Ultimate Hurdle Round 2: Tron Vs. The Matrix

I’ve always had a problem with The Matrix.

The premise is simply too absurd. I don’t mean the idea that reality is a digital construct. That one I can buy. But the idea the titular “matrix” was designed only to keep the brains of billions of comatose prisoners alive so they can act as power generators for a race of intelligent robots throws a monkey wrench into my suspension of disbelief machine.

Certainly the amount of power needed just to keep their life-support pods active would use up the paltry amount of electricity the human brain produces. I can’t even reasonably believe a person could power their own pod. I just can’t do it. It’s preposterous. I spent a decade arguing it’s the stupidest sci-fi concept ever committed to film.

But then I saw Tron: Legacy. It makes The Matrix look like Shakespeare.


Obligatory catsuit wearing sci-f-eye-candy for the fanboys, Quorra

There’s fine line film-makers and writers have to tread when creating as sci-fi/fantasy universe. They need to explain the rules of the world enough that audience can buy into it, but not so much that the audience has the tools to nit-pick it apart.

Tron: Legacy errs on both sides of the line. Kosinski (director), Kitsis and Horowitz (writers) fail to explain the world they’re asking the audience to visit. Though the word “fail” implies they actually attempted to explain their universe, which isn’t quite accurate. It’s more like they off-handedly mention a few key landmarks (without actually describing what they look like) and expect the audience to find their way around a world that makes as much sense as an M.C. Escher drawing. I tell you what, if you’re ever lost in Hollywood and you come across these guys, don’t ask them for directions. You’ll just end up in Toledo a little dizzy and confused about how you got there.

First of all, it’s unclear where the film’s setting, “The Grid” —similar to The Matrix, but more like the Clockwork Orange milk bar ate a Coruscant nightclub and puked it all over the Los Angeles from Blade Runner— even exists. Is it in the Encom mainframe like the original 1982 movie?  Is it in the Internet as one would logically expect from an updation of Tron? They don’t really say.

By the very end of the film you get impression it’s actually just in a box in the basement of Flynn’s Arcade and not even networked to anything in the outside world.

It also must have  had its own dedicated power supply because our protagonist, Flynn’s son Sam, has to turn the power on in the building before finding the basement. Maybe The Grid is powered by electricity generated by its inhabitants brains.  Maybe the arcade’s walls were full of car batteries. Maybe it was on an entirely different electrical system. Maybe there was a closet full of gerbils on treadmills constantly generating power since 1989.

However it continued to exist while the building’s breakers were turned off, that’s not explained. My best guess was by magic.

But, okay, that’s fine. I’ll just take the leap of faith and enter The Grid. Sure. I’ll stop nit-picking. This is just the whole premise for the film. It’s no biggie.

And I actually was able to resign myself to the idea this movie was going to demand a certain amount of faith from the audience. As I said before, there’s that fine line writers tread between too little and too much information. I was okay with filling in the gaps until Sam finds his father has turned into a cross between Mr. Miyagi and The Dude from Big Lebowski. One actually gets the impression Jeff Bridges wasn’t clear on which role he was reprising.


Flynn does the bum rub

In Bridge’s defence, that could be because the writers had apparently not even remotely understood the character of Flynn from the original film. He was defiant, reckless, impatient and about the least-likely candidate to adopt the Zen principle of action without action. Kevin Flynn was not one to ever sit on a pillow and mope. When life threw him lemons, he was the kind of guy who made lemonade, a batch of tarts, zested the rind and then said, “Is that all you got?”

But they had to write that into his character because they needed to explain why all-powerful Flynn, creator of The Grid, was sitting on a  pillow instead of erasing CLU‘s (the totalitarian ruler of The Grid and Flynn’s digital alter-ego) programming or doing anything useful. Or maybe he wasn’t an all-powerful god/wizard. We don’t know because that’s not really explained. Sometimes he is, sometimes he isn’t. Depends on which direction the plot needs to be driven at any given moment.

But kudos to the writers for at least doing a little bit of much-needed explaining. Even if it’s an explanation that feels ham-fisted and out-of-character to the point Flynn’s motivations make little sense. Far beyond being nuanced, as a character he instead comes off as random, contrary and perhaps a little stupid.

Anyway, between some dodgy pop-Zen platitudes, the rebooted Flynn explains what he was trying to accomplish in this virtual world. Sort of.

Vague phrases like “brave new world” and “endless possibilities” get thrown around but never quite explained. It really is like a keynote speech given by Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, which is clever in its own satiric way, but doesn’t make for good storytelling (and I suspect was unintentional).

The crux of the plot, as Papa Flynn explains,  is within The Grid’s code there had evolved  these self-created programs called Isomorphic Algorithms (better known as ISOs) that are self-aware and intelligent. Okay, that’s pretty cool. According the Flynn they’re somehow going to cure poverty, disease, war and anything else bad you can think of in the real world. Okay, cool. Awesome. How exactly?

They kind of gloss over that.


DAFT PUNK: longest cameo ever?

They also gloss over why the ISOs are so important and unique when every other non-ISO program Sam encounters is also self-aware and intelligent. Max Headroom meets Joel Grey cabaret weasel, Zeus, appeared to have more going on upstairs than Tron, CLU and Quorra (the last of the ISOs) put together. So how does that make Quorra special? As near as I could gather, it was simply because Flynn said so.

The error they made was creating a holy grail (Flynn’s data disc), that simultaneously requires explanation, yet defies reasonable explanation so they wisely just didn’t bother explaining it.

True, they didn’t try to sell us something as weak and absurd as what The Matrix offered up, but at least that would have been something. Something to shrug off and take on faith is preferable to nothing but vague, meaningless aphorisms.

Especially in a film that is essentially a lightweight adventure romp. In this kind of movie, at no point should the audience be questioning the heroes’ motivations or the validity of the villain’s goal.

It seems CLU has big plans to take over the world by bringing his army through the data portal into the physical realm.

What? Seriously?

I was willing to take on faith, in both the original 1982 Tron and in Legacy, that the laser somehow magically takes matter and digitizes it and sends it into the digital realm. Supposedly it’s then held in stasis until the laser resubstantiates the person later. It basically works the same way as a Star Trek transporter. We don’t know where the matter goes, but we can believe there’s a one-to-one conversion from physical to digital to physical. Matter and energy can’t be simply created out of nothing. Physics still apply.

So how could CLU’s army (or Quorra or CLU himself ) be substantiated by the laser in the real world? Supposedly (we have to suppose since this isn’t explained) Sam is resubstantiated from his own in-stasis matter and Quorra from Papa Flynn’s. So perhaps CLU could have come through the portal instead of Quorra. But what was his army supposed to be made out of? Thin air?

You can only stretch the audience’s faith in “magic” so far until it breaks like an elastic band. The more “science” you put into your movie, the weaker that elastic band is. There’s enough reliance on real science and technology in Legacy that by the end, there’s no stretch left in it and it doesn’t take much to snap it.

Also one has to question whether if CLU ever did make it into the real world, would he have been any kind of threat? Wouldn’t he just be a some regular guy stripped of all the super abilities he possessed in The Grid? Not to mention, like another Jeff Bridges character, Starman, he’d have no idea how to function in the real world. Not a real threat to humanity.

In fact, the action of the entire movie has zero relevance for the audience. In the 1982 Tron, the MCP had designs to take over the mainframes of the Pentagon and the Kremlin and hold the world hostage. There were stakes for the characters within the computer, but also for us outside of it. In The Matrix while Neo is fighting for his life, we’re being held hostage and used as batteries. The audience has buy-in.

In Tron: Legacy, everything that happens to the characters does not apply to us. Maybe Quorra holds the key to curing cancer, but it seems more likely Flynn had just gone batshit crazy from being trapped in The Grid for 21 years. Maybe CLU wanted to take over the world, but that honestly didn’t seem like a goal he’d likely to pull off.

Maybe if The Grid had actually been the Internet and the ISOs were our personal data and CLU was working for the evil Encom empire who wanted to digitally enslave us, then maybe we’d have some stakes in the movie.

But that’s not what was going on. The Grid is in a box in the basement and of absolutely no threat or relevance to anyone but the Flynns.

That doesn’t mean Legacy is any less enjoyable than any other Hollywood sci-fi adventure romp. The middle two-thirds are an admittedly fun ride; especially once you get over the fact Garrett Hedlund (Sam) is an unfortunate combination of Hayden Christensen and  Marc Blucus (Riley Finn from Buffy).

But to really appreciate this ride, you’re going to have to be the kind of passenger who doesn’t care how they get to their destination or ever think about how your car works. If you’re okay with believing your car runs by magic, Tron: Legacy might be the best movie you see this year.

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