"Tron Legacy" Expands Upon Original "Tron" Mythology

by Michael Bird on December 20, 2010

in Columns,The Contrarian

The following is carefully considered comparison of 1982′s “Tron” and the 2010 “Tron Legacy,” written by new Scene-Stealers contributor Michael Bird. Enjoy! – Eric

Anthropomorphism — that is ascribing human characteristics to entities that would not normally carry them — is a constant in the history of literature and art and especially film. It is the method by which the human animal has always sought to understand that which he or she does not. It is a method of comparison and contrast. It is a form of critical thinking as expressed by the naive.

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Comparison of Tron old and new from Technabob.com

That naivetĂ© is found by the bucketload in 1982′s “Tron.” For many of us raised outside the dusty aisles of Radio Shack, it was year zero for the home computer in our lives. We knew what computers were but it was impossible to wrap our heads around just how capable they were of integrating into our existence.

“Tron” threw shiny lights at us and dazzled us into envisioning our lives as adventures in a digital landscape, represented by over-serious avatars who play games that are meant to pacify and distract us from the dirty dealings of a corrupt corporate interest’s overreaching technology. Man, how far-fetched can you get, right?

Whether it was art predicting life or instead dictating it, no one can say. Science fiction is largely perceived as the means by which we seek to envision our future, and though few saw it at the time (and indeed few would agree with my proffering now), “Tron” had an insane accuracy percentage over the long game.

People from around the world band together in complete digital worlds to do everything from socialize (Second Life) to wage battle (WoW, etc.). Though the skin looks different, the skeleton for it remains firmly rooted in “Tron.”

In the world of the movie: Even the most cursory look at Encomm feels a little Microsofty, when you think of the manner in which it evolves from a garage-spawned start-up into a conglomerate that swallows and appropriates lessor technologies. The Master Control Program’s limiting of communication from within a network reaching outside into a broader worldwide network completely predicts the battle against net neutrality. So much so, Comcast should think about integrating the familiar conic face into its corporate logo.

Tron 1982Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) rescues the log files that were to prove his authoring of Encomm’s most successful games. Perhaps he should have asked for Julian Assange’s help with that.

The most implausible failing of the original, then and now, is the presumption of a massive level of artificial intelligence, which simply does not exist even now, despite our efforts. At our dead best, we have achieved something on par with a hamster; not quite the level of sinister, old men with professorial beards and English accents.

But yes, “Tron” as a film has many problems and many corny moments. After all, it is a children’s adventure film made by Disney (potential world-record holders for most things anthropomorphized in a body of work). No one needs to point them out as they’re obvious to even the most casual viewer.

Still, you have to admit that for science fiction and fantasy films, “Tron” is as much a reference point in 1982 as “Voyage dans la Lune” was in 1902, even if it was nowhere near as successful as “Star Wars” or “Star Trek.”

tron-1982-cindy-morgan-jeff-bridgesThe mind-blowing digital effects that were given much more laborious interest over character development were surprisingly predictive. Who knew that “Avatar” would be possible come 2009? Steven Lisberger, “Tron’s” embattled director, that’s who. When you are essentially using computers for the first time to envision what a digital landscape looks like, within those parameters character development should take a backseat. If you get the computer landscape wrong, you have failed. The rest is ultimately forgivable.

“Tron” succeeded; so much so that a sequel for a cult film from 28-odd years ago is the biggest, budget-busting tentpole film of the entire fourth quarter. And mine is probably one of the last reviews you will have read of it. But here we are. And with much of evaluating the original facilitated by the space and time that has gathered in the wake of it, how then are we to evaluate the new film?

To that end I think the prescient aspects of the original are largely coincidental. The ambiguity of it left a lot of room for interpretation and over a long enough timeline in a technology-obsessed culture, something was bound to fit the story. There are themes that run through the new film that we could, indeed, make much of and do our best to fathom how these components will look through the prism of some future history. But by doing so, we would consume ourselves with the question of how a film fits into a culture that does not yet exist. Occupied with busily carrying out that task, we would overlook what there is to evaluate in the here and now. So, by all means, let’s do that.

Tron-digital-Jeff-BridgesTo my earlier criticisms of the original, character development remains thinly but dutifully considered. For the few characters that have succeeded in bridging the two films, the ones still in play definitely show an evolution, but with the lengthy docket of creating a present and a task to achieve for our players, there isn’t much elbow room to elucidate the passage of time. Nonetheless, “Tron Legacy” is well-acted with full-commitment from its major players.

At this point in the review, let me step aside from the usual outline most film reviews follow, and instead hearken back to something I suggested earlier. “Tron Legacy” is a children’s adventure film made by Disney (no really, go check the rating). Just because those of us who saw the original in 1982 have grown up and evolved and developed marginally more complex lives does not change the fact that what “Tron” was in 1982 is all that it is likely to be in 2010. That you may currently be a network engineer, every day fighting off an army of Chinese DDoS attacks does not make you any more the owner of this story than the 10 year who sees the new film and immediately goes out and beans his or her little brother with a frisbee.

For the 10 year-old, he or she is well-sated with this film. The effects and animation are brilliant and bring the classic 8-bit world of the original into the multicore-processed reality of the present. The action sequences are equally evolved and the visual space is brilliantly played in, with shifting gravity and peril never failing to deliver. Viewed in 3D at Wichita’s new IMAX theatre, the imagery was rich and the artificial depth believable. I even noticed that as I tilted my head, where the 3D effect normally falls apart, it only gave some of the imagery an extra layer of Tron-ness. Just as with “Avatar,” 3D was clearly intended as an integral component of this film and you are encouraged to see it in that setting.

2010_tron_legacyFor the 40-year old, you haven’t been left out. In fact, this film was very much made with you in mind, though the makers are aware that you probably brought your own 10-year olds. The story is arguably about how the pursuit of perfection confuses the reasons for reaching for that perfection (a golden oldie of fictional archetypes). Is it to be hubris or altruism? Do the two concepts have a relationship?

The Legacy in the title refers equally to the grid universe defined in the original film and Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund), Kevin Flynn’s supposedly inexplicably abandoned son. Alternately, it also refers equally to the question of what we are versus what we are to become, and of conservation of ideals versus adapting those ideals to the progression of time.

The theme of “removing self” is given significant play here (the attachment to self is considered a delusion among Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths), and probably carries a large component of the film’s moral weight. The father, removed from the son, literally swallowed entirely by his work, is reminded that he only ever worked to achieve for his son. Where he fought for principle before his son, principles were partnered with responsibilities after the birth, and thus, the principles were given new meaning. The self, mortal and failing, is supplanted by a sense of responsibility to the coming, successive generation.

Tron-Legacy_Michael-SheenStasis is weighed against action. Is the point the life lived, or death avoided? Ultimately the reckoning resolves in recognizing that the ideals of perfection are only as perfect as those who envisioned them. Given enough time, the old ideals fall away and are replaced by the progression of new ones. Generationally, we are to recognize that the father is to be respected for his wisdom and the son is to be recognized for his ambition. The two of them, when viewed in symbiosis, advance the story, and indeed our society.

You could counter that these aren’t exactly new concepts. You could counter that the film doesn’t exactly handle these tasks artfully and you would be right on both counts. Indeed, the actors flat out tell you what the story means, rather than leave any narrative ambiguity. But again, I remind you, it is a children’s adventure film made by Disney. Broad entertainment reaches to tell its story to all in the audience — I urge you to go dust off your gold leaf-gilden copy of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare should you doubt me.

Would these concepts be better suited in another film that could more directly address the question? Maybe, but then this film actually did it. And it does so within a context actually relevant to not only the original story, but our own cultural story: observing that a given technology leverages one generation against the previous one. To extrude these concepts through a children’s adventure movie and to come out with an indictment against the delusion of self… Man, that’s not low-hanging fruit. That’s the stuff of inspiration.

TRON_LEGACY_Light_CyclesIf you managed to cram haughty circumspection into a two-hour adventure film and made it appealing to a 10-year old, well, you’d really have something. To this end, I think “Tron Legacy” gets as close as is reasonably expected. And to say that the moral of the story is unimportant in the modern era would be utterly disingenuous. Throughout our culture, you see the debris of overly-proud baby boomers struggling against conceding control to a new, whip-smart generation (Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed while I sat in the movie theater). The disconnected audience knows that it’s going to happen anyway, but the players are oblivious. The end of the film is only as predictable as the story we live.

“Tron Legacy” is a sequel, a retro-conversion and a reboot. This film, if a franchise is to be supposed here, would be three kinds of transitional in nature, though I am pleased to report that I did walk away from it satisfied. It is capable of standing alone, but fits modularly within the universe created and could play well with expansion. As with the last film, here again, the universe is wiped clean. And the old universe lives now on a thumb drive around the lead actor’s neck. One only hopes he doesn’t pass too closely to a high-powered magnet.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ohara December 20, 2010 at 4:43 pm

Very insightful review. The sequel will not be as important a film as the original. I went into the film recognizing that with a child’s memory of the original today’s adult should not expect too much. And as you mentioned, I walked out satisfied.

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2 Trey Hock December 20, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Michael,

Great article. You make some nice points, and I must give huge props to the ten page review.

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3 jack duhamel December 22, 2010 at 12:48 pm

so true

- Jack Duhamel

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4 Michael Bird December 23, 2010 at 9:49 am

Thank you for the kind words.

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5 Chooi December 29, 2010 at 7:59 pm

Excellent overview of both movies. The whole concept of a fun, enjoyable movie which pushes the boundary of cinema technological limits, apart of best 3D since Avatar, the not-quite-perfect Clu is actually a milestone in digitally recreating a younger actor in a major role. The artificial nature actually works in this case to remind us of the ‘cloned’ nature of Clu.

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