I can’t stop thinking about TRON: LEGACY.
Part of the reason for this is because I’m a big TRON fan from way back, having had my mind blown by seeing the original on the big screen when I was a kid. So I’m hard wired to enjoy light cycles, disc battles, and lines of dialogue like “Bring forth the logic probe.” The new TRON gives us all that, and it’s a lot of fun revisiting good ol’ Kevin Flynn, and that whacked out computer world. Yeah, it’s fun, but that’s not why I can’t stop thinking about TRON: LEGACY. Many people will choose to view the movie as “retro,” but, for me, it’s the opposite. For me, TRON: LEGACY represents the future.
Future shock 1: Free info
In the first third of the movie, before we get into the funky computer world, we first have to deal with the pesky human world. It’s here that we get an interesting vignette. The snotty bureaucrats that run the fictional Encom Company are about to release an operating system for extreme profits, despite Alan Bradley’s insistence that Flynn wanted it to be free for all. The sniveling bureaucrats ignore Alan’s noble ideals and instead roll out their apparently greedier plan.
Enter our hero, Sam Flynn, who takes a stand for free information, screwing with Encom, putting the new O.S. on the web free for anyone who wants it, embarrassing the slimy bureaucrats as he does so. Plotwise, this establishes Sam as a combination of daredevil and idealist, and it helps us buy his “reckless choices with noble intent” actions that come into play later in the movie. This also reflects the changing of the times we’re currently experiencing. Everyone looks to the web for free media. Watch movies online! Watch your favorite TV shows online! Get the news online! Play games online! Instant this! Instant that! Instant! Instant! Instant!
Those in the so-called “traditional media” are terrified of this, but the mind-boggling success of sites like Facebook shows that free media and financial survival – if not success – is possible. (Though I’m still unclear as to how, exactly, Facebook made all its billions. I guess if I could answer that, then I’d be the one invented Facebook, right?) Anyway, Sam’s stand for free media, giving a metaphorical middle finger to the sterile bureaucrats as he does so, points a huge arrow in the direction that the world’s media is headed toward.
Future shock 2: The ISOs
TRON: LEGACY introduces some fascinating concepts, in between light cycle chases and flamboyant nightclub owners. You have “the grid,” which the fantastical TRON world, populated by programs instead of people. This is part of the novelty of the original TRON we all so fondly remember, but TRON: LEGACY takes it a step farther by asking, what’s beyond the grid? The logical part of the mind says there’s nothing beyond the grid. The creative part of the mind dictates that beyond the grid exists untapped potential, like a blank canvas, or, perhaps more appropriately, unused disc space – it could be used for anything you want. It’s in this unused/untapped space that Flynn makes his home in TRON: LEGACY, partially to stay hidden from the movie’s villain, but also to expand his own consciousness, via what he calls his “Zen master thing.” We’re told in a flashback that Flynn, Tron, and Flynn’s digitized counterpart Clu sought to recreate the Grid into a better, arguably perfect world. It’s outside the grid, though, where Flynn strives for inner peace, turning peace and perfection inward to his own self, rather than to the world around him.
It’s also outside the grid that we’re introduced to the ISOs, short for “isomorphic algorithms.” Who are they? The movie states that they are “self-produced programs that spontaneously evolved in the system, which carried the potential to unlock mysteries in science, religion, and medicine.” I don’t know about you, but I find this fascinating. In recent years, a lot of folks in the science fiction community have balked against the idea of life on other planets, alleging that inarguable mathematics prove that intelligent life does not exist anywhere else in the universe (What if you forgot to carry the one?) and therefore, the so-called experts say, no science fiction story should ever, ever, ever, again feature aliens from other planets, no matter how cool or fun those aliens might be. This line of thought has led to silliness like those lines about “the spaces in between” from INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL, as if to sell us on the idea that it’s more mathematically realistic for aliens to be from an alternate dimension than from another planet. I find this ridiculous, as grey-skinned aliens in a flying saucer are still aliens in a flying saucer, and who the hell cares how “realistic” that is?
This brings us back to TRON: LEGACY, which comes up with an altogether new idea. Here we have the ISOs, alien life that emerged seemingly from out of nowhere from beyond the grid. Who are they? Where did they come from? The movie doesn’t provide concrete answers, but what it leaves open to speculation is fascinating. TRON: LEGACY posits that contact with alien life forms will not be from other planets or other dimensions. Instead, we’re introduced to living beings made of pure information. After all, what is information, in a physical sense? It is electricity and light, transmitted from computer to computer, appearing on screen after screen. Both light and electricity are physical matter – we know this because both are affected by gravity. If the impulses of light and electricity at specific frequencies and/or intervals make up what we know as information, than who’s to say that information can’t grow, or, dare I say, evolve, into something far more complex, to the point where raw digital information becomes a life form of its own? Personally, in the future I envision, contact with alien life might just come from digital worlds we create and lose control of, rather than other worlds (I also believe extending our own humanity to life on other planets is integral to our survival, and that our life forms made of pure information could help us make that possible, but that’s an article for another time).
The ISOs of TRON: LEGACY are, to me, a more believable alien life form than any space aliens or alternate dimension goatee-wearers we’ve seen before. Even though I love freaky space aliens in sci-fi flicks, TRON: LEGACY says to something more. There’s a moment in TRON: LEGACY in which Flynn and Sam “hack” into Qurra, an ISO, and her disc, briefly revealing a three-layer DNA strand, as opposed to a regular human two-layer strand. How advanced she is, far beyond either program or user. Seeing this, all I can think is, this is where the future is headed.
Future shock 3: The face of Clu
It seems that any movie made during the 70s or 80s that used any sort of computer graphics, including TRON, claims to be the “first” to use CGI. For years, I believed that RETURN OF THE JEDI was the first to use CGI, but that was a year before TRON. THE LAST STARFIGHTER’s funky computer effects lay claim to be the first, but it was two years after TRON. Before TRON, things get even more sketchy. THE GREAT MOUSE DETECTIVE, in 1986, also claims to be the first use of CGI in a movie, as does the cheesy 1976 sequel FUTUREWORLD. FUTUREWORLD’s predecessor WESTWORLD, also allegedly used some fleeting computer graphics, way back in 1973. So who was really this first? The debates among movie fans will never end.
Whether it was truly first, the original TRON, will always lay claim as an effects groundbreaker, because it had both computer effects and a computer-related storyline. First or not, TRON broke ground in special effects technology, creating visuals the likes of which have never been seen before since, not to mention those unendingly cool light cycles.
So, in 2010, when the time came to make TRON: LEGACY the creators are faced with an unusual challenge. In an age in which CGI makes any far-our fantasy worlds possible, how do you break new ground? Answer: You do the one thing that everyone says CGI can’t do – you do a CGI human.
Ever since the mid-90s, when CGI took off in a big way, everyone has pretty much agreed that despite everything CGI can do, it can’t recreate an actual human. Director Robert Zemekis gave it a halfway decent try with THE POLAR EXPRESS and BEOWULF, but those characters, stiff and glass-eyed as they were, were still fairly exaggerated (I dare you to rewatch BEOWULF and try to convince yourself that those “realistic humans” aren’t overly exaggerated. I dare you.) TRON: LEGACY goes father – a lot farther. The filmmakers have attempted what everyone in the world says is impossible – a CGI human. Can’t be done, you say? You could make that case, and yet, there’s Clu, front and center throughout the entire movie.
The original TRON might not have been the first move to use CGI, but it was certainly one of the first to gain notice for CGI used in a big way. In 1982, TRON set its foot down and said to the world “Computers are the future.” Then, in 2010, the creators of TRON: LEGACY did a comparable act, slamming their foot down and saying, “That what everyone says can’t be done? We’ve done it.” Or, at least, they’ve attempted it, more than anyone else has done. They went where all other filmmakers and special effects artists have never gone – that, to me, represents the future.
Is Clu a perfect effect? No. For that matter, is the brief glimpse of “young Flynn” in the real world a seamless effect? No. The human eye can tell it’s an effect. That said, turn the clock back to 1982. Are the CGI effects of the original TRON photo-real? Of course not. Are the images of light cycles and returners mesmerizing, and do they draw you into the story and into the fantastical world the filmmakers have created? Yes, yes they do. It’s the same thing – the special effects of the original TRON might be rough by today’s standards, but they were beyond what anyone else at the time had ever created. Those visuals might not have been first, but they represented the next step. In TRON: LEGACY, Clu might not be a seamless effect, but he represents what no other filmmakers dared attempt. What everyone else said was impossible is what TRON: LEGACY put on screen. Clu isn’t perfect, we can all agree on that, but just like the original TRON showed us where movie visuals would eventually go, I can’t help wonder if TRON: LEGACY is providing a similar road map to the future of animation and filmmaking.
Future shock: The 80s
Why do I love 80s stuff? All the neon, the sharp angles, the weirdness for weirdness sake in pop culture of the time, it was all about looking ahead, to the future. Yeah, 1960s retro was pretty big in the 80s, but even that was about taking the ideals of societal change and bringing them from the 60s into the modern time with a modern sensibility, working toward a brighter future, especially in the shadow of movements such as glasnost and perestroika. Then, along came the 90s, and suddenly everything was about retro. Fashion and pop culture became obsessed with reliving the past, even when faced with the rise of the internet and Y2K hysteria.
Throughout the years, however, TRON refused to be retro. TRON continues to represent the future, and where we’re headed, rather than where we’ve been, and TRON: LEGACY continues that trend. It has the light cycles and disc battles and arcades with Journey music to satisfy the nostalgia crowd, and that’s all great fun, but by the time the credits roll, TRON: LEGACY joins its predecessor as a movie that represents the future.
That’s why I can’t stop thinking about TRON: LEGACY.
(Originally posted on the DVD Verdict judges’ blog.)