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The realm of the invisible: Talking about TRON


Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn

But yes, I have, in fact, seen the movie TRON. Several times. And recently, I've gone through other TRON-related media as well, and have things to say about them. But let's start at the beginning (spoilers ahead!):

TRON is still a fascinating, unique movie, mind-blowingly ahead of its time, not just with its special effects that thanks to the setting still looks good today, or its beautiful, equally pioneering soundtrack by genius composer Wendy Carlos (and Journey!). It's one of the earliest movies to be about computers, computer networking, hackers, video games and other far-out technology that the public was only just becoming aware of in the year 1982. Yes, it is often awkward, with inaccurate technological terminology and many aspects that doesn't make much sense when you think about it (computer programs are alive, but they are also characters in video games? But the video games themselves aren't living programs?). But I don't think it's the soulless special effects spectacle that many reviewers at the time wrote it off as. It's a movie with a lot of heart. All the actors are charmingly enthusiastic and earnest, though, again, awkward at times, probably not understanding all the bizarre technical jargon and made-up terms in the script, but still delivering it as best as they can. The limitations of the special effects also give the movie an interesting visual style, since any scene with glowing computer people could only be done with the camera nailed to the spot, without moving it. That they still managed to make some fairly exciting fight scenes with this limitation is impressive. And I think there are many interesting thematic elements to the film's story as well, particularly when it comes to religion.

The living computer programs in the electronic world of TRON have developed a curious, extremely polytheistic religion, where every single human being who has ever used a computer is a god, a "User", and each program has their very own, personal god, "my User". The main villain, the Master Control Program, wants to destroy this religion by calling it a ridiculous superstition, even though he is very well aware that the Users are real. In fact, unlike other programs, he is in direct contact with the Users, particularly with the evil boss of the computer company in which he resides (the movie isn't really anti-capitalist, since Dillinger isn't the villain because he's a CEO, but because he gained the position through dishonest means, and when Flynn finds the evidence for this, he in turn becomes the "good" CEO). The MCP doesn't just want to stamp out the polytheism, but replace it with monotheism, with him as the only god. Not only that, he's also making plans to rule the "real world" of humans as well, blackmailing Dillinger and infiltrating both the Pentagon and the Kreml (and possibly the Chinese government as well), something I suspect would shock most of the smaller programs if they found out. Ruling over the gods, becoming a god yourself?! The main henchman of the MCP, Sark, is interesting in that he is caught up in a battle between divine forces beyond his comprehension. On the one hand there is the extremely mighty MCP with divine ambitions, and on the other, the chosen warrior of the gods (TRON) and his companion, one of the gods themselves, visiting the world of mortals (Flynn). It's suggested at several times in the movie that Sark is frightened and unsure, both of the MCP and of Flynn and TRON. Flynn, meanwhile, reveals that the gods aren't in fact perfect beings with divine plans, but, well, us. This doesn't seem to shake TRONs faith, but I am curious about what he thinks when Flynn talks about "doing what it looks like you're supposed to be doing, no matter how crazy it seems".

The polytheism vs monotheism theme also seems like an interesting allegory for the move away from centralized computing, with dumb terminals connected to a mainframe (monotheism, the MCP, to which Users must request access to their programs), towards personal computers (polytheism, each program communicating directly with their User). This theme is something I would love to see tackled in a modern TRON movie, since in some ways, it seems like we're moving back towards digital monotheism, with The Cloud, streaming services, Stadia, etc., things that often bring benefits to the big corporations, but not many to the users. The lack of this in the sequels we did get, is one of the most disappointing things about them. But I'll write more about that later.


Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
Once again, spoiler warnings!

Let's get it out of the way at the start: TRON: Legacy is a great-looking and great-sounding movie. In that aspect, I think it's a worthy successor to the original, with a unique visual style and tons of beautiful shots. I admit that I'm not as ecstatic over the Daft Punk soundtrack as I am over Wendy Carlos' original, but that is probably because I haven't listened to it as much. While not as mind-shatteringly pioneering in the visual effects as the original was, I think it's fitting that this was an early example of a to this day controversial technology: CGI versions of an actor when they were younger (or in some cases, when they were still alive), in this case a young Jeff Bridges. I think the concept works in this particular movie, once again because of its digital, unreal setting, with the young Bridges being a digital character in the actual story (my headcanon for the scenes with young Bridges in the "real world": Kevin Flynn has been travelling back and forth between the digital and real world several times, and this has affected his body so that it has begun to look increasingly uncanny. If he had continued travelling, he would eventually have looked like a PS1-era polygon character).

But the film misses something very important with its story. It's not really a story about computers, not in the same way that the original was, which is extremely frustrating considering the countless extraordinary new digital technologies and concepts that has developed since 1982. For example, it's baffling that a TRON movie made in the year of our Users 2010 completely ignores the internet. The whole digital world in the film is set on a single computer hidden away in a basement, without any outside connections (I recall someone on the previous Talking Time referring to it as "Flynn's private Minecraft server"). This is particularly strange since the concepts of computers connecting, not just locally but worldwide, was part of the plot of the original film, way back in 1982. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of missed opportunities. What would the TRON take be on things like operating systems, or emulators, or streaming services, or DRM, or online games, or social media, or Wi-Fi, or tiny computers you can carry in your pocket, or virtual reality, or...? Instead, we get the strange concept of "Isomorphic Algorithms" (I'd have more of a problem with this term if TRON didn't already have a history of goofy made-up computer language), computer programs that aren't created by humans, but spring up mysteriously from the digital world on their own (my headcanon theory is that their appearance was in fact caused by Kevin Flynn's prescence on the Grid, the Grid somehow absorbing parts of him and creating new life from it, but that's only because the movie doesn't give any answers). This isn't, as far as I know, analogous to any current computer technology or concepts, but seems more like a transhumanist sci-fi wet dream. And to me, that isn't nearly as interesting as the allegories to actual, current technology that were in the original film.

Another thing that makes this one huge flaw even more frustrating is that the movie starts off so well, with hints towards the kind of story I want, but those hints are soon shown to be mere sequel hooks, to a sequel that seems increasingly unlikely that we'll ever see. There's some light criticism of modern software companies, including what might be considered an heroic act of anti-capitalism when Sam Flynn hijacks the ENCOM board meeting to release their latest operating system for free online (after Alan Bradley has made some pointed questions about why they're charging schools and other organisations so much money for it). I would love to see a movie with Cillian Murphy's character as the villain, especially since "quirky, rich, evil computer nerd" is certainly not an unrealistic idea in these days of Musks and Zuckerbergs (I actually liked this modern interpretation of Lex Luthor in Batman V Superman).

Still, I do think there's some interesting things about the film's plot, even if it's mostly a sci-fi/fantasy adventure with pretty visuals. Unlike the Master Control Program, the villain of this film, Clu, aknowledges the existence of the Users, but paints them as evil tyrants that the computer programs must break free from. In the previous movie, the Users were talked about with reverent awe, so I was actually a tiny bit shocked when Sam is introduced as a User in this movie, and a huge crowd of programs boos him and wants to see him die in the arena. This resentment does feel like a logical conclusion that is rarely explored in "what if inaminate objects had thoughts and feelings?"-stories (such as Toy Story, The Brave Little Toaster, and probably loads of others that I can't think of right now), which TRON at its core is a modern take on. I mean, if my dinnerware was sentient, for example, I'm sure they would resent me for keeping them stuck inside a cupboard for most of their lives. But this in itself is probably not an ethical dilemma most people thinks needs to be explored, unless, once again, you're a transhumanist that is worried about equal rights for potential future AI.

What does feel relevant, however, is what Clu does with this resentment: He creates "the perfect system", a fascist dictatorship with him as leader, killing undersirables in gladiatorial combat to entertain his subjects, commiting genocide against the Isomorphic Algorithms, and forcibly recruiting programs into an enormous army with the goal of spreading his empire across the whole digital world, and beyond. What's particularly interesting about this it the fact that Clu is said to be a reflection of Kevin Flynn, who originally wanted to create "the perfect system". I'm not sure if it's intentional, but I would argue that this could be seen as a comment on the fact that a worrying amount of modern tech nerds have embraced reactionary, fascist ideas on how the world should be run. I'm not sure if this was a problem many people were aware of in 2010, but it does seem more and more relevant with each passing year. Flynn's reaction to this is also interesting, since he decides that he should simply hide away and do nothing, hoping that a rebellion against Clu will arise without his involvement (this line is especially interesting in light of the next big TRON story, but I'll get to that in the future), which seems like an attitude not all too uncommon in our world. It's only when his son arrives that he seems to realize that "chaos is good news" and that even though it's dangerous, he should do something about the problems that he's mostly responsible for.

So yes, even though I was originally disappointed with it, I managed to find some interesting ideas hidden away in TRON: Legacy after thinking about it for a while. And just like the original, many of the actors are pretty charming, including the newcomers Garrett Hedlund and Olivia Wilde (though her character spends a notable amount of time unconscious, literally being carried in the arms of the male protagonist. She isn't exactly Leia, I'm afraid).

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Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
Okay, deep breaths. I... I promised myself I wouldn't cry.

For those of you who don't know the story, TRON: Uprising was a cartoon series from 2012 that ran on Disney XD for a single season before being cancelled, even though the story was just getting started, with plenty of dangling plot threads that we'll most likely never see tied up. It's a prequel to TRON: Legacy, with a plot that can be summed up as "Batman Beyond plus Star Wars". A young man is trained by the old, wounded hero TRON and works as a masked vigilante, not to fight crime, but to fight against the occupation forces of Clu's evil empire. I'm willing to forgive the series somewhat for still lacking allegories to real-life computer technology, since it's forced to work in the setting from the more recent film (so no internet, for example), though it keeps bugging me at the back of my head while watching.

The plot and characters are mostly things we've seen in plenty of other cartoons about superheroes with secret identities and fights against evil empires. What's striking is how dark the story becomes. There is torture, betrayals, dark secrets, and plenty of scenes of characters getting killed in brutal and gory ways. I guess the show gets away with the violence due to the old action cartoon clause of "it's okay if it's robots", even though the computer programs are obviously thinking, feeling people. And the "gore" is all glowing white pixels, though I don't think that makes the scenes of people being torn apart any less disturbing. Maybe the darkness is inevitable due to the prequel nature of the story: The evil empire is still in power at the beginning of the movie, so the heroes in the series can't actually win against it, only struggle to win symbolic victories here and there. I guess this could be seen as a comment on Flynn's thought in the movie about an inevitable rebellion: Yes, there was in fact a rebellion, but it failed without his help. It's also interesting to see the series as a prototype for the later Disney Star Wars cartoons: It has the grim inevitability of Clone Wars, the building of a rebellion of Rebels, and it's the story of an idealistic young man working as a mechanic while living a double life as seen in Resistance.

But the reason why I love Uprising isn't the plot, it's the visuals. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is the prettiest piece of TRON media of all time. The animation combines 2D and 3D wonderfully, and there is a continuous stream of beautiful vistas, exciting action scenes, expressive characters and interesting visual designs. I might be a little unfair to TRON: Legacy since Uprising builds on the visuals from that movie, but the fact remains: This is the most visually beautiful TRON story yet made. Watching the episodes is a sheer delight for the visuals alone. The music is mostly pretty great as well, and let's not forget the star-studded cast of voice actors, including Elijah Wood, Bruce Boxleitner, Lance Henriksen, Mandy Moore, Reginald VelJohnson, John Glover and even a cameo from Olivia Wilde.

One episode tells the backstory of the henchwoman to the evil empire with a conscience, Paige. It's revealed that she used to work at a hospital, and composed music. The track "Paige's Past" ends with her music, a simple, melancholy, beautiful electronic tune that is suddenly cut off before it is finished. And we'll probably never hear it be finished. But maybe that's part of what makes it melancholy and beautiful. If you'll excuse me, I... I seem to have something in my eye.

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Johnny Unusual

TRON: Legacy was OK but I remember cringing the moment they kept trying to set up sequels. I don't care about "uniting the clans" unless it actually factors into the story you are telling.


does the Underpants Dance
I was considering watching Uprising since I'm subscribed to Disney+ but haven't started yet. I really like the original movie, but I haven't seen Legacy since it was in theaters and it deserves a rewatch too. There has been recent news about the development of a third TRON movie, but I'm not getting my hopes up that it'll be anything special. I feel like the original movie was such a unique idea in both concept and execution, and I just can't see modern Disney doing something like that again.


Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
The fact that Jared Leto is attached to the third movie makes me extremely worried. And I agree that I don't see modern Disney making the kind of TRON movie I'd like to see. I would love it to bring the criticism of huge tech corporations that is simmering in the background of the original movie ("User requests are what computers are for!" "Doing our business is what computers are for!") to the foreground, but I don't imagine the huge Disney corporation doing that.


Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
There's one more piece of notable TRON non-game media that I think is worth mentioning in this thread, even if it's a comic rather than a movie or TV series. Since it's somewhat more obscure and difficult to find these days, I'll try to be more careful about spoilers.

See, in 2003, there was a great game called TRON 2.0 (with a story that I think in some ways is more true to the spirit of the original film than either Legacy or Uprising). The story ended with hooks for a sequel, a sequel that we'll most likely never get to see (anyone noticing a pattern?). What we did get was the comic miniseries TRON: The Ghost in the Machine. It has the same main character as the game, but I doubt that this is the story the game makers intended for the next game. Because it gets weird, man.

The plot starts of with the main character (Jet Bradley) returning to the computer world, but pretty soon it becomes a trippy story about unreliable perceptions and questioning about what's real and what's not. The digital world changes in appearance and nature over and over again, and Jet's memories seem scrambled, so that he's remembering several different stories at once, not being sure what is real and what is hallucination. It reminds me of comics written by Grant Morrison, such as Animal Man or Doom Patrol, exploring the character's psyche and the nature of storytelling itself through strange imagery. It's definitely not what I expected from a TRON story, but I do think it's a angle with merit. I mean, if I was disintegrated by a laser and had my consciousness uploaded to a fantastical digital world, it's not unreasonable to think that I would begin to question the reality of what I was seeing.

Sadly, I didn't like the art very much. It's passable, but not as beautiful and imaginative as I've come to expect from TRON stories. It gets especially confusing when Jet starts meeting copies of himself, but I'm not sure if a particular character is a copy or someone else entirely, due to the poor art on the faces. And the ending of the comic once again gets into the realm of transhumanism, rather than being a story about actual, current computer technology. I mean, I get it. I get why transhumanists would be attracted to TRON. But it's not what I find to be most interesting about it. Still, I'm willing to forgive a lot of flaws if a story is weird and different, and The Ghost in the Machine definitely is. Though I would have liked to see more Ligh Cycles.


Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
So stop me if you've heard this one before: A Disney movie with CGI, that is about digital people living in a videogame world. That's right, it's...

No, seriously, I think that Wreck-It-Ralph (and its sequel) in many ways is the spiritual sequel to TRON, and I was honestly surprised that the first movie didn't make any reference to TRON (Wreck-It-Ralph Breaks the Internet did, but I'm not entirely sure if that was intended as aknowleding its roots, or just one of about a million references and product placements). It's a movie that uses its digital-world setting to tell a story with timeless themes in a way that can only be done in that particular setting.

Of particular interest is Vanellope, whose personal journey through the first movie is to learn to be comfortable with who she is, and not see her digital glitch as something to be ashamed of, but something to use to her advantage. Which can be paralleled to the fact that glitches in games (especially in retro games) aren't always disliked by gamers, but are seen as funny or even useful.

In this way, the film uses a particular aspect of digital media as a central part of its story and theme. And that's what I wish modern TRON stories would do. In Wreck-It-Ralph it's mostly used for family-friendly comedy, but just imagine what could be done with it in a (comparatively, at least) more adult, serious story. The second movie in particular makes me even more frustrated that most TRON media has completely ignored the internet.


Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
CinemaWins have some interesting things to say about TRON: Legacy, when they're not gushing about how pretty it is and how great the soundtrack is:
They have an interesting theory on the nature of the ISOs compared to "regular" programs: ISOs can survive damage that makes normal programs fall apart into glowing cubes, since normal programs are designed to be "perfect", and therefore break down if something in them becomes imperfect, while ISOs are "imperfect", which makes them better able to continue working even when damaged. This theory does seem to work in the movie, though I'm not sure it works with TRON: Uprising, since plenty of regular programs are injured there but still go on living (including TRON himself).


Let me rock you Chaugnar Faugn
I just found another reason to love Wendy Carlos:

For the 20th anniversary of the release of TRON, Disney decided to re-release the soundtrack along with the 20th Anniversary DVD. When Carlos was preparing the master tapes for the CD release, she discovered that the tapes had become unplayable, due to a flaw in the chemical makeup of the tape in which the tape would absorb moisture in the air and cause the tape not to play (or in some cases, not even rewind). Carlos' master tapes for her score of The Shining as well as several of her albums were also affected by this flaw. To fix this, Carlos literally baked the 1/2" tape reels in a dehydrator to remove moisture from the tape and make transfers from the master while they were temporarily playable.