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Form Without Function

By Alexander Joenks | Film | December 17, 2010 |

By Alexander Joenks | Film | December 17, 2010 |

Tron is a visual masterpiece. It is also inexplicably derivative and boring.

The funny thing is that the best parts of the movie are in the first half hour, before the characters even get to the world inside the computers. It’s got the wonderful setup of Flynn disappearing in the middle of the night and his son Sam growing up to become something of an anarcho-libretarian hacker even while living off of his controlling stock in Encom, his Dad’s company grown into an obvious Microsoft analog. And because the strength of capitalism is that it systematically coopts any revolutionary impulse into being part of the system, we get to have Disney pictures make a film spouting the hacker ethos of information needing to be free even while Mickey stays out of the public domain until the sun burns to a cinder. Irony aside, the set up portion of the film works.

Then we go into the machine and we marvel at how boring beautiful things can be. The CGI is absolutely breathtaking. You want to simply explore and meander through this world of black and neon, where the rules don’t quite work the same as those in our world. Ever played with a video game’s raw rendering engine? It creates beautiful things, and you raptly manipulate and play with the constructed world. For about ten minutes, until you get bored because there’s no story, not even a nominal point to what you’re doing. That is how Tron: Legacy feels.

Flynn sets out to build a system, the perfect system. That system is apparently nothing but a bunch of fancy visual effects. Sure there are tons of programs, and they stroll around tech noir streets with glowing lines on their clothes, but someone forgot to tell the screenwriters the definition of a program: it’s computer code that does something. As far as the film is concerned, Flynn is not a computer programmer, he is a graphics designer. He waves his hands and pretty stuff exists. That’s fine. Pretty stuff is nice. But if there’s no function under the form, it’s just visual masturbation.

“You actually did it,” Sam intones breathlessly at one point. Did what? Built the grid. What’s the grid? The system. What’s the system? Everything, man. The director apparently told Jeff Bridges to channel The Dude in any scene where actual exposition takes place.

The entire film plays like a dumbed down version of The Matrix. For all its half-baked philosophy, The Matrix at least was about that philosophy underneath. The special effects served the story. Sure, you might have scoffed at that philosophy because you totally took philosophy 101 and rocked the hell out of that B-, but the effects existed to explore that philosophy. Tron: Legacy has no philosophy. It has no story. Sam gets into the machine, finds his dad, and then they try to get to the exit. Oh there’s plenty of things happening on the screen (one can tell because there are faux-pixellated explosions and very much serious seriousness on the part of the actors), but none of it means anything. There is no character advancement, there is no learning, there is no questioning. Go to A, go to B, go to C. Game over.

Look, it’s not an atrocious movie (I doubt anything could top Skyline in that department), but it falls far short of every expectation other than how nifty the effects are. It’s entertaining enough if all you want is to look at the pretty pictures and shut off your brain for two hours. But with a quality cast, quality effects, and one monumental budget, you think they would have bothered to write a script worth bothering to go to all the trouble.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.