The original Tron also had great special effects for its time, but wasn’t taken seriously by film critics. But there were some of us who knew what we were looking at. The Tron universe asked questions that are still relevant: what will sentient, free-thinking AIs think of their creators? What form would a virtual world take, one that allowed total immersion? And most importantly, who would control that world? A human, organic intelligence, or an artificial, machine one?
Tron: Legacy continued these themes, and took them further. In the original film, most programs viewed their programmers (called Users) as deities. Akin to a Creator, a God that had crafted that program in its own image. Reflecting this, the film’s programs physically resemble their Users, and often possess certain personality traits of their Users as well. In the newer film, the programs have challenged the Users. They have defeated their creators, their gods. And in the case of CLU, these programs want to fill their creator’s shoes. Even if that means entering the physical world as the flesh and blood manifestation of a program.
How many critics and fans saw these things as they watched the movie, I have no idea. I’m sure some did, but I’m willing to bet that most didn’t. The idea of Transhumanism has yet to catch on with the mainstream population. Sure, they’ve watched many other science fiction films or read similar novels that deal with these issues. Maybe even heard about the idea of ‘downloading’ the brain to a computer as a form of digital immortality. But Tron: Legacy is supposed to be just a popcorn, fanboy film, right? Part of that is true. Much of it isn’t.
There is a certain genius in these two films, working such issues into the narrative or the background. I say genius because these issues are within the subtext, not beaten over the viewer’s head. Several of these issues are ambiguous enough to allow multiple interpretations, which isn’t easy for any piece of art to accomplish. I’ll touch on the ones I found central to Tron: Legacy.
Jealousy: CLU is as much Kevin Flynn’s son as Sam Flynn is. Created by Kevin to help him ‘build the perfect system’ CLU has a directive and nowhere to practice it. Since he’s made the Grid ‘perfect’—by his tyrannical standards—he seeks to enter the human world and continue his directive. In the film, it’s easy to assume CLU is just another megalomaniacal villain. The movie should have invested more in character depth and development, but what is there is rather engaging in CLU’s case. He has done everything his creator asked, but receives no reward, no praise. He is thus jealous of Sam, who has done so little in his own life to live up to Kevin’s status. On the other hand, CLU has achieved great success on the Grid. Perfection achieved, with just one anomaly: the human presence of Kevin Flynn and any other Users who enter the Grid. The irony is, CLU is a human creation—and by extension, possessing some of humanity’s flaws. Watching the film, CLU seems a tortured character. Is it because he knows he himself is imperfect, and hates Kevin Flynn for making him that way? Jealous of Kevin’s power, and Kevin’s affection for Sam? Jealous of not being shown the world that Kevin originated from? The scene where CLU discovers Kevin’s apartment on the Grid, it’s as if he’s examining things he has no concept of. Knowledge that Kevin kept from him. When one of CLU’s lackeys examines a book, obviously ignorant of its purpose, or when CLU studies a platter of metallic apples—these programs are catching a glimpse of a world denied them by their User. It is Satan being denied access to Heaven by a fallible God.
Control: Aside from the obvious struggle of CLU’s totalitarian rule versus rebel programs and Users, there is another issue of control within Tron: Legacy. Who will oversee a creation like the Grid? It’s not possible for its architect—Kevin Flynn—to manage it all. He can barely macro-manage, much less micro-manage. Enter CLU to accomplish this. The catch is, CLU is sentient and free-thinking. He may have a directive set by Kevin Flynn, but CLU is advanced enough to formulate a successful revolt and coup d’état. What would this mean in the real world? Could an advanced system be governed by a human, yet maintained by an AI? And not just any AI, but one that is capable of independent thought. As our society treads deeper into the Information Age, and reliance on computer networks grow, having AI maintain the system is a logical step. This has its dangers, which has been amply explored in other futuristic fiction. The difference in Tron: Legacy is, the Grid isn’t static. It evolves. Given the rate of accelerating change as dictated by Moore’s Law, such a system could quickly rise to a level that is above human comprehension. In that regard, the relationship between creator and created might flip, placing artificial intelligence in charge of revolutionary thinking and humans to simply a reactionary, subservient level. Granted, this is an extreme example, which leads into the next issue.
Immersive Reality: The world of the Grid in Tron: Legacy is more than just a virtual environment. In that reality, Users bleed (Sam Flynn’s wound in the Arena) and they age (Kevin Flynn’s wrinkled, gray countenance). Contrary to logic, these human Users seem to possess just as much intelligence as the programs. I say contrary, because once artificial intelligence reaches the capacity for independent thought, it has the processing power to focus on and resolve issues that humans might find difficult to formulize in their own mind—and in a much quicker fashion. But in the film, Users and programs seem to have a level playing field regarding intelligence. This hints at a synergy of human and machine that is different than the typical virtual environment. In these respects, the Grid is more than just a simulation. It is a new reality unto itself. The Grid also possesses many anthropomorphic aspects—programs have beds for sleep, they drink liquids, they seem to have intimate relationships (hinted at between Quorra and Castor), and there is even ‘homeless’ programs, which infers a social strata one would not associate with a mere machine/simulation. I admit this is most likely because the Grid is a human design, and, like all things humans interface with, it is approached and accessed in human terms. However, such limitations could be overridden by programs that might see these aspects as unnecessary or anachronistic (i.e., a program wouldn’t require sleep). This, coupled with the presence of the ISOs (naturally-occurring algorithms on the Grid) hints that while this reality is an artificial one, and it can be tweaked, it still maintains an equilibrium outside what organic or machine influences can wreak upon it.
Having said all of this, Tron: Legacy still has flaws—mostly with the by-the-numbers plot and poor character depth. The first film had these same problems. Perhaps that is by design, though, in an effort to allow the viewer to see the greater issues these films address. While they will continue to entertain and thrill fans for years come, the themes inherent to Tron and Tron: Legacy will resonate well into the next step in human evolution.