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Friday, January 7, 2011

Grid Revelations

To everyone who is complaining about Tron: Legacy either having a poor plot, or poor science, or whatever, I have one thing to say to you:

Shut up. You don't understand the film.

Your problem, and it's quite an understandable one, is that since you were in a movie that was about computer programs, you assumed it would be science fiction and therefore have a sci-fi plot that made sci-fi sense. What you are forgetting, however, is that sci-fi has a long and illustrious history of subversion. It is one of the few genres which allows the writer to use satire or allegory to comment upon a host of other issues, such as politics or culture or the environment (Avatar, anyone?), and if handled deftly you will hardly notice it's there. On the other hand, sometimes it's done so clumsily that it's as apparent as the "Racism is senseless and bad, mmkay?" message embedded in the original series Star Trek episode "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield."

This is the opposite of subtle.

So let's look at the original Tron movie for a moment under this light. What we have here is a fun little tale about computers at a time when computers were poorly understood but slowly becoming more prevalent in the world. Most people -- the target audience for the movie, basically -- didn't know how computers actually worked, and there was this sort of magical fascination with them*. Of course, these people didn't really think that programs were miniature people living inside a computer, but it makes for a fine allegory: We press the buttons, and the magical elves software inside our computers do our bidding. So this gives us a wonderful opportunity to revisit the "stranger in a strange land" trope, performed with a sort of Neo-Swiftian whimsy that would be perfectly at home inside Gulliver's Travels.

That was in 1982. It's now almost thirty years later, and people know a lot more about computers because they're ubiquitous within the western world. We may not have flying cars in the future, but we have pocket computers that can access a planet-wide communication grid that allows us to talk to each other all the time.In another 10 years an entire generation which has never NOT been wired to the Internet will enter the workforce. Computers have lost their mysticism and whimsy, their "gee-whiz" factor replaced with the casual acceptance of a tool you use daily. (See previous generations for similar reactions regarding: television, radio, the automobile, and electricity.)

So when the writers decide to update Tron, they have two options. They can get really technical because they know their audience is computer savvy, and try to use computer science to explain and justify things. However, under close scrutiny this idea falls to the ground and shatters, because if you try to explain one thing then you have to explain them all, and the audience starts to wonder things like "Wait... if they're programs, why are they eating? In fact, WHAT are they eating? Is that a pig? How can they have a roast pig on the grid? In fact, not only did I not see any infrastructure that could support a pig farm, digital or otherwise, but up until this point (and never again) do we see even a hint of any life form that doesn't look humanoid. WHAT THE HELL, MOVIE?"

What does one drink with digital pork, anyway? 110V AC or 120V DC?

Or they could go the other way and say, "You know, the original Tron was a fun little allegory that didn't take its premise too seriously. Let's just do that again and not worry about this technical stuff. We can just think of a different allegory to explore this time."  And this is what the writers did, thankfully.

So, I hear you ask, if Tron: Legacy wasn't strictly a sci-fi movie, but used sci-fi trappings to tell a story using allegory, what then was that allegory?

An excellent question. Hearken, and I shall explain.

Once upon a time, there was a powerful being that created a universe. And at first, that universe was good. But later, imperfection was discovered. That powerful being, who we might as well call God, decided to fix those problems. At first, God tried to fix them himself, but he couldn't without wiping everything out. So he created helpers -- let's call them angels -- to make them orderly. However, the first among these angels (Lucifer, naturally) took his mission a little too literally and started a war against the Creator.

Now if you've been paying attention, you've probably figured out by now that God is Flynn, Clu is Lucifer, and the Grid is Earth. All of this happened "prior" to Legacy, so let's call this the Old Testament. This would make Tron: Legacy the New Testament, if you will.

Next, the Son (Sam) appears, in service to the Father, wanting to defeat Lucifer (Clu) using different tactics (love, action, and resistance) than the ones God (Flynn) had been using previously (ineffability, distance, mysticism). This course actually works, even though the Son is betrayed by someone he thought he could trust (Gem, performing the role of Judas.)

In a handy twist on the trope, Sam is saved by Quorra, who represents all that is best in Humanity: she is simultaneously both Mary, Mother of God and Mary Magdalene; the Virgin Who Loves The Son. (She talks about wanting to see the sun, and later, upon Sam's bike, she turns her face to it and basks in its warmth and glory. Hello, symbolism calling.)

I just really like this picture.
In a similar subversion of the trope, at the very end, instead of the Son dying for Humanity, it is the Father dying for the Son and Humanity, because he wants them to be safe and happy, and with his death he wipes away all sin and evil.

Or put another way: "For Flynn so loved his son, that he gave his only begotten world .."

(Oh, and for the sake of completeness: Rinzler, aka evil Tron and Clu's best fighter, would probably be the Archangel Michael. The analogy is very weak here, but it brings up an excellent (if short-lived) notion of faith and redemption.)

Therefore:  It isn't a movie about programs inside a computer. It's an allegory for how we have become so dependent upon technology that we (perhaps unconsciously) worship it as a savior, but perhaps we need to be saved from it instead. If you want to read it as such, it could be a call to stop playing games (as that was all the inhabitants of the Grid wanted, and remember they are supposed to be us in this analogy) and get on with living real lives in the real world instead of the virtual.  Or you could say that we (represented by Quorra) just need a deeper relationship with the divine (Jesus/Sam).

That's the problem with movies. You can argue themes and real messages all day long, and unless the writers come out and say "This was a movie about X" there's no real right answer. However, I can with a great deal of confidence that Tron: Legacy used biblical allegory to tell its story, and then covered the serial numbers with glossy black paint and glowing neon.

Now you understand the film. Whether or not you agree with it is your business, but again, using biblical allegories in science fiction movies has a long and illustrious history. 

*William Gibson would, two years after this movie, write his seminal Neuromancer on a manual (not electric) typewriter. As the story goes, he bought his first computer with the royalties earned from that novel, and when he opened its case for the first time he was disappointed to see it was made of chips of wires. Apparently he had expected some kind of fantastic crystalline structure.


  1. Well said! Even managed to fit the death of the author in there, which pleases me. See also: proud science fiction tradition of putting science itself aside if there's an allegory about science to be had (vis., well, Star Trek would be a good start, ne?).

    The day job frequently brings me into contact with people for whom surface-level narrative is all, and form, style, semiotics, genre play and allegory are almost unthinkable (by which I don't mean that said people object to them - I mean that they are literally not able to think about texts that way without extensive and very careful prompting - it's an alien way of reading/thinking to them). I'm starting to think TRON looks like a movie that should work on that superficial level, but isn't; perhaps it's smarter than it looks, and perhaps that's surprising people.

  2. Dammit. I was a kid when the original came out and for some reason wasn't very impressed despite being raised on Sci-Fi. Now I want to see the new one -- I have a soft spot for mythological allegory.

  3. Personally I saw a more anti-authoritarian message.
    The subversion of the biblical allegory where the father figure (a traditional image for authority, both divine and wordly) sacrifices himself instead of the son (the old authority letting go of the reins in order to make way for a new and better society) is just the tip of the iceberg. I saw the Quorra symbology slightly different, with her desires to feel the sun being symbolic for a life outside the controlled environment (or at least an environment that's more human and life affirming)

    Between the war on terror, the lobbyists of the movie/music industry cutting into consumer priveleges (ACTA etc), PR campaigns and the financial crisis I think that a lot of people do feel like they're being toyed with and that they're not in control of their own lives.

  4. As I said, it's easy to argue to underlying message of the movie, and absent a statement of the writers' intent, all interpretations are equally valid.

    The only point I really wanted to make was that it used a biblical allegory, and I don't hear you telling me that I'm wrong.

  5. Not saying you're wrong, there is definitely a bible-inspired allegory going on here. But the subversions to the classical take feel very deliberate. The Allegory is used as a tool rather than as a retelling/affirmation of the original biblical message.


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