What Writers And Storytellers Can Take Away From Tron: Legacy

If you’ve come here looking for my review of TRON: LEGACY, it’s this:

I liked it but did not love it. I’d also add that it’d be great if Hollywood spent as much money on plot and story as they do on effects and worldbuilding.

That last little bit is the takeaway for writers and storytellers.

See, TRON works as a visually-engaging generic action-adventure plugged into a revamp of the TRON world from the 1980s film. It’s not a bad film. It’s certainly entertaining. It works in 3D and 2D. The characters are… well, I wouldn’t say they’re particularly complex, but they have motivations and their wants and fears are clear enough.

The issue is how the plot tells the story.

The plot — by which I mean a sequence of events — is barely strung together with any kind of logic. It has so many plotholes, I fear they might rise up and eat the rest of this blog post.

So, here are three lessons to take from this film.

(Some very light, almost non-existent spoilers lurk therein.)

One: Worldbuilding Is A Kind Of Masturbation

I love genre stories. I love the power of  transmedia. I love high concept shit.

But where all these things seem to fall down too often is in worldbuilding. Look, I understand: worldbuilding is awesome. It’s fun! It’s creating something out of nothing. You are the Word of God, manifesting light out of darkness, order out of chaos. The problem is, this takes a lot of effort and energy. And it seems like when you’re done, you’ve spent all your creative seed.

Worldbuilding is just a means to an end. It is not the end.

If all you have is a robust world but no robust story to go in it (or, rather, to take the audience through it), then all you’re offering them is the equivalent of an amusement park ride. It remains a shallow experience.

Work on the story first. Let the plot reveal the story or those aspects of the story you want to tell. Let worldbuilding come second. This is, I suspect, why so much of transmedia feels like marketing or feels hollow — because the creators got lost in the masturbatory exercise of world-building.

We want storytelling, not worldbuilding.

Two: Passive Characters Make Story Jesus Turn Compassion Into Napalm

In LEGACY, the main character appears to be an active character who “does shit.” In the 1st act he proves himself something of a corporate agitator. Which is great. A nice angle, and it shows he’s a busy boy.

But then he gets vacuumed into Tron-Land and now he’s just a pinball ricocheting between neon setpieces.

Beware characters who are dragged along from place to place. Beware characters who do not exert their will upon the world whether for good or ill. Even the very ending of LEGACY shows our character without any grasp of his own destiny. What happens is not his own doing; he is passed around the story like a hooker at a bachelor party, used and abused for the needs of the narrative.

Active characters, not passive automatons.

Three: Shit’s Gotta Make Sense, Son

If we are to assume that the plot represents the skeleton (on which hangs the flesh of the story), then it should make as much metaphorical sense to suggest the bones in a skeleton are connected. We all know that, right? Christ, there’s a song about it: hand-bone’s connected to the arm-bone, arm-bone’s connected to the shoulder-bone, blah blah blah. Bones fit together. They move together. It’s how a skeleton works.

It’s also how a plot works, and yet nobody in their right mind can seem to figure that the fuck out. See that thing that happens on Page 37 of your script? It has to make sense with what happens on pages 36, and 38, and even 48, and even 87, and even 122. It all has to hang together.

It all has to make sense.

TRON makes not nearly enough sense. So much is handwaved to ensure that things move along, confirming that the plot here is not a skeleton but rather a pile of unconnected femurs and jawbones. It’s something you’d be likely to find in a serial killer’s basement, not a science lab.

This creates plotholes. It demands raised eyebrows. It urinates on the head of logic.

Ask yourself, “Is this happening because I want it to happen, or is it happening because it should happen?” Are you cramming a circle peg in a square hole? Stop that. Stop that right now.

Just because something is cool doesn’t mean it makes sense. Justify your plot points.

Build a goddamn skeleton.

21 comments

  • What I don’t understand is how any movies like this can get made, it’s not like there’s a shortage of good scripts out there. I mean, how many people read this script before the movie was released? Hundreds. And not one of them stood up and said this shit doesn’t make sense? Seriously?

    Thanks for the review. Maybe now I can convince my husband to not drag me to the theater to see this. Sounds like it’s one that can wait until the DVD.

    • Caethes –

      I think the issue is that it’s just not a priority. They’re comfortable with it being at a certain level — as long as the effects and marketing and worldbuilding are all at a jaw-dropping level, who cares about something as piddling as script or story? (And to be fair, it’s possible that the script answers the plotholes, but what ended up on film skipped some of that and thus created gaps and holes).

      Also to be clear: the script isn’t BAD. Some of it is quite good. But the plot just fails to hang together — and further, while I liked the characters, don’t go in expecting them to have some kind of arc. Well, Kevin Flynn might — you can feel a pivot in his character, and while it’s maybe a bit hasty and unexplained, at least it exists. His son only has a pivot at the very very end of the film, and by then it’s really too late (and too obvious).

      – c.

  • It’s a weird coincidence that I wrote a blog post yesterday about accidently creating a couple of fictional worlds, and plan a continuation of that theme today. I’ve discontinued reading any number of books because the authors fell too deeply in love with their hills and dales, spaceports and techno-cities. My worlds have evolved around my characters, existing in the background, rather than written as stage sets with directions for how the characters are to move. I may appreciate the stage sets in a movie even if the characters aren’t much more than marionettes, but in a novel, they’re just plain boring.

  • A friend of mine said the story pretty closely mirrors the plot for Tron 2.0, only in the game it is told a bit better. Likely as a game isn’t confined to the 1.5-2 hours that a movie is.

    That being said, you nailed the issues I had with the movie on the head. I felt they put a lot of work, and did a good job, establishing the main character as a daredevil nearly modern ninja with his real world shenanigans. They then reinforce this with the segment in the games, where he even manages to last 45-60 seconds against Villain Billy Bad-Ass (which I imagine is a good 44 seconds longer than anyone else does)…and then? He does nothing. He gets dragged around, kicked around, and the moment where he could have done something cool is ruined by another character who is regularly presented to just be ‘so much more’ bad ass.

    The effects were pretty, the movie made me chuckle, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed. Mostly as I kept waiting for the main characters balls to drop, and couldn’t figure out why they had gone back up in the first place.

  • I can’t watch TRON-like movies. I’m hypnotized by the flashing lights and the why-doesn’t-this-make-any-sense ness, and then my head bobs over onto the arm of the germ-infested theater seat, and I contract malaria. Not pretty.

    I’m trying to fix some plotholes on one of my own stories right now. Not sure if it’s doable, yet, and I certainly won’t subject others to it until I know.

  • Real quick…

    “I’d also add that it’d be great if Hollywood spent as much money on plot and story as they do on effects and worldbuilding.”

    Agreed, halfway — one of the things that I’ve found in publishing and video games is that you can’t pour money into super-polishing writing the way you can art. You reach the saturation point of how much can actually be done to the writing sooner.

    “Worldbuilding is just a means to an end. It is not the end.”

    This needs to be burned on writers’ hands like the mark of the fucking beast.

    • @Russell –

      No doubt you can’t just keep throwing money at the problem. You can, however, through the right money at the right authors — authors with a proven track record of kicking screenwriting ass. Further, you can financially and systemically empower those who make story decisions, too — those beyond the writers.

      But your point is well-made. It’s about target and focus instead of big wads of cash. Though I suppose all parts of the process have that breaking point: eventually you can only polish a turd so far.

      Which calls to mind a made-up word: “Turdsheen,” or “Turdshine.”

      – c.

  • Movies like this get made because the big screen loves them. Visual splendor and kinetic action will always have a place on the screen. One of the dumbest movies in recent memory was Avatar but it was great to watch.

    I once equated world building in SF/F with character development in mystery/crime. I was trying to link the two to bring two people who were arguing together. Didn’t work.

    Finch did a pretty brilliant job of worldbuilding

    With all of that said I saw Tron over the weekend with my son. It was probably one of the best movie experiences I’ve had in a long while. It bridged a time space gap and allowed my 7 year old self to watch a movie and share time with my 9 year old son. It was an intense and moving feeling and for that I’ll always look favorably on the movie. And because it was a sequel that came 28 years later it will never be replicated again.

    When it was done I asked him what he thought. “Awesome” was the answer. Maybe he’s right and we all just need to lighten up (which is not the same as saying that these points aren’t right).

    • @Brian:

      I don’t know that it’s really about lightening up or looking at things too seriously — yes, I agree that there’s value in not looking at this stuff too seriously. I not entirely uncomfortable with some pop culture demanding I “turn my brain off” as an audience member — but as a writer and storyteller, I can never turn my brain off, and it always behooves me to be looking for ways to make it all better.

      Look at what Pixar does. Fairly light work, yes, but it always hangs together very nicely, very completely — their stories not only feel right, they almost feel transcendent.

      TRON didn’t do that for me, and the shame of it (for me) was that it almost could have. (And my experiences with the first film are fond on via toys and video games; the movie itself confused me then and bores me now.)

      I will add, though:

      FINCH. Yes. Worldbuilding there serves the story and characters (and even the theme and mood) to a ‘t.’ There worldbuilding takes its proper place: as a robust story support system.

      – c.

  • Transmedia certainly won’t prop up a story that doesn’t already satisfy. The temporal tricks screenwriters sometimes employ at the script stage are far more effective at enriching a narrative film that’s bursting at the seams.

    In the time available, cinema features with scratch-built worlds rarely deliver the kind of story you so rightly demand. Films that try to do too much before people need to get back to the parking lot see themselves as ‘fast paced’ but all too often they’re just desperate.

    Maybe the economic model for cinema will shift so that we can get more multiplex money into miniseries, where a world’s worth of cash can get some respectable running time to match.

  • I feel like we might share the same nebulous dissatisfaction with TRON: LEGACY. I mean, I enjoyed some of it quite a bit, and yet I left the theater feeling like the story was thin. Or, as I’ve been putting it, I feel like I wasn’t carried away by it like I should have been.

    This subject always brings with it a certain nebulousness, though, doesn’t it? I mean, of course I agree that a story and its plot should make sense… but what does that mean? Without other possible riffs on the film’s plot available for comparison, it’s tricky for me to talk about structure without referencing the specific structure of a specific film. I mean, do we think that the writers of TRON: LEGACY were under the impression that a movie shouldn’t have to hang together… or do we think that, for them, this movie does? You know what I mean?

    In the strictest sense, the plot of TRON: LEGACY does hang together, I think, insofar as the characters are moved plainly from one place to another by the events of the story. It’s a plot of travel from one locale to another to another—but the motivation behind that movement isn’t always fully fired up. I mean, I get what Sam’s motivation is… but it doesn’t feel to me like the movie is getting a charge from it.

    That’s still a maddening metaphor, though, as “a charge” is still nebulous in this context. So much of the good advice we read about how to structure stories only makes sense if you already sort of know how to structure a story.

    I’d love to have a more specific conversation about this movie, that was spoileriffic and all that, so that I can sort out some of my dissatisfaction with it. It’s a tasty confection, and I think it contains ribbons of substance within its style, yet I wasn’t satisfied. And so I continue to think on it.

    • @Will:

      Yeah, I dunno. My suspicion is that they thought it hung together *well enough,* which I suppose it does — I mean, it’s passable. It’s not offensive or incomprehensible.

      That said, I don’t know that the moving from one place to another is explicitly enough to hang it together — those setpieces never feel fully connected, and the journey between them doesn’t carry with it any meaning or context. If I told you a story where I was in my bedroom, then San Francisco, then Tangiers, it hangs together in the sense that yes, I am apparently in three different places. But it wouldn’t really have much meaning or carry any plot/story weight to it.

      Further, the logic of many plot choices leave me a bit flummoxed, and I feel the further I look at the events of the film, the more it seems to unravel in my fingers. I could speak further if people are interested in enduring some mild spoilers.

      – c.

  • Oh don’t get me wrong my lighten up isn’t meant as an attack on anyone but myself. I’m always questioning the nuts and bolts of a story and sometimes find it hard to switch that part of my brain off that is constantly reworking someone else’s material. I use the phrase “missed opportunity” more than I’d care to admit.

    I often make the comment to Sandra that The Wire ruined police procedural’s on TV for me because I’m constantly questioning the procedure elements of a show. As a result whatever joys are to be had from certain shows are lost to me.

    But I have learned over the years to experience things through the eyes of my kids and that has been helpful and instructive.

    I am shocked. Shocked I tell you at the assertion that Pixar is “light work” :)

  • I’d love to have a more spoiler-laden discussion of the movie, frankly, because without specifics I’ll just continue to waffle and be all vague. (I don’t think your points above are wrong, Chuck, though without specifics I’m not sure that it’s easy to sort out how LEGACY might be improved, you know?)

    So if you want to be spoileriffic, feel free to do it over here, where I’ve put up a post to solicit spoilery reviews.

  • My biggest issue was that the only character I felt any emotional connection to was Quora- the program played by Olivia Wilde. There’s a deep level of irony going on when the most human character in the piece isn’t human at all.

  • @Noah –

    Heh. Yeah. I responded well to Quorra too, but wish she had more to do. First half of the film she was bubbly and alive and active, but then she becomes another passive get-dragged-along-as-the-plot-hooks-her-in-the-mouth-like-a-fish-OHMYGODTHEHYPHENS.

    – c.

  • Haven’t seen LEGACY but it makes me wonder about my high-concept film idea, which is: One alien race (let’s call them goopy aliens) invade another, umm, insect alien race’s planet. Neither race is VAGUELY humanlike. They don’t necessarily think, plan or set goals that humans would accept. Their interactions aren’t translated. There is no DIALOGUE, though we observe certain characters for decent stretches of time. It is ALL spectacle, but spectacle with a brain. Instead of being passive spectators spoon fed yet another sentimental “He Is Teh Chosen One!” plotline, we’re passive (and confused) BUT ENGAGED scientists trying to figure out what the hell it is we’re seeing. Did those aliens just have sex, or did one eat another? No, I think that’s how they debate and make political decisions.

    Actors? Star power? Hell with it. There’s set budget, SFX budget, and Greg’s pie budget.

    -G.

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