After 28 years, the sequel to Disney’s Tron is finally upon us. Tron Legacy, produced by the original movie’s director Steven Lisberger and directed by newcomer Joseph Kosinski, had a unique problem. Tron had a connection to the computer and gaming lore of the late 70s and early 80s, with its simple vector graphics and sounds. The home computer for the consumer was still rare. The general public had very little clue on how computers work. The World Wide Web is still almost a decade away. How can one create a modern sequel to a movie based on anachronistic world view of technology?
Very simple. Just build upon the even more fantastic elements of the first movie and move on from there.
SPOILERS BEYOND! SPOILERS!
The first movie appeared to visually be the inner workings of a computer. But if you think about it, how can you make actuarial programs play games? Why wasn’t the Master Control Program, which was a chess program that evolved into a Seed AI, not a big deal? (If the MCP was a Seed AI then what are the programs?) How was a laser that can digitize a human not a big deal? How did programs travel within the grid? Why do they have immediate teleport transportation and vehicles? Why did they need to talk, make jokes, breathe? Why gravity? Why space, for that matter?
Tron Legacy has implied that they all were not direcly connected to how computers work. It was not a physical representation of events happening in a CPU and a hard disk drive. It was a real physical, tangible pocket universe that was created based on the metaphorical workings of a computer. There was gravity in the new grid, air to breath, actual biomorphic bodies (which derezzed into tiny cubes instead of disintegrating in a flash of light as per Tron), food to eat and water to drink. It would seem that Kevin Flynn somehow created a complete spacetime continuum from the existence of his own isolated server space, daemons and system architecture instead of having the entire sensory experience generated and projected into his consciousness by the computer itself.
What we ended up with was a much more complex and realistic environment from the first movie.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story: Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), who became the CEO of software giant Encom Corporation after the events of the orignal movie, disappeared way back when I was 16. His son Sam Flynn was 7 and was left with memories of stories of how the work he’s doing will change the world as we know it. Fast forward to 2010, we find Sam (Garrett Hedlund) – now very adept at computer technology – refusing to have anything to do with Encom but carries out elaborate annual pranks on the company, much to Kevin’s former comrade-in-arm Alan Bradley’s (Bruce Boxleitner) disappointment. Alan is the only person left who believes that Flynn did not run away to escape pressure.
Soon after the latest prank, Alan appears at Sam’s house telling him that he got a page from a disconnected number in his dad’s abandoned game arcade office. Sam investigates and discovers a secret entrance to a underground server running a *nix-variant OS. He calls up dad’s last commands which involves “laser control” and ZAP!
Sam, now transported into his dad’s grid, discovers that the grid is under new and hostile management, autonomous programs, light cycles, light runners, recognizers, new digital life forms called isomorphic algorithms (Isos). Aided by his dad’s protege the digital warrior Quorra (Olivia Wilde) he decides to find his dad and escape the grid.
ULTRA-SPOILERS COMING UP NEXT!
I went into the theatre thinking it would disappoint to some degree because it’s difficult to top preconceived notions of a movie sequel as illustrated by the Star Wars prequel. Although it was not a perfect movie by any means, it did exceed my expectations. There were some bits (heh!) with the movie that didn’t make sense, but on the whole it was a great adventure movie. To be precise, it was a Campbellian hero’s journey set in a unique milieux. It’s a Dungeons and Dragons quest in the trappings of a computer-based proto-cyberpunk genre.
Here’s the movie in a point-by-point format. First, the huh?s:
- The importance of the technology, the existence of the grid and the implications of them in the real world are not really fleshed out – or explicitly explained in the movie. I thought that a better on-screen explanation would help make the characters’ effort to succeed more relatable to the audience. (See the final section: Random thoughts on the digitizing laser)
- Tron. By the third trailer, I was asking myself, “Where was the character Tron? His name’s on the movie, but there’s no sight nor sound of him.” I wasn’t referring to Alan Bradley, of course. But it turns out Tron was all over the trailer. But it was disappointing that in the end we did not a reveal of Bruce Boxleitner’s face. Having his costume lights flickering back to its original glow colour was not as cathartic as I’d like it.
- No Yori. Sigh.
Now, the good stuff:
- Jeff Bridges wasn’t just back as Flynn, but as the new Clu. The first Clu was derezzed by Sark in the first movie. The computer generated de-aged Jeff Bridges looked and sounded amazing. It even has the young Jeff Bridges voice. The older Flynn was magnificently portrayed not as a traditional wise sage role. He played Flynn like a pacifist hippie, thanks to being trapped in the grid, complete with lines like, “Radical, maaan.” He reminded me of Lebowski quite a bit too.
- Daft Punk’s score was outstanding. I was expecting pure electronica and was rewarded instead by electronica mixed with an epic orchestral score. Daft Punk should produce more movie scores.
- The technology of the grid is an extension and a development of devices in the old grid. Identity discs that doubled as throwing weapons can also now be used to look at and manipulate a denizen’s base code. Other than light cycles, you also had a light runner and light jets. An interesting difference between living characters – users, programs and such- and non-living things is that when the former derezzes they crumble into smaller cube granules and the latter splashes into liquid. Disc combat scenes are fast and vicious with changing gravity. Light cycles are played in a multi-level arena with access ramps between levels.
- Throwback references! “That’s a really big door.” “It’s all in the wrist!” A mantlepiece figure that looks like Bit in Flynn’s hidden abode. Dillinger’s touchscreen table interface.
- There were a couple of scenes that invoked a sense of dualism within the story which I liked. On a grand scale, we see that Flynn’s televised speech of the human race’s new destiny mirrors Clu’s address to his people on their destiny to come out into realspace. On a more subtle note, Flynn’s lair in the grid is designed to have the same general layout of Sam’s place. At both places, people enter from the back to see a motorcycle before coming to the living area. The front areas open up to a porch that leads to a cliff drop-off or into the river, respectively. I thought that was a nice touch.
- Cilian Murphy’s cameo as Edward Dillinger Jr., the son of the Tron‘s human antagonist Edward Dillinger, was a surprise. I did a double take and wondered it was really him or a lookalike actor. It turned out that it was him, and it planted a seed for a further sequel with him as an antagonist.
- There were actual Unix commands used, for example Ed Dillinger Jr. above appeared to have used real ps ux and kill -9 commands to shut down Sam’s Encom hack. Flynn’s table interface under his arcade appear to be running a top command.
So, the Digitizing Laser and the New Grid.
Why didn’t Kevin Flynn just scan his body and central nervous system and project himself into that universe while his body is in realspace?
As I postulated earlier the new, more complex grid is not just a simulspace running within and calculated by the computer, but an actual spacetime continuum that was created based on the metaphysical workings of a computer. How this was done exactly has yet to be revealed (yes, I await a sequel). Tron was imported from the old grid, so he was copied as a “program” in the new grid. The new Clu program was created by Flynn in the new grid by creating a mirror interface and forking himself in it as a program, seemingly at the moment he wished for the creation and control of the “perfect system”.
Early on, Alan mentioned as a “quantum teleportation” process to Sam. I theorize that upon creating a new spacetime continuum using whatever process he learned from either Dillinger’s or the MCP’s files, he discovered a way to update it so that universe has complex environmental processes. Perhaps even resolution on a quantum level. At that level, you could not measure without changing the attribute of a particle. Perhaps, the laser actually does destroy a human body and employs some sort of inter-universe quantum entanglement to recreate it there.
It’s apparent the laser does not use power from the wall socket to recreate a body – or Quorra would not have been rematerialized in realspace at the end of the movie. Imagine the energy requirements to generate matter to assemble a human body! This would also support Flynn’s vague ramblings about changing our understanding of science and medicine. Zap a person with a terminal disease into the grid, change his base code using digital DNA knowledge learned from studying ISOs, delete the disease and zap him back to realspace. You would get a totally healthy human being. What about base code for aging, or for tweaking up physical characteristics so you’d be stronger or smarter?
I hope these issues get developed in a follow up movie some day. (Hopefully not 28 years from today.)