Hola all. Massawyrm here.
This is not my review of TRON: LEGACY, but rather my long promised further delving into the philosophical and political underpinnings of the film. For my spoiler free initial take on the film, click here.
The first thing you need to wrap your mind around in order to understand what is going on in TRON: LEGACY is the nature of CLU. CLU isn’t Kevin Flynn; CLU is Kevin Flynn’s ambition - his youthful idealism - copied onto a computer and executed without the presence of a soul. While he possesses Flynn’s knowledge and keen intellect, he lacks his wisdom. For the sake of the narrative structure he is presented as a villain, though he has no truly malicious intent; he is merely mistaken. And he has been given one simple command: help Flynn build a perfect world. So what happens when a brilliant, dedicated, soulless program sets out to make a perfect digital world? The Grid happens.
At its heart, TRON: LEGACY is the classic argument about the impossibility of utopia. The concept of utopia can be boiled down to two defining characteristics: the first is that it is a safe, healthy environment that both meets the needs of its occupants and protects them from coming to any unnatural harm; the second is that the occupants are free to act exactly as they wish to, without limit or constraint. In other words, we need to be able to do whatever we feel like doing without having to worry about anybody getting hurt. This is of course impossible. Allowing humans to do whatever they please creates a dangerous environment. End of story. So you have to ask yourself: if you were a soulless computer program charged with building a perfect world with imperfect parameters, which side would you err on?
For CLU, this is relatively easy as he is only exposed at first to a single user (Flynn) and a series of programs, all of which can simply be reprogrammed or repurposed when they pose a threat to the harmony of the Grid. But when the ISOs (Isomorphic Algorithms) emerge unplanned from seemingly nowhere, he is confronted with a terrible dilemma. CLU realizes/believes that a perfect society should be unburdened by free will - after all, he himself has no real free will of his own; he is acting under the orders by which he was initially created and has faithfully served his duty for over 1200 years/cycles. ISOs are artificially intelligent creatures not at all unlike users; they are possessed of free will and a capacity to learn at a level which CLU lacks. So he orders the execution of what he sees as aberrations, resulting in a near total genocide. This, of course, is why CLU getting into our world is a bad thing – ISOs are digital humans, and CLU’s attempts to perfect our world would no doubt end in our extermination as well.
To CLU, this is but a simple math problem and well within his programming; he even goes so far as to ask Flynn of his dedication to the original premise that they, together, are to create a perfect world. Flynn doesn’t realize what CLU is asking because Flynn isn’t really paying attention. And when CLU realizes Flynn’s lack of dedication to their original purpose, he decides that he must be removed from the equation.
To make things even muddier, CLU has been given a second parameter to factor in. All information MUST be free. This is by far the more complicated issue TRON: LEGACY wrestles with - one many of us are wrestling with today. You see, there exists an argument that information not only wants to be free but that it should, in fact, be free to everyone. But what does that mean, exactly? Some argue this while downloading illegal copies of music and movies, ranting about the importance of Wikileaks, and copying and pasting news stories into their blogs. Of course, many of these same culture warriors are often the first to rise up and howl about Facebook taking their information (typed into the Facebook website) and selling it to others – because this is THEIR personal information and not someone else’s to trade in. It is a conundrum that vexes many, and is the driving force of the narrative in TRON: LEGACY.
Kevin Flynn originally believed that information should be free and his son – following in his footsteps – begins the movie as an out and out information anarchist. This point is driven home so hard that the corporation Flynn the elder once owned is now chaired by a diabolical, mustache twirling CEO who jokes that the new version of their Operating System is only different because they put a higher number on the box. But don’t be fooled by this oversimplified display of the issue – it only exists to make Flynn the Younger seem heroic in his extremist views. The film, while initially on the surface seeming to be pro-piracy/anti-copyright, actually takes a sharp philosophical turn in the second act.Here’s where things get a little kooky. Flynn the Elder was a pretty hardcore information-for-all guy; that is until CLU came for his disc. The disc is everything, and its importance to the story exceeds being a simple McGuffin for the heroes to defend; it is the philosophical center of the film. It is Flynn’s identity; everything that is Flynn is on that disc, 1200 years of meditation and invention. And with it, CLU can do untold amounts of damage. CLU believes he has every right to it, because it is information and information MUST be free. But Flynn the Elder has had a change of heart; he knows the damage his knowledge and identity can cause in the wrong hands, and now he’s changed his mind. So now Flynn lives on the outskirts of his own grid (off the grid, if you will pardon Disney’s well concealed pun), completely cut off from the world in order to keep the information his own.
The narrative through line of TRON: LEGACY is that of a hero who learns that nothing is as black and white as it seems and that the idea of information being free is a failed principle that looks good on paper but is dangerous in practice. (Does that sound more like the Disney you know and love than the whole pro-piracy thing does?) It is also very heavily focused upon the glory of imperfection – the idea that it is the sum of both our merits and our flaws that make us individuals – seen in the Grid as degradations in the programming which allow infected programs to think and act for themselves. Even at the end of it all, Kevin Flynn still loves his friend CLU and forgives him, because his flaws were Flynn’s own. This of course brings everything back around to what we’d expect from a conservatively rooted company, arguing that our freedom to make mistakes is a far better thing than forsaking that freedom for safety. We end up with a film touting the importance of the individual, and the necessity to keep our identities and information ours.
So what of the complaints about TRON: LEGACY having no story? They’re horseshit. The reason the story seems so simple to many is because it is textbook Joseph Campbell. Rigidly so. Disney has long been a fan of the Hero’s Journey, and this film follows the 12 cinematic stages of that journey (as long ago laid out by Disney’s own Chris Vogler) TO THE LETTER and comes pretty close to all 17 stages of the Monomyth. Of course, most critics know the Hero’s Journey like the back of their hand and can recite it in their sleep, so watching a film like this that feels like Campbell might have written it himself can feel extraordinarily cliché. Once you plug in that Quorra is both Flynn the Younger’s “reward” as well as the “elixir” that can save humanity that he returns from the other world with, every bit of Campbell’s outline becomes painfully clear. The film is beat for beat Joseph Campbell. But that doesn’t mean that there is “no story”, just that you know the story very, very well.
I dare anyone who still thinks TRON: LEGACY isn’t actually about anything to go back and see it again through this lens. The film is incredibly political, though not as overtly preachy as most politically charged science fiction. It plays around with some pretty big ideas and does so just out of earshot of the children as not to bog the film down like Lucas did with his prequels. But it’s there. And calling the film hollow or vacuous means you didn’t look much further than the visuals. See it again. Pick it apart. This film has a lot to say and has certainly set up an interesting mythology through which to tell some interesting stories.
Until next time friends,Massawyrm