Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Tron: Legacy Shows How Good Intentions Go Bad

Last summer, my oldest son showed me a trailer on the Internet for movie Tron: Legacy. As with most trailers, it made the movie look pretty awesome.

Seeing the trailer caused me to hearken back to the original Tron movie that was released in 1982. The first time I saw Tron was on video at a friend’s house. There were a lot of distractions going on, so it was difficult to grasp what was happening. Once Flynn was on the grid, there were many places where I couldn’t tell what was going on. The sets were dark and I couldn’t always tell which character was which.

I came away from viewing the video thinking that the plot for Tron was pretty thin, but that the film had achieved a whole new level of special effects technology. Still, it seemed to me that the technology was in its infancy and had a long way to go before it provided a less distractive movie viewing experience.

Sometime later I saw Tron on video again. This time it was in a much quieter setting. A friend that was familiar with the film occasionally interjected brief explanations that helped bridge some of the plot gaps. After that viewing, I didn’t consider Tron to be great cinema, but it somehow captured a piece of my imagination.

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to buy the original Tron movie on DVD for a reduced price. Some of my family members sat down and watched it with me. The plot was thinner than I had remembered. Some actors’ performances were groan worthy at times.

The real shocker was the special effects technology. After 28 years, it was like stepping back into another era. Some of the sets reminded me of high school stage productions. I kept reminding myself that the movie had raised filmmaking technology to a whole new level for its time and that it provided the basis for many of the special effects we have today.

Over the holidays, my oldest son went with me to see Tron: Legacy. Like its predecessor, it is not great cinema. But it is entertaining cinema. It’s a guy’s film with lots of fast moving action. The actors’ performances and the plot are decidedly better than those of the first Tron movie. We saw the film in 2D because my son gets nauseous when seeing 3D movies. After seeing the 2D version, I thought that the 3D version might push over the border into sensory overload.

It was far easier for me to understand what was going on in Tron: Legacy than it was for me to grasp what was happening in Tron. Many of the grid sets are still dark, but filmmaking has come a long way since 1982. It was relatively easy for me to follow characters, movements, and intent. Still, I wouldn’t want to see Legacy without first viewing Tron. There isn’t enough background in Legacy to provide the necessary continuity.

The character CLU has Jeff Bridges’ face, but the face is done in CG to give CLU the appearance of Jeff Bridges 20 years younger than he is today. This is probably the best effort I have yet seen of such a CG adaptation. It’s far better than what you see in the 2004 film Polar Express, but it still doesn’t completely overcome the uncanny valley phenomenon — where people automatically respond with revulsion to non-human facsimiles that look and act almost human.

SPOILER ALERT: The following paragraphs expose the movie’s plot and climax.

At its core Tron: Legacy is a story about the attempt to create utopia: a perfect world devoid of crime, illness, poverty, war, greed, hunger, etc. Flynn believes he is creating a new world from the ground up. It becomes clear, however, that — as with nearly all utopian efforts — the world is really being created from the top down. Of course, as with many notable utopian experiments, the answer to system imperfections is coercion and ultimately elimination by violence.

Flynn pulls away from his perfectionist goals when new electronic beings evolve on the grid without anyone specifically designing them. While he sees these beings as a miracle, they are all flawed in various ways. Flynn has programmed CLU to build the perfect system. To CLU, the only logical response to the blemished beings that he can’t control is to annihilate them.

Flynn has also programmed CLU to be powerful enough to do whatever it takes to achieve his programmed goals. Many real life utopian experiments result in extensive power being given to an individual or a small group, because it is felt that only by doing so can the goal of perfection be achieved. When Flynn reacts with revulsion to CLU’s genocidal purges, Flynn and CLU become enemies.

Flynn’s adult son Sam enters the grid as an angry young man that also has utopian tendencies but without any real direction or plan. When he meets up with his father, he is disgusted with what he sees as Flynn’s sit-back-and-do-nothing attitude. Sam might be projecting his disappointment with his own unwillingness to step up to the plate and fill his role in the real world.

In reality, Flynn knows that he must sacrifice himself to destroy CLU, but he is reluctant to do so. He hasn’t had a good enough reason to go ahead with such nasty business. That motivation comes when he discovers that CLU has found a way to port his electronic army into the real (and very imperfect) world, upon which CLU would wreak destruction. Still, Flynn tries to avoid doing what must be done until his son is at stake. Then he destroys CLU, but perishes while doing so.

In the end, Sam makes it back into the real world along with the single remaining imperfect electronic being, who fortunately has been Flynn’s protégé. Sam, who has been spending his time throwing barbs at an imperfect society from the outside, realizes that he must engage society on its own terms to achieve whatever limited improvements are possible. He has to integrate with society to actually do good.

The grid has been running on super computers for 20 years. Sam downloads the whole thing onto a tiny device that he hangs from a chain about his neck. That’s obviously a potential segway to a sequel.

The main message of Tron: Legacy is that human attempts to create heaven on earth end up producing hell instead. There are so many unpredictable moving parts that no entity can successfully force utopia to develop.

Another of the movie’s morals is that man’s perception of utopia is faulty. In an explanation to CLU, Flynn says in that perfection isn’t a recognizable destination that can be defined by the lack of certain negative elements; it is a process that is happening spontaneously all around us constantly. He admits that the assumptions about perfection he used in CLU’s programming were fundamentally flawed. He has discovered that there is great beauty and wonder in the spontaneous patterns of life.

The movie also asserts that trying to effect positive change in society as a rebellious outsider is a fool’s game. The only way to really improve society is by working from within.

This sequel to the 1982 Tron movie has far more meat than did the original. There are some messages that are worth thinking about. From my perspective, the second movie also far more entertaining to watch.

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