmost importance, there is a point where I see a trailer for a new Tron movie that has Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner in it I think to myself, "Sure, why not?"

Tron Lgeacy is a popcorn flick. It has "some" pretenses to weighty ideas but not many. There's a whole plot of a son dealing with a life estranged from his father by circumstance. Film critics have noted a preponderance of "daddy issues" in blockbusters like Iron Man 2. Tron Legacy is not so different. In fact Tron Legacy and Inception both have in common that the central premise of the story is that there are fathers whose immersion in a virtual reality has led to their separation from their children. In Inception Cobb is working to get back to his children (or so he thinks) while in Tron Legacy Kevin Flynn and his son Sam are brought together by the machinations of C.l.u. I'm not going to bother either with spoilers or explanations too much on Christmas eve. I'm just sharing some disorganized thoughts about the film.

Critics who see a preponderance of "daddy issues" in blockbusters real and would-be aren't wrong. Critics being critics they seem surprisingly uninterested in doing more than just noticing the subtext without doing much work at thinking through why even blockbusters are saturated with this meme. Why blockbusters and not so much those artier films? Even on TV shows like Scrubs the whole Dorianic quest for a hug from Dr. Cox has been at least one example of the daddy meme in pop culture over the last decade.

Then there's Homer Simpson's ambivalent quest to be a better dad than he is though he's likely to forget that he aspires to that next week anyway and we've had that for two decades. Christians could set aside the rote objection that Homer is Fox ripping on the American dad but these days a guy like Mark Driscoll might do more conspicuous ripping on an American dad as a failure if he's in any way a stay-at-home kind than the by now anodyne satire of the Simpsons. I mean, come on folks, I have friends who weren't even born until after the first episode aired! By now evangelicals are probably more obsessed with the failures of dad and mom with "Where's dad?" rhetoric than the world, which is ambivalently noted that dad's disappear and sometimes it's their fault and sometimes it isn't.

In the case of Kevin Flynn the disappearance is a combination of things. It's his "fault" in the sense that he made the program C.l.u. in his own image and C.l.u. was a self-impressed fellow who imagined he could re-order everything to be better. In this way Kevin Flynn and Cobb from Inception are both fathers whose ultimate battle is confronting their own failures of character not merely as fathers but as men. I would propose, in a rather slapdash thumbnail spoilery way, that the difference between Tron Legacy and Inception is that the Disney film reconciles the father and son as we would expect it to while in Christopher Nolan's film the father's dream of being reunited with his children itself is the dream from which he cannot wake up which paradoxically ensures that it is not real reunion he attains but a chimera from his own self-deceiving mind. We have two fathers whose obsession with pursuing and exploiting the possibilities of different kinds of dreams separates them from the ones they love.

Now if people consider Tron to be a lightweight film that's fine but as Anton Ego so eloquently put it in Ratatouille more time, thought, and passion goes into the creation of a common piece of junk than in the review from the critic that designates it as junk. I mean, someone clearly put a lot of thought into the haircuts and hairstyles the characters do and don't have in Tron Legacy. If some of that work somehow seems odd or lazy that does not preclude that even a popcorn film can attempt to grapple with, however unsuccessfully, big ideas.

Let's take the portentious speeches of the different forms of Flynn. Both Flynn and C.l.u declare that "out there is a new world. .... out there is our destiny!" The idea that any concept of destiny becomes the ethical enemy of natural being isn't hard to glean from the film. We're getting hammered with it about every twenty minutes. The "value your family over your vision of the future" thing is not surprising coming from a Disney film but I do think that instead of just shooting down the film a reviewer or two could have attempted to discuss that the film was in its own way actually proposing ideas.

The conflict that is at length revealed in Tron Legacy is less about Sam Flynn (who is merely our entry-point into the Grid) than about the conflict between old Flynn and C.l.u. who at the most literal level represents the younger Flynn who embodies the ambition that trapped him in the Grid and thus separated Kevin from his son.

Curiously underexplored and unstated is a fascinating possible irony throughout Tron Legacy--Kevin Flynn spent so much time motivated by seething resentment and a massive sense of entitlement in his crusade to get revenge on Dillinger in the original Tron that he didn't seem to realize that once he got his revenge, made Clu, and set about to create a new Grid that he was in most respects simply mirroring the same character flaws Dillinger himself had. Sure, Flynn wasn't lying or stealing other people's work but Flynn managed to have comparable character flaws that included massive ambition married to a sense of entitlement. That Flynn wasn't a liar or a thief does not make his character flaws less similar to Dillinger.

For a sequel that comes to us decades after the original and is obviously still revolving around Kevin Flynn there could have been more in the story about Flynn having some recognition that he had the same flaws Dillinger had but displayed them in a different way. Those of us who watched the original Tron know the Master Control Program reflected the flaws of Dillinger and that Clu ends up displaying a similarly tyrannical impulse is simultaneously too obvious as a plot point but not obvious enough in how the film was directed. On the other hand, if we consider the story to be Kevin Flynn's and not Sam's then most of the plot holes in the film are moot. Once we go with the Flynn vs Flynn conflict as the central point of the film plot holes that might be terrible built around another conflict become less important. It's too bad that at many points the director seemed to be staging everything so that the main story appears to be intended to be about Sam.

What did the conflict between Flynns consist of? Their attitude toward the "isomorphic algorhythms". As Bridges Lebowski's his way through the old Kevin Flynn's lines (which, don't get me wrong, is always fun) he explains that the "isos" represented the birth of a native and autonomous form of digital sentient life.

Well before that point I knew that Quorra, played by Olivia Wilde, would inevitably turn out to be plot device girl. That Wilde somehow settled on playing Quorra as a mixture of Bubbles and Buttercup from The Powerpuff Girls with Dora the Explorer's look in Tron gear doesn't mean I didn't enjoy the character. Considering she had the almost universally thankless role of playing a magic pixie girlfriend in a genre film she doesn't come off any worse than most. Wilde obviously decided that playing up the ultimately childlike nature of the character was the thing to do. The whole orange and teal color schemes in Tron so obviously telegraph "good" and "bad" that when any character is dominated by "white" that identifies them as free agents. Ergo, Kevin, Sam, and Quorra represent those who have free will over against those that don't have it.

Or ... maybe not. One of the most undeveloped plot points in Tron Legacy is the title character. Tron was Alan's program and Tron was seen getting attacked by Clu for siding with Flynn. Sure enough, it was no surprise to discover that Tron joined Clu's quest to order the virtual cosmos. There is virtually no explanation for this in any obvious way but just as Alan in the real world had what everyone called an absurd loyalty to Kevin Flynn and a belief in the goodness of his motives so Tron displays what is arguably the same character flaw in his avatar. This is not quite as undeveloped or unexplored as might first seem. Tron's loyalty to Clu is the loyalty of a program to another program. In other words Tron's loyalty to Clu is based on his established loyalty to Flynn the user. When Flynn escapes Tron is left only with Clu as the extension of Flynn. Without Flynn and with no certainty of Flynn's survival Tron's loyalty shifts to the next best thing, Flynn's creation after Flynn's own image.

The first Tron film opined in the bluntest way possible that the creations of men reflect the men in every way. It's unsurprising in the extreme that Alan's creation would side with Kevin's creation right up to the point that Kevin himself, from within the Grid, declared that none of these things that transpired in Tron Legacy's plot were what he REALLY wanted. Once Flynn expresses his change of heart and acts upon it it doesn't take Tron long to reveal that his loyalty is to the users. So both Alan the man and Tron the program reveal the same indomitable loyalty we would expect of them. The allegory is so crude that we could declare it ineffectual or stupid but as I said earlier, when we do this we should remember that we are at this point debating the significance of things we don't need to spend money on. As it happens I don't have the money to spend but a friend was kind enough to treat me to the film. I am happy to say I enjoyed the film for what it was. Hey, I admit I enjoyed The A-Team this year, too.

It may be too obvious and thus benefit the dignity of some film reviewers but Tron Legacy pretty much tells us through the title and the subsequent movie that too many men damage the relationships they have with their children by thinking of their own legacy. The "legacy" in this case is what separates father and son. Now officially the folks involved in the film have talked about how the technology that brought people together in the first film keeps them apart in the second but this official description does not really go deep enough. Technology even in the original Tron, in the form of the Master Control Program, sought to separate. Those who believed in users were separated and punished. The MCP was part of Dillinger's taking credit of Flynn's work.

Despite the fantasy trappings Tron Legacy is ultimately a story about the conflict of man vs himself. Clu can't be destroyed so much as reabsorbed back into Flynn by Flynn recognizing and confronting Clu as himself. That ending probably seems cheesy and stupid to some film-goers and, well, why should we say it's not? But that doesn't mean that the actual conflict in the story we got in Tron Legacy didn't require the conflict to be resolved in that way. Flynn's resentment in the first Tron film is simultaneously understandable but inevitably sets the stage for his avatar Clu placing his own legacy and self-aggrandizement above the benefit of others. The old Kevin can neither escape this by merely hiding nor can he escape the consequences of thid abdication merely by attempting to supress desire and argue himself continually into the state of inaction. At one point he says in piquish frustration, "You're messing with my Zen thing, man!" Kevin has to embrace both the reality of Clu's propensity for evil (which is his own, and which is something he in his self-righteous indignation and envy could not have possibly reconciled himself to in the first film) and his own shortcomings as a father through the denial of a desire for presence and empathy in order to resolve the conflict within himself. Sure, that's absurdly bad sci-fi but it's not as though the original Tron was actually sci-fi, it was clearly unhinged fantasy using sci-fi trappings as a gateway. Yes, I do want to give credit to J.S. Bangs for getting me thinking about this in the last week or so with one of his blog posts over at Infinite Recursion.

So that's some rambling on Tron Legacy from my on Christmas Eve.