The wizened and respected J Hoberman of the Village Voice gave Tron: Legacy a positive review in which he quoted the Beatles quoting the Tibetan Book of the Dead:
Given the movie’s graphic pizzazz, the best hippie wisdom Bridges might offer the viewer is: Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream.
This is after he concedes that the story is terrible; it’s one of those infuriating reviews where a critic offers no real defense of a movie. A guy like Hoberman should be above ‘I just liked it,’ or ‘It’s pretty’ as defenses.
So thank the users we have Silas Lesnick. Silas is a friend, and he’s seen Tron: Legacy twice; the first time he didn’t like it and the second time he had an insight into the film that changed his mind. He’s written a really excellent, really intelligent defense of the movie that you should read (be aware that it’s spoiler heavy). I’ll be right here when you come back.
Silas has good thoughts. I believe in the death of the author, so it doesn’t matter whether or not the filmmakers intended much of what Silas brings up - including the Hamlet stuff - as long as his arguments are strong. Which they are. They’re also wrong.
First off, much of Silas’ defense is about the nature and function of ISOs, both in the film and metaphorically. I would argue that what ISOs are and what they do are ill-defined and presented as some kind of nebulous magic bullet. Says Silas:
We are told by Kevin Flynn that the Isos can change the world, but we’re not exactly told how. I would argue that, to see this as the narrative’s failing is to take too much for granted.
The problem is that Silas then goes on to demand we take some things for granted. Things that, frankly, are not to be found in the text of the film. He argues that the reason why ISOs will change all of human history is that they are true AIs, and as such they will increase the speed of scientific discovery by magnitudes.
Theoretically replicable and independently minded, AI could be put to the same tasks as the world’s brightest scientists and push on unburdened by fatigue or personal problems, even moving at (as is the case in the Grid) speed in incredible excess of human thinking.
They’re definitely not replicable, which is why Quorra is so valuable by the end of the film - she’s the last of the ISOs. Beyond that I don’t argue with Silas’ thoughts on AI, but rather the ISOs function as AI. The film needs to - at any point - show us that this is the case. Kevin Flynn makes a statement that sounds pretty fantastical - that ISOs could lead to breakthroughs in medicine and science (even leading to teleportation) but there’s never anything more. It’s rare that I want a movie to explain things to me, but I definitely needed the connection between Olivia Wilde in skin tight plastic and the cure for cancer to be explained in better detail.
Silas goes on to argue that the problem isn’t with the film but with the viewer. Science fiction has made AIs so accepted that as the audience we don’t get why this is a big deal.
[T]hanks to genre sensibilities that demand bigger and bigger, we don’t respond to the idea as scientists would in the real world. In much the same way that a science fiction audience would not be impressed by a spaceship that might travel faster than light, AI is one of the givens of the genre.
The problem with Silas’ reasoning here is that Tron: Legacy is exactly the kind of movie that makes AI and FTL travel feel like small potatoes. Remember, the very premise of the film is that people can be physically transported into the computer. Not jacked in mentally but actually, physically and completely be placed inside a computer. And in this film we learn that computer people, despite having no matter, can be transported out of the computer. Surely this leaves AI in the dust. Welcome to human immortality, for one thing.
Beyond that, I don’t know where Tron: Legacy makes it clear that ISOs are a different kind of AI than normal programs. The interesting thing about ISOs is that they weren’t created - they came into existence on their own. They’re a miracle of spontaneous creation. Programs are created by the Users, but ISOs come more or less out of nowhere. I think the metaphor here is a clumsy one for the miracle of having children, which fits into the tortured father/son business going on elsewhere in Tron: Legacy.
But the important thing is that at no point do we see an ISO doing anything different from other programs. In fact, I don’t even know what the programs in this film do; in the original Tron programs had functions in the system, and these functions defined their personalities. In Legacy programs are just the people who live in the computer world. Michael Sheen plays Castor, a program who runs a bar. What’s the in-system function of Castor? What’s more, Castor isn’t even Castor - he’s Zuse, who has disguised himself as Castor (the wheres and whys of that are impossibly boring). I don’t know how we’re going to decide when AI is full AI, but I would guess a program essentially ‘re-writing’ itself fits the bill. Castor seems more possessed of free will than ISO Quorra, who just runs around after Kevin Flynn like a puppy.
The problem isn’t that Silas is wrong about these themes and these elements, it’s that the text does nothing to support them. When the characters and situations are described as functions (which to be fair is mostly how it works in this movie. This is the ultimate ‘tell, tell and tell some more but never show’ film) you can tease these elements from them, but the characters never do anything to support the reading. Silas has a whole theory about the relationship between Sam and Kevin Flynn that not only is unsupported by the film, but reaches a differing conclusion from the movie. Says Silas:
Sam’s interaction with [Quorra] throughout the story is an exploration of his own potential, coming into the understanding that just because he was created by his father, he’s not limited to any sort of programming.
Except that’s the opposite understanding that Sam comes to; at the end of the movie Sam decides that rather than be a pain in Encom’s ass he’s going to run it - basically turning into his father, ascending to the throne he’s been unsure about taking. Part of the film’s problem is that this arc is shallow and unconvincing; Sam always feels like a partisan in his father’s battle (he pirates the Encom OS 12 because his father envisioned it as freeware), so going to run Encom just comes across as the next level in the battle. Sam is always his father’s son and ends up being more his father’s son than ever - his programming is the same as Kevin Flynn’s, and they have the same ideals and goals.
Again, the problems with Tron: Legacy‘s moronic script keep Silas’ points from really working. What he says is convincing, and he’s made me think about the film on different levels than I otherwise would have thought about it, but he’s not changed my mind about the movie. Boring and stupid, Tron: Legacy is terrible.