Every story needs exposition so the audience knows who the story is about, what the hero wants, where the story takes place, and what’s happening. That’s easy to do in modern day films, but put that in the past or the future and you have big exposition problems.
Most movies put their stories in the present. Not only is this convenient to avoid costumes and exotic sets, but it helps the audience relate to the story right away. We can understand the problems of “Thelma and Louise” in the present time, but if that same story took place in the old West or the distant future on the planet Jupiter, then there would need more exposition to explain the context of the story within the exotic new setting.
Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in “Tron Legacy.” Visually, this movie is stunning. Storywise, there’s too much happening so we feel disassociated from the action to the point where it just seems like we’re watching someone else play a video game rather than being emotionally involved ourselves.
“Tron Legacy” has so many gaping flaws but you can start with the idea of telling vs. showing. In the beginning, Jeff Bridges is telling his son, Sam, what it’s like in the Grid with light cycles and disc throwers. If you didn’t see the original movie (or even if you did), just hearing someone tell you something isn’t as powerful as seeing it for ourselves.
If I told you that a guy with a chainsaw just cut a man in half outside, that’s nowhere near as powerful as seeing a guy with a chainsaw slice someone in half.
Would “Star Wars” be as powerful if the movie opened with Luke on his planet and someone rushes up to him to tell him that Princess Leia’s starship has been captured by Darth Vader? No, because hearing it makes the action seem distant and removed — like hearing advice from your parents. However, seeing Darth Vader capture Princess Leia’s starship lets us experience the emotion and see for ourselves exactly what happened.
In “Tron Legacy,” there’s the character of Tron who always wears a mask so his face is never seen. How can you relate to a mask? Later, Tron plays a key role in turning against the villain, but since we never see his face, barely see him do anything, and don’t really understand who or what Tron is in the first place, Tron’s sacrifice near the end is utterly meaningless. It’s about as emotionally compelling as someone telling you a story about an Intel i7 Core processor working with an NVidia graphics processor at 3.06GHz. If you have no idea what these terms mean, then the statement is meaningless. That’s the same problem with “Tron Legacy.” The story world is so unfamiliar that most of the movie is exposition and by the time action occurs, it’s rather lifeless and dull.
To make stories from the past or in the future come alive, you must make those stories easy for the audience of the present to understand. Everyone today can understand the dangers of letting the Death Star blow up a planet because we got to see Darth Vader do that earlier in the movie. Can anyone relate to the danger of “Tron Legacy”’s army of digital programs taking over the real world? We never got to see any threat earlier in the movie, so when this big threat arrives at the end, there’s nothing that we can relate to from our past experience.
The big deal about the portal in “Tron Legacy” sounds important, but once again, we can’t relate to escaping into a light portal in our ordinary life. We can relate to a Death Star blowing up a planet because we understand big explosions. Nobody understands escaping through a light portal, so it’s like hearing a joke told in a foreign language. Unless you’re fluent in that language, you won’t understand the joke. Even after you translate the joke, it may still not be funny because of the time needed to translate it.
That’s the same problem with “Tron Legacy.” We don’t know the world of Tron so we need to be shown how it works and what it’s dangers might be. All we know is that people do acrobatics with throwing discs and a few karate kicks and punches. Beyond this mild action and visual sets, “Tron Legacy” is like hearing a joke in a foreign language. By the time we figure out what the danger is, we’re too emotionally distant to care any longer.
The way to bring the past or the future to the present is to root your story firmly in an experience that the present audience can understand. In a movie like “Gladiator,” we may not understand gladiator combat, but we can understand fighting for our lives. We may not understand the science of “Star Wars,” but we do understand that big explosions that can tear a planet apart isn’t a good thing.
“Tron Legacy” sinks under its constant need to bury us under exposition. The plot just seems to limp along for the convenience of the characters. There’s a bizarre British-speaking character called Zeus, who acts like the Mad Hatter. What does he want? Apparently control of a city, but the desire to control a city is too abstract for us to understand, making Zeus’s motives puzzling at best and confusing at worse.
“Tron Legacy” has such a complicated story world that we don’t have time to understand anything before a new part of the world appears. Just as we start to feel comfortable with this new information, another chunk of information appears. We’re constantly struggling to understand the world of “Tron Legacy” instead of following the story, but that’s okay because we never get to feel connected to any of the characters either.
“Tron Legacy” is an example of how not to tell a story by layering on the exposition until it’s too overwhelming to understand. If you’re going to tell a story in a setting that most people don’t understand instantly, you must gradually lead us into that world and focus only on those aspects of the world that we can relate to in our present world. Failing to do that will create a confusing mess known as “Tron Legacy.”