Monday, August 23, 2010

on "Tron"

[NB: Pictures have been appended to this post. Scroll to the end to see them.]

About a month back, I saw 1982's "Tron" for the very first time. While it didn't bowl me over with its now painfully outdated special effects-- effects that probably wouldn't have looked so great even in 1982-- I was fascinated to discover that "Tron" was, in many respects, the father of 1999's "The Matrix." The parallels were all there: the plunge into an alternate cyberspatial universe; the cyberspace "avatars" who reflect their real-world designers and find themselves on the run from malevolent entities; the self-sacrificing outsider hero who performs a Moses-like act of liberation; the monstrous, all-pervasive cyber-entity and its flunkies; the eerily religious overtones. In its final scene, when we're back in our "real" world, the movie implies through time-lapse imagery (as well as through Kevin Flynn's hearty "Greetings, programs!" when he steps out of his helicopter) that we, too, are all programs living out our lives in an exponentially more complex simulation: the Simulation Hypothesis is a reality. "The Matrix Reloaded" hints at this possibility, too: the "real" world is merely another level of simulation in an even greater architecture. But the Wachowski Brothers never do anything with that notion: "The Matrix Revolutions" shows us no new levels of reality.

"Tron" doesn't bring much to the table in terms of acting and special effects (some of the acting is godawful), but it offers its own quirky notion: computer programs, even the tiniest bits of information, have their own inner lives. They're brought to life by us, the creators, who are called "Users" in the film; what appear to be long spans of time turn out to be mere nanoseconds. From the point of view of the programs, Users are a great mystery, and some programs (like the evil Sark, henchman of the mysterium tremendum that is the Master Control Program) proclaim that Users don't exist. We viewers know, however, that every "real" programmer ends up creating his own autonomous avatar in cyberspace: Kevin Flynn has Clu; Alan Bradley has Tron; Lora Baines has Yori; Ed Dillinger has Sark. Many Users; many creators. Polytheism. (An interesting Christian discussion of "Tron" can be found here.)

What "Tron" doesn't make clear is why the lives of these cyberspace entities-- Clu, Tron, Yori, et al.-- should matter to those of us here in meatspace. I click "delete" and remove a program-- so what? Perhaps it's the movie's final scene that offers us a hint: if we, too, are simulations in an even larger program, than as creators of the cyberspace realm "beneath" us, we're part of a massive ontological regression, a great chain of being that may or may not be bottomless. And if we follow the polytheistic implications of the movie, then each of us has a personal creator.

Seeing "Tron" has gotten me interested in the upcoming "Tron: Legacy," which comes out in December. The three clips I've seen (all available here) showcase the vast improvements that have been made in special effects technology since the 1980s-- improvements that clue us in to the parallel developments occurring in this film's notion of cyberspace. Jeff Bridges returns as a much older Kevin Flynn, but thanks to the marvels of de-aging "digital skin grafting" software, we also see glimpses of Bridges as the 1980s-era Flynn, both in meatspace and in cyberspace. The CGI doesn't quite work, but this may be an "uncanny valley" effect produced by our years-long familiarity with the actor, who has passed through the fires of a Dude phase and a Crazy Heart phase to become the grizzled Nick Nolte surrogate he is today.

From the tantalizing snatches of dialogue in the previews, I'm going to guess that the new film takes the Simulation Hypothesis and runs with it. It doesn't have much choice: there's a lot to explain, and all potential explanations point simward. The inner lives of programs, for starters: how do they acquire sentience, despite being so simple? And if they're sentient, how might that affect the ways in which we meaty entities go about writing programs? Who can emerge from a trip into cyberspace unchanged by the revelation that cyberspace is its own universe, full of lives and loves, and that we hold those lives and loves in our hands?
"Tron: Legacy" offers a cleaner, bluer, more streamlined version of the Matrix. I look forward to plunging into that world in December.

A quick tour of the two "Tron" films (hover cursor over images for captions):

And from the upcoming "Tron: Legacy"...


  1. I am surprised you did not see fit to mention Dexter Douglas, who was, Tron-like, zapped into cyberspace where he became the lovable-but-bizarre superhero Freakazoid. The parallels are astonishing.

  2. I've never seen any Freakazoid, I'm afraid.




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