More Than You Ever Wanted to Think about Tron

A post or two ago, I mentioned my indifference to Tron Legacy.  I ended up seeing the film anyway, mostly because there was nothing else that really struck me as worth seeing either.  Tron Legacy was everything I expected.  A lackluster film taking the skin of a previous movie and stretching it over a trite, uninspired adventure film.  But as I think about it more and more, I think a comparison between Tron and Legacy might be worth doing.  Why not, right?

Tron is an infinitely better film.  Even though its computer generated world is dated and it isn’t a perfect film, it still has a lot going for it.  First of all, Tron was the film that dared to say computer animation can be used to make a fantasy film.  We take it all for granted at this stage, but at the time, this was damn revolutionary.  Tron was also one of the first mainstream films to even posit the importance of computers and how they would shape and influence our lives.  War Games came out a year earlier, which is also an interesting film for so many reasons, but we’ll avoid digression.

Aside from its revolutionary ideas though, Tron is actually a surprisingly intelligent film.  Especially when you consider that the bulk of the film takes place in a computer and that, in essence, its plot hinges on programs battling for dominance in a digital fantasyland.  Yet if you study the action, you can see that everything in the original film is merely a visual representation of various interracting programs.  I don’t know how accurate it is, but it certainly is well thought out on an instinctual level.

Let’s begin with Tron himself.  A program designed to monitor and secure the system, he is the unwilling prisoner of Master Control.  Master Control, an artificially intelligent superprogram, has seized absolute power over the digital realm.  Unable to destroy Tron, Master Control has instead trapped him, forcing Tron to compete in endless gladatorial games.  Tron is forced to face incredible odds but is simply too powerful to be defeated.  This metaphorical struggle basically amounts to two computer programs struggling for dominance with Tron too powerful to be defeated but too weak to do anything but survive.

Eventually Tron escapes (with some help from Flynn, a “user” descended from above via a bit of technological magic).  Thus Tron begins his pilgrimage to the node where he can communicate with his own user.  This is often overlooked, but what the film has basically done is taken the simple task of receiving instructions and turned it into a holy journey, a sacred thing.  Considering that Tron is a program who remains strong and determined and “faithful” even to the users, beings he has never seen nor encountered but simply know exist somewhere, the metaphor is obvious.

When Tron gets his instructions from his user, he embarks on his final step, to face and defeat Master Control.  Master Control is the Sauron of the digital world, a program that has achieved full sentience and threatens all programs in the computer.  Charged with his new orders and a sacred weapon (his identity disc) he seeks out and wins, saving the system from its oppressive master.  In essence, he allows the computer to become a free system, to perform as it was intended to, to fulfill its grand purpose.

Okay, so this is silly if you think about it.  Aside from Flynn, the user struggling to free himself, the only thing really at stake in Tron is the functionality of a computer system.  But if you use your imagination, if you look at it the right way, Tron’s journey is a fantastic adventure into destiny, faith, and purpose.  As an allegory, I think it works well.  It also helps to give the film some kind of logical framework, a foundation that makes it work.

Among Tron Legacy‘s biggest flaws is that it lacks this foundation.  Without it, the digital landscape seems to be an excuse to have cool people in cool costumes stand around looking cool.  But what is it all about?  There’s some nonsense about “bringing order”, but what does this even mean?  We hear how Flynn is some sort of prophet who wants to revolutionize everythinga about the world, both digital and physical, but we’re never given any proof other than people talking about it.

In the original, programs are forced to participate in death sports in the form of video games.  This makes sense in context because its the kind of tool that we can pretend a computer might use.  It’s purely metaphorical, but it works.  The movie even foreshadows the games by showing them being played at an arcade.  Yet in Legacy we’re given lightcycles, tanks, and those flying space invader type things because, apparently, the virtual world is at a dead stop.  Video games haven’t evolved.  The problem is that the makers of Legacy weren’t inspired by video games, but by Tron.  And so we end up with a film that borrows ideas from the original without really knowing what to do with them.  Legacy plays like it was made by people who had seen a few scenes from Tron, read a synopsis, and then, with barely a grasp of what the original was about, started designing neon costumes.

Even in little ways, the film misses the point.  The identity disc is a stand-in for a program’s soul.  It’s a programs primary weapon and also the source of everything important about it.  When Tron communicates with his user, his disc ascends, is modified, and then returned to him.  The metaphor of a transformative soul isn’t exactly subtle.  But apparently, the makers of Legacy missed the point.

So maybe I’m the only one who cares about this or who has given it this much thought.  It’s just a movie, right?  And it’s not as if it’s a tragedy that a movie that dared so much ended up spawning a film that dares so little, that has nothing memorable or interesting going on.  As a novelologist and a person who likes to think of himself as at least a little bit creative, it’s annoying, even a bit soul crushing, to watch it happen.

Which leads me to my point.  Thanks for sticking around and making it to the end, if you’re still reading this.  I am changing my status on Legacy from indifferent to insulted.  I’m insulted that they completely failed to understand the original.  I’m insulted that they failed, not because they dared to emulate a great film, but because they thought it’d be cool to try and cash in.  Which is normal, I suppose, but if you’re going to try to make a sequel to an obscure film, you might as well take a chance.

Or at least not make it boring.

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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3 Comments

  1. Books 'n Booze
    Posted January 4, 2011 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Saw the link on SF Signal and had to respond.

    I hate to take as badly written a movie as Tron Legacy seriously, but we’re all geeks here, so there you go. Tron Legacy’s virtual world seems to me to be intentionally constructed, and which attempts to explore an explicitly different correspondence between an electronic world and ours, perhaps a stupider and less charming one but not actually an inconsistent one. I can’t help myself but get long-winded here, so please forgive me for coming off way crazier than I actually am as a person. But I wanted to unpack some of this:

    First movie, yes, the virtual world is supposed to be the actual interior life of the programs out in the real world. MCP basically seems to be the algorithm that gets to control who gets what portion of the RAM and processing power, sorted out according to some kind of self-determined sorting of how worthy your security access and programming is — but in doing so, it has the opportunity to execute a hidden set of instructions to steal software and incorporate its code — first for Dillinger’s sake, and then for itself. Which of course means that the outside-world theft of Flynn’s games is the evil act that CREATES the monster that is MCP. Conversely, Tron is a sharp, concisely written security program, one without the same “control allocation of everybody’s runtime and steal programs on the side” megalomania, but crippled (imprisoned) by MCP’s taking over of the same security features he’s supposed to run. His purpose is narrower, and thus more robust: just control overweening access, so nobody gets in or out of their portion of the network unless they’re supposed to be there–including and especially MCP, which apparently is instantly dismantled when it can’t just call anything it wants as a subroutine of itself. MCP is clearly not the Borg or Skynet or something in this respect–it never bothered to write self-organizing pieces of itself into everything, so as soon as it loses the runaway functionality that allowed it to consider taking over the world, it’s dead as a doornail.

    As far as theme goes, you got it right on. The whole point is correspondence between the two worlds, and that anything that looks merely functional in one world can have metaphysical importance in the other, because it’s the stuff of PERSONHOOD in the other. Especially with some of the visual references to Star Wars (there’s totally a Millennium Falcon being chased by Star Destroyer scene, and the whole glowing blue-vs-glowing-red thing) and the hero myth, it’s half-jokingly but really appealingly telling us that things we don’t see as human have their own deep personal experiences. One of the real tells in this regard is when BOTH worlds early on have an evil character scoff at “religious speculation” to mean the belief that their counterpart worlds are populated by people: “believing in the users” vs. believing that “some of our spirit is in every program we ever wrote in this system” are basically mirror-image heresies to the powers that be. And yes, Tron’s “receiving instructions” is PRECISELY a moment where this goes luminously clear, as the literal act of interfacing becomes the ineffable (us!) supervening from on high. (Also, yes, disc as soul. Awesome.).

    So yes, the visuals of the first movie make perfect sense — the games of the day, written on the systems of the day, WOULD be a pretty good metaphor for their internal lives, not to mention being a pretty good speculation as to the personalities of said programs.

    The second movie (and I can’t believeI noticed all this from a single distracted viewing, but that pretty neon really engages my long term memory centers, I guess) actually does have a consistent and possibly interesting thesis buried in its terrible writing, but it failed to really explore its implications to make it clear and play with the idea.

    That line of thinking goes like this: Flynn comes back, goes, “holy crap, these things are REAL,” and is so profoundly moved by the experience of the first movie (but also crippled by it, because it was so much more intense than his own life) that instead of researching how to jump into the budding Internet the same way, he makes his own private simulation as a test-tube environment to reproduce exactly what he went through the last time, with higher processing power and all the godlike power on the inside that Users have from the outside. But a test-tube becomes an ant farm for him, an entertainment in itself. The visuals are nostalgic because the PROGRAMS are nostalgic and frozen in time; trapped Flynn doesn’t know about Wi-Fi, while the Grid isn’t connected to the Web and taking over the world and incorporating first-person shooters and news websites and Google Goggles — the whole world is something the son can copy onto a Flash drive. I.E.: Kevin Flynn himself, who was already just an interloper in the previous movie, becomes the ultimate Tron fanboy, and makes a little electronic fishbowl for all the games and entertainments and characters that’s exactly the merger of Second Life and Conway’s Game of Life. Kind of like XKCD’s terrarium for Internet viruses.

    But you know what happens with the Game of Life? Complexity arises out of simple rules iterating upon themselves. Which I guess is where the ISO’s fit in. Also, Flynn wants an impossibility: to create individuals with their own feelings and desires while still just wanting to do what he says. And CLU is in turn another program, a little symbolically like the MCP but very different, whose job is to make an orderly system of this Game of Life, one to prevent its self-organizing principles from spiraling away from the fanboy dream Flynn was looking for. But then, just as it’s too late, Flynn grows up, realizes that he’s just made sentient beings in a box for his own amusement and they’ve just made their OWN even-more-sentient beings, and CLU has self-written himself just enough to realize that Flynn is now opposed those original instructions. Tron, well, Tron is still a security program, a kind of Burkean conservative force, who’s job is to cut down programs who start breaking the rules of what program does what too much. With the added instability of this new recursive system, and with whatever extra dollop of personhood the encounter with Flynn and the MCP gave him, he’s clearly become a little more than that. Still, in defeat, it doesn’t take too much rewriting to repurpose him to enforce CLU’s rules rather than “whatever Flynn is thinking today,” especially since the ISO’s are from his reductive perspective just the chaos you get from funny recursive math. But apparently, in what could have been SO much better, he’s also the repository of the one remnant of the original film’s ideals, in that the spirit of his creator (steeped in all the early-80′s techno-utopianism of that era of programmers, who dreamed that small people in garages were programming to help and please and amuse PEOPLE, as an expression of their own creative and curious personalities). In other words, he knows on a deep level from the structure of being personally written by Bruce Boxleitner in glasses and the experience of fighting alongside Flynn, not to mention the fact that he’s the only program in the whole new Grid that isn’t just a simulation, that has ever had served a purpose oriented to the outside world, ever had meaning beyond populating this electronic terrarium for one guy’s amusement. In other words, “I fight for the users.”

    And old “The Dude” Flynn is supposed to be to be Don Quixote gone The Tempest or something: terminally escapist, obsessed with other worlds, realizing his early ambitions went sour when they gained the weight of time and consequence. A fanboy who tried to make his dreamworld into an accomplishment IN the world (as so many do, sometimes with amazing results) but ultimately fell into the dream at the expense of the actual, because doing real things is too hard and scary and consequential. And has at long last to face the consequences of that when his son, trying to escape his own responsibilities but still young enough to change, comes into the picture. At which point we realize all the risk and danger in the film was a product of Flynn’s own cowardice, of preferring dreamy stasis over death.

    I wish they had made the movie I just described instead of the one that says all this but stupidly, without delving into the inner life of these programs at all, and without any possible explanation of what’s supposed to be so world-changing about self-generated AI that putting one in a human body is anything worthwhile. Instead, the ending is (Yeesh!) basically that having a Manic Pixie Dream Girl sidekick is a world-changing experience. UGH. Functionally, the basic story is a clever way to get you all the badass neon design aesthetic of the first film while still having something to say, because if you just did the same story now, everything would look like Farmville and green-brown Call of Duty shooter landscapes. The potential for some really smart meta was all there if handed to someone sharp for a really cutting rewrite. It didn’t take THAT much, and the pieces were mostly there. Instead, IDIOCY.

    Thanks for letting me hijack your comment section, but one overthink deserves another.

    • A. Lee Martinez
      Posted January 5, 2011 at 12:19 am | Permalink

      Thanks for the long, thoughtful post. It’s strange that a movie as substandard as Tron Legacy should trigger such long comments (on both our parts), but it only shows the incredible potential of the film. Who would’ve thunk it?

  2. Posted January 9, 2011 at 7:30 pm | Permalink

    I was also disappointed by Tron Legacy. What is disheartening is that most of my friends thought it was a great movie. They said it was just a light show with cool Daft Punk music. But I expected more for my $15 (Imax 3D). I didnt go to see a concert. I wanted a movie. I did not care about any of the characters, there were plot holes, the ending was complete bull, and Legacy how dare you insult A. Lee Martinez! I think I might be coming around on the sequel debate after this movie. I hate it when the industry produces a movie to make a quick profit. There was no heart, no innovation, or point. There wasnt even Tron in Tron Legacy as he was absent besides 1% of the film.

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