Digital Galapagos: Tron Legacy

Tron Legacy makes for a fascinating companion piece to Predators. Both films are delayed sequels to acknowledged cult classics, both films use the bones of their predecessors as a foundation and both films revel in advances in special effects technology. Crucially though, both films are not only very much a product of their time but also comment on and examine the times and ideals that produced their predecessors. Predators focuses on the evolution of the special forces operator from a shadowy hero to a more complex, morally damaged figure whilst Tron Legacy focusses on the Cyberpunk movement, something which came and went in the space between the first and second films. The film’s approach to this evolution not only in computing but in our attitudes towards computers is both surprisingly complex and surprisingly brave, using what amounts to three versions of the same character to examine the changes in society’s attitude to the digitial world that Kevin Flynn is so fascinated by.

Flynn himself is established, both in the original film and flashbacks, as an intellectual maverick, a proto-hacker who never met a problem he didn’t like to out think. In fact, Flynn, along with Matthew Broderick’s David Lightman in WarGames, is one of the first ever ‘geek’ heroes. He’s one step away from the phone phreakers and hackers who in turn were the first stage in the evolutionary proces that would lead to everything from Willow Rosenberg in Buffy the Vampire Slayer to wikipedia, wikileaks, Julian Assange and Anonymous. He’s a brain instead of a pair of fists, a unique hero who is uniquely of his time and who, at the end of the first film, finds himself in the last place he expected and the only place he could genuinely do some good; in charge of EnCom, one of the largest software firms in the world. In the space of two hours, Flynn evolves from being just a program, or programmer, into the top of the food chain, the chairman of the board. He’s Steve Jobs and Bill Gates combined, a visionary with a classic anti-establishment streak, a brain whose body is a multi-national corporation and who is capable of anything.

So instead he does nothing, turning inwards and creating a digital archipelago where, like every great science fiction scientist, he sets out to solve every problem and, like every science fiction scientist, does it far too slowly. Flynn becomes so entranced with the world he, Clu and Tron are building that he doesn’t realise that it’s evolution is out of his hands. He tells Clu he wants a perfect world and never realises that will ultimately lead to him being deposed from his position in the Grid and likewise doesn’t see that he needs a back door out of the Grid to return to his family until it’s far, far too late. Flynn remains entranced by the idea, by the concept rather than the execution and that leads to him becoming everything Sam, and Clu, aren’t; passive, introspective, distanced. By the time he and Sam are reunited, he’s become the old man in the ivory tower, staring out at the world he created and is all but banished from and somehow is content about that. Flynn exists, literally in an intellectual rather than a physical space, so entranced by the power he both had and lost that he’s in a near fugue state for much of the film. When Sam arrives, it forces him to step outside his experience and re engage with the world he helped build and, through the creation of Clu, helped enslave. The proto-cyberpunk is faced with the real consequences of his actions and sacrifices himself to correct his mistakes. The cult of personality that surrounded Flynn is swept aside by Flynn himself in a final, definitive, physical act that mirrors the subsumation of cyberpunk culture into the mainstream. Flynn removes himself from the Grid and from the world, changing the rules and blanking the canvas in a final act of altruistic anarchy.

If Flynn is an intellectual forced to come to terms with the physical consequences of his actions, then Clu is a physical force with little or no concept of intellectual change or evolution. Clu is the film’s, and Flynn’s, greatest technical achievement, taking the program that Flynn created in the original movie and giving it Flynn’s face and voice and ideals. He’s not so much Banquo’s ghost as William Gibson’s, a leftover cyberpunk artifact from a time where no problem in science fiction couldn’t be solved by writing a computer program. There’s a neat subversive element to Clu as well, taking the heroic identity of Flynn from the original movie and curdling it, changing it into something which is eloquent, driven and not remotely human. Clu was told to build the perfect system and has stuck to that programming for years, methodically removing everything that interferes with his plan and installing himself as exactly the sort of Emperor he accuses Flynn of being. The genuinely fascinating thing about Clu is, despite all this, he still clearly views himself as a hero. The system is closer to perfect without a User in charge and closer still with Clu in place as it’s ruler. After all, who else was told they had to create the perfect system? It’s a fascinating, broken world view that neatly marks out Clu as something both more and less than human, a figure who is a towering threat on the Grid but, as Sam points out, can be deleted with a key stroke outside it. He’s also, fundamentally, the physical and direct aspects of Flynn, something the film elegantly demonstrates in one of its final scenes. Clu addresses his army of lobotomised programs on their way to the gateway back to the real world and uses exactly the same language to describe it as Flynn uses to describe the Grid earlier in the film. Clu is Flynn’s youth with none of his willingness to learn, a relentless attack dog gnawing at the world to try and make it into a shape he can never quite reach. If Flynn is trapped by his over intellectualisation, Clu is trapped by the thoughts and thought processes Flynn gave him. He’s a dictator, a monster but in the end, he’s one with limits. When he’s faced with those limits in the closing scenes of the film, it becomes clear he can’t learn, can’t change, can’t do anything but attack just as Flynn himself can do nothing but think. As a result, when the two are forcibly combined, and destroyed, they’re also unified, each giving the other the elements they were missing. Flynn and Clu both die but they’re healed at the same time and, crucially, heal the Grid by being removed from it. The digital Galapagos Flynn created finally gains freedom, at the expense of its creator, and it’s dictator’s, lives.

Kevin Flynn and Clu are both architects and artifacts of early Cyberpunk, figures who are fixated on the computer as nirvana, a digital heaven that we can come and go from as we please. Both have a missionary zeal, both are utterly fixated on the Grid and both are completely out of touch with the real world. In contrast, Sam Flynn is the quintessential post-cyberpunk hero, a trust fund baby who works through his anger at being abandoned by his father by living in a customised set of cargo containers, dropping out of Cal Tech and running an annual prank on EnCom, where he remains a majority shareholder. Sam isn’t remotely interested in big business, and focusses instead on the same thing his father and, ironically, Clu do; that the information wants to be free. When we first meet him he’s breaking into EnCom to release the latest version of their Operating System onto the internet for free on the night of its commercial release. It’s a very interesting moment that gets all but lost in Joseph Kosinski’s night-soaked visuals and it bears closer examination. This is the moment that marks Sam out as something different, the moment where the same ideals that his father lived by evolve and become something very different and far more contemporary. Kevin Flynn wants the information to be free and is prepared to commit a little light fraud and hacking to achieve that. Sam, in contrast, breaks into his own company and uses the internet, a tool Flynn was almost too early for, to wage the sort of war that the entire internet sometimes appears to be spoiling for. He wants the information to be free but, unlike his father, is prepared to do whatever is necessary to achieve those aims. Kevin Flynn likes the puzzle but Sam Flynn likes the solution, and is far more prepared to get his hands dirty than his father ever was.

These two men, and one simulation, fight and die over a fascinating evolutionary annex. Flynn creates a closed system and sets it running, the world gradually evolving under the watchful eye of Flynn, Clu and Tron, the one survivor Flynn brought over from the original Grid. The religious overtones of this trinity are self-evident, as are those of the Kevin/Sam/Clu triangle but the film sensibly never belabours this point. Instead, it explores a world which has taken on a life of its own, literally in the case of the Isomorphic Algorithms or ISOs. These are the film’s most fascinating concept, spontaneously generating artificial life, and whilst we get frustratingly little information on them, what the film presents us with is both fascinating and indicative of the evolution of the action movie. The one surviving ISO, Quorra, played by Olivia Wilde, is both a far cry from the passive Lora Baines of the original movie and a very modern action heroine. Quorra is light hearted, cheerful and far more competent than either of the Flynn men, rescuing them far more than they rescue her. It’s a neat reversal that not only marks the film out as a modern piece of fiction but also plays up the fact that Quorra is at home on the Grid in a way the Flynns can never be. Even more impressive, the film doesn’t use this to limit or restrict her, but rather to explore a very different view of the Grid to any of the male leads. For Clu and Kevin, the Grid is everything, for Sam the Grid is the answer he’s looking for but for Quorra the Grid is merely a starting point. She wants more, she wants the real world and wants it on her terms. There’s none of the fascist tendencies of Clu, none of the obsession of the Flynn men, just a young woman who happens to be artificial wanting more from her life. It’s a fascinating, nuanced role which is orders of magnitude above the normal female lead and Wilde brings intelligence and focus to the role.

A father, a son, a ghost and a miracle. These four characters are the beating heart of Tron Legacy and each one represents not just an approach to the Grid but an approach to science fiction itself. None of them are perfect, none of them are right but the conflict between them, ideological and physical, is a far smarter, sleeker narrative engine than the film initially appears to have. This is a story about information and how we interact with it, what we do with it and how that’s changed. The Grid has changed, the approach to it has changed but, in the end the information stays the same, as does the single, huge question that lies at the heart of both films and much modern science fiction:

What do you do once you have the information?

For Sam and Quorra, the answer is simple; nothing, until you need to. After all, there are no sunrises on the Grid and life is much, much more than zeroes and ones.