Can Someone Explain How Tron Was Worse Than Avatar?

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I saw Tron: Legacy over the holidays and really enjoyed it; despite some confusing and unexplained plot elements, and an easily overlookable cheesy moment here or there, I thought it looked absolutely amazing, and I was so engaged by the look of the film the entire time, I wasn’t really wrapped up in any of its mediocre details.

So, can someone explain this to me:

How can it be that Tron: Legacy was negatively reviewed by about half of the collective movie press, while one year ago, Avatar was the runner-up for the Best Picture Oscar and won the Golden Globe for Best Drama, essentially deeming it the best or second-best film of the year?

Let’s discuss after the jump. I’ll try not to use the F-word:

First, I cite this Avatar comparison not as an arbitrary “well-reviewed movie I didn’t like” reference point or to just continue beating the admittedly trendy I-hate-Avatar dead horse, but because the overwhelmingly positive critical and popular response to Avatar last year appeared to set the precedent that we can judge special-effects movies positively if the special effects look good.

When Avatar came out, everyone decided it was ok to love a movie that looked great and represented a huge step forward technologically, even if the plot and script and acting weren’t entirely up to par (or in the case of Avatar, were terrible). Then Tron: Legacy came out, and it also looks amazing (more amazing than Avatar, I’d argue), also apparently represented a technological step forward with its wholly unique appearance, and had a plot that was at least original (if occasionally baffling) that didn’t lamely compare to Dances With Wolves and mark some half-assed parallel to colonialism and the Iraq War, and all the sudden, critics decided that even though the film looked great, it couldn’t be considered a good movie because the plot was stupid.

Furthermore, I assume some people thought the plot of Avatar was superior to that of Tron, or that the special effects were more captivating; I don’t agree with these assessments, but even if a number of people felt this way, do we really believe the films were so disparate that Tron barely deserved a hint of critical praise, while Avatar deserved to be considered the second-best film of the year by the Academy in a year of Inglourious Basterds, District 9, and Up? How is it that the idea of Tron getting an Oscar nomination seems completely laughable (it is) while Avatar getting a nomination and almost winning seemed inevitable from the get-go?

I freely admit that the super-positive hype leading up to Avatar may have led me to judge it more critically when I first saw it, while the generally ambivalent reviews of Tron (including from my like-minded friends) caused me to be surprised by how incredible the film looked. Even so, I’ve watched Avatar again since I saw it in the theaters and still disliked it long after the hype had subsided, and found the special effects to already be showing the early signs of looking dated — I predict the Tron effects will age more gracefully, like The Matrix, while Avatar’s will age more closely to the CGI in Phantom Menace, but that’s beside the point — I just mention this to argue, at least as objectively as I can, that even setting aside the inverse hype leading up to the two films, I still preferred Tron, so there’s more going on here than just a kneejerk reaction against the more popular of the two.

Clearly, Avatar was more of a right-place, right-time release from a giant name with absolutely invincible Hollywood momentum behind it, while Tron was widely viewed as a nice-looking but unrevolutionary special effects-driven Disney remake. I personally enjoyed Tron far more, and while I can completely accept that not everyone else did, I’m still absolutely bowled over by how completely differently these two “awesome-looking, questionable plot” films were received by the masses. Is it acceptable to say “This film looked great and I loved it, even though the story was kind of dumb,” or isn’t it? And how did this standard completely reverse itself in the span of a year? Or was Avatar really that great and Tron really that poor and I’m completely and utterly off-base?

The following observation is by no means revelatory, but I chalk up this Tron/Avatar disparity as yet another example of how important the branding of a film and the Hollywood momentum behind it can completely dictate its critical and popular reception. Well, that, or just don’t put CGI’d young Jeff Bridges face in your movie. Several lessons learned.