Making Choices and Following Through: Tron: Legacy vs Avatar

It probably comes as no surprise that I’ve seen Tron: Legacy at least twice by now. Although I don’t remember it, I’m positive Mum and Dad took me to see the original Tron at the cinemas when I was a wee nipper, and I maintain that it was one of the root causes of my obsession with science fiction.

I’ve also been browsing the fan forum lately, especially with fans talking about the new film. Earlier today, I found a link to an article that asks why Tron: Legacy has such a mediocre critical response when 2009’s 3D SF darling Avatar has such a positive following amongst critics?

I posted the following:

WARNING! Plot Spoilers!

I think the reason for the disparity between Tron: Legacy and Avatar is mainly due to the arcs of their leads. You might see the beats coming a mile off and you might cringe at the message behind them, but Sam Worthington played the development of and change and conflict in Jake Sully in Avatar strongly and honestly.

We saw him go from cynical ex-Marine on Pandora to get his legs back to warrior for something bigger than himself that he believed in, and we saw it through his actions. He makes a couple of clear-cut choices, one which he regrets – selling Home Tree out to the company – and one he doesn’t – to bring the tribes of Na’vi together and stand with them against his own kind, no matter what.

Even if we didn’t like the message, Cameron and Worthington communicated it to us well. Admittedly, they had an extra hour to do it in, but still.

In comparison, Sam Flynn’s character arc in Tron: Legacy is a little harder to pin down. He also starts off as a cynic, abandoned by his father as a boy and abandoning his father’s legacy in return. He meets his dad, tries to get him out of the Grid and… well, while he gets more daring and loyal to his friends, he doesn’t really develop. He’s all about escaping the Grid, ideally with his father, and while you can argue that right at the end he chose to leave the Grid without Dad, we don’t get to see him act on that choice in a way that makes us believe he’s got what it takes to change Encom’s direction and use its resources to bring about a new era.

In fact, it’s hard not to argue that the guy who’s meant to be the supporting character, his father Kevin, has the stronger character arc. We meet him having abandoned any sort of goal, even having abandoned the people he created to Clu’s tender mercies. His son shows up, he does nothing. Then when Sam forces his hand, he makes the choice to help his son escape and acts on it, saving Sam at the End of Line Club – then, at the end, he makes another choice, to sacrifice himself to save Sam and Quorra and let them change the world.

I guess my point is, Avatar knew what it was about and delivered on it. Heck, I’ve seen Avatar once, and while I loved it, I didn’t feel the need to see it again; I felt like I’d come out with everything it had tried to communicate to me. Tron: Legacy might be a visual equal to Avatar, but in terms of telling a story, it was a little weaker. In fact, the main reason why I enjoyed seeing it a second time so much was because I felt as though I’d got a better handle on what was going on than I had after watching it once.

And in a medium of telling stories, a medium of communication, a story that doesn’t communicate, that isn’t told as well as another isn’t going to rate as good. 49% to 83%? Maybe that’s a bit extreme. But I’d still expect some disparity.

Y’know, thinking about it, the other world-inside-computers epic of a decade-or-so ago, The Matrix, had a similar problem. And no, I don’t mean the sequels; I’m talking about the original film here.

Look at Neo after he meets the Oracle. She tells him that either he or Morpheus is going to die, and it’ll be down to him. One fight scene later, he chooses to go into the Matrix and rescue Morpheus rather than let him be disconnected. It seems pretty clear that Neo understands the bit about choosing between himself and Morpheus, yet I never get the feeling he believes it.

Look what happens next. Neo and Trinity stage the assault on the Agents’ HQ and break Morpheus out, and then they all start running for the nearest exit. The only time Neo stops running is when he faces up to Agent Smith in the subway, and that’s because he reckons he can take Smith down. When Neo realises that Smith is basically un-killable, he just starts running again, only stopping because Smith puts a bullet in him.

There was never a moment where Neo really made the choice to give his life for Morpheus’, because Neo never really became a different person than he was before the choice. Right up until Smith kills him, Neo’s still running, still thinking he can make it out alive. He never once says, well, I made the choice to die, so here I am, Smith. You might get me but you didn’t get Morpheus.

And having Sam Flynn make and follow through on a choice like that, I think, would have improved Tron: Legacy’s critical reception.

You know, I think this is why some critics pan modern movies as being for the video game generation; there’s a tendency to consider lead characters like Sam Flynn and Neo as avatars for the audience rather than as decision-making human beings in their own right. Which is why a movie adaptation of the Halo games (not the broader lore like the novel The Fall Of Reach, but the games themselves) will probably piss fans off worldwide; a real story about the Master Chief will have to give him more depth than the faceless-but-likable professional soldier fans love in the games. It may even have to paint him as a despicable prick every now and again.

While we’re on the general topic of Tron, here are some questions I’d like to see the next movie, if it gets made, touch on:

  • If a program in a computer is actually a person on the Grid, what does it mean for us when our programs have more face-to-face contact with each other than we do because we’re too busy tweeting and posting Facebook updates?
  • If a program in a computer is actually a person on the Grid, and programs can be copied and backed up, is a User who treats his programs like people and refuses to delete them or send them into combat on his behalf deluded?