Tron: Legacy

18 January 2011

A couple of nights ago I went to see Tron: Legacy again with Jason, and we spent much of the evening afterward discussing it, as we are wont to do. I haven't been keeping up with reviews of it, to be honest, I just know what a couple of people said about it. Largely, their opinions were that the movie was visually stunning (it was), the effects were top notch (they were), but the plot was somewhat lacking and relied a little bit too much on references to the original movie. If nothing else, the soundtrack is awesome and I can't recommend it highly enough.

If you're not familiar with the basic storyline, Tron: Legacy picks up about twenty five years after the events of the first movie and twenty years after the disappearance of Kevin Flynn, protagonist of Tron. Flynn's son Sam is ostensibly the biggest shareholder of Encom but is content to while away the days living in a renovated garage somewhere in the Bay Area, and spends his days riding his motor cycle, reconditioning his father's beloved motorcycle, and occasionally wreaking havoc around the city. Every once in a while Allen Bradley (played by Bruce Boxleitner) drops by but mostly Sam is uninterested in doing much of anything with his life. Once night, Kevin is told by Allen that he received a page originating from the phone number of Kevin Flynn's old office on the top floor of his video arcade. From there, the movie picks up speed, and the interesting bits (which are spoilers, naturally) are below the cut. Read on if you've already seen the movie or if you don't particularly care about spoilers.

I'll admit, the plot is a bit choppy and makes a few assumptions that can leave you confused. It helps if you've read the two comics set before Tron: Legacy, which are titled Tron: Ghost in the Machine and Tron: Betrayal. Betrayal is more important, I think, because it describes the events leading up to the movie, including the appearance of the ISOs and the falling out of CLU v2.0 and Kevin Flynn. It also explains some of the mechanics of the world, in particular the fact that time moves much more rapidly on the Grid than it does in the real world. Flynn was spending hours on the Grid each night, which to the denizens of that world seemed as months or even years at a time. As far as they were concerned, Flynn was disappearing every few months and staying away for years, which plays into something that Jason and I picked up about the movie, which is that it can be described as a retelling of the Gnostic creation myth. There is a number of them out there so I'll only give you the high points.

So these stories go, there is a Creator above everything, considered by some to be perfect and all to be unimaginably powerful. To assist in the creation of, well, everything, the Creator begat a number of assistants, lesser in power and influence but still potent which are referred to as demiurges. The demiurges are manifestations or personifications of certain aspects of the Creator, and have an unknown degree of self determination. It must be noted that the demiurges are not the true creators, but can be likened to assistants, specialists, or autonomous tools of the Creator which are set to the task of building and extending the creation. At some point in the history of Creation, things started to go pear-shaped. The demiurges, depending on who you talk to and which particular myth you study, either went mad, became resentful of the Creator and took over, began destroying the Creation, or became convinced that they were the true Creator. At some point the true Creator vanished and the demiurges were left in charge with their own legions of assistants called the archons, who are lesser in power and influence than the demiurges but still forces to be reckoned with. It is usually around this time in the myths that things like destruction, pain, suffering, slavery, deception, and death figure into the lives of the beings who live in the Creation.

First, Kevin Flynn as creator. What we see of the Grid, or the realm inside of Flynn's computer network is not the Grid of the original movie (which took place inside of ENCOM's mainframes). At some point Kevin Flynn, now strongly reminiscent of Apple's Steve Jobs (down to his taste for minimalism) set up a lab in the basement beneath his arcade and began building a new Grid which he hoped would revolutionize the world. From the events in Tron: Betrayal Flynn would upload himself into the new Grid (in the background you can see what appears to be a more advanced laser digitizer) and spend hours expanding the Grid. Kevin Flynn as Gnostic Creator isn't much of a stretch especially when one takes into account the fact that Flynn was formatting the Grid ex nihilo. One of his first creations was CLU v2.0 (retconned to mean Codified Likeness Utility), the second iteration of the program used to hack into the ENCOM network in the first movie. CLU v2.0 was formatted by Flynn partially uploading a copy of himself by willpower alone, and later in the movie we see him hacking parts of the Grid by hand to expose trapdoors and even reprogramming one of CLU's guards/archons by hand. Following the convention of programs taking on the likeness of their creators, CLU v2.0 looks as Kevin Flynn did when he began building the new Grid, which incidentally demonstrates the new CG technology of de-aging actors by using old reference footage (watch the trailer, you'll see what I mean). If you've seen Terminator: Salvation, the young!Arnold T-800 near the end used the same CG technique. CLU v2.0 assisted Flynn in the construction of the Grid and was left to run things when Flynn transferred back into the real world. CLU v2.0 followed Flynn's orders and had sufficient power and insight into the workings of the Grid to continue following the plan: Create the perfect system. Hence, CLU v2.0 as demiurge.

Then the Grid began evidencing behavior that it hadn't been explicitly designed for - due to experimental genetic algorithms Flynn was running on the servers a new form of electronic life appeared called the ISOs, or isomorphic algorithms. In a flashback they are seen emerging from the unformatted lands beyond the edges of the city, possibly from the Sea of Simulation (which one could compare to the primordial ooze if one were so inclined). Insofar as CLU saw it, this was the sign of an imperfect system, and as his basic programming directed that he build the perfect system he began a pogram against the ISOs, not only destroying the sectors of the Grid that they had formatted for themselves but for all intents and purposes committing genocide. It was somewhen around this time that Kevin Flynn was trapped inside the Grid (the laser digitizer had powered itself off) and, without any way out retired to the undeveloped edges of the new Grid, built himself a house reminiscent of the one at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and removed himself from the world as much as he could. Cut off from the original Creator, with all of the orders, much of the power, and some of the insight of the Creator, with no ability to create or innovate independently, the demiurge went wild and began damaging the Creation, even going so far as to begin the gladitorial games where programs fought to deresolution again. CLU v2.0 took another page from the playbook of the MCP by co-opting independent programs living on the Grid to serve as his archons.

In some of the Gnostic creation myths the fall or corruption of the Creation came about as the result of a trigger event, described as the addition of an instability called Sophia. Depending on the myth, Sophia can be considered one of the femine aspects of the Creator (which is usually considered to be above such things as feminine/masculine duality), the personification of the power of the Creator, or as a rogue element of the Creator's power (for good or for evil as we see it down here in the Creation, again, depending on the particular version of Gnosticism). The event which eventually caused CLU v2.0 to stage a coup and take over the new Grid was the appearance of the ISOs in the city, of which the character Quorra was the last. The argument could be made that Quorra is a manifestation of Sophia in that she is an entity borne from the primal chaos (the Sea of Simulation) the surrounded the farthest borders of the Grid, and as an ISO brought that chaos into the "perfect system," thus making it imperfect. If CLU v2.0 was not considered a demiurge before that moment he certainly began acting in a malevolent fashion as a direct result of her appearance along with the rest of the ISOs.

Watching Tron: Legacy also reminded me of a couple of things that I never really had cause to write about before. First, the sort of software you write not only changes how you think and how you go about building things. Flynn got his start programming games back in the 80's, so much of the Grid has game-like elements (familiar if you've seen the first movie). The Grid might have been very different if, say, a programmer who specialized in utilities was constructing it because they tend to see things in terms of what they do and how well they do it. A Grid based upon the UNIX philosophy might have emphasized highly specialized programs working together in teams to accomplish tasks rather than programs wandering around more or less at will. An application programmer would likely have had a still different take on how the Grid worked, possibly by depicting programs as more expressive, multi-purposed and multi-talented.

The discussion (usually negative) about the reappearances of programs wearing and using data disks, the light cycles, the arena, and the solar sailer reminded me of something I learned when my fascination for virtual reality (in many forms) was a lot stronger. People who spend a lot of time hacking VR often tear down (or unformat) their projects and rebuild them a couple of times to get them right. Sometimes the initial conception isn't what you hoped it would be, or part of the idea wasn't fully formed, or maybe all of the objects just don't fit together the way you would like, so you delete all of the objects and start over until it feels right. If you do this long enough, you'll find that some of the elements of the very first iteration of your project are always present in the later versions. There are always a couple of details that you just can't bring yourself to get rid of, like the shape of a room or the textures used on the walls, or something like that. Someone else looking at your work might not realize it but you always know it's there. The same goes for the character of Flynn rebuilding the Grid on another system: some of the basic concepts appear to have stuck with him on some level, and remanifested in the new world. For example, the light cycles (also reflected in later iterations of vehicles, including the light jets) and tank programs on patrol were found in the ENCOM mainframes in the first movie as well.

Jason made an interesting point during our discussion of how the personalities of the programs' developers manifested in the movies. Alan Bradley was a security geek and the original coder of Tron, which was a program designed to patrol the system it was installed in, investigate anomalies, and terminate unauthorized connections. Shortly after the coup before Tron: Legacy, Tron was somehow corrupted or infected by CLU v2.0 and changed into Rinzler, an archon charged with hunting down and derezzing programs that appeared to conflict with CLU's notion of a perfect system. I think this reflects in some way a truism of information security, which is that any software developed by a white hat - be it an exploit, a scanner, or a programming language - can be abused by a black hat for malicious ends. At least when I was working in the security field (and I know I'm not the only person who's experienced this), I used to catch a lot of flak for the tools I carried because all people thought they were good for was cracking systems. While they are essential for penetration testing and they can be used to help gain access to a system, they can also be used in-house to test for the presence of a vulnerability or the efficacy of a patch. The existence of a thing does not necessarily dictate what it can be used for, it that which uses a thing which makes that determination. Guns on their own don't kill people, they just make it easier for people to kill people. Exploits don't own machines, crackers who use exploits to gain access outside of legal channels do.

So, there you have it. I enjoyed the movie greatly (enough to go see it twice) and recommend it highly. The 3D effects are okay, you'll forget they're there partway into the movie so don't get too worked up over them. The soundtrack by Daft Punk is incredible, and if you look closely they have a cameo at the End of Line club as the DJ above the dancefloor. I went out and bought the soundtrack the day after I saw the movie the first time, and have it in frequent rotation in the car these days. Like a lot of things Tron: Legacy has its flaws and shortcomings. I enjoyed the movie because it made me think by reminding me of things that I'd forgotten about for years, and sometimes you really do get out what you put into something (well, okay, not The Last Airbender - even I have my limits).