Is "TRON" really just a stupid fantasy B-movie with a lot of special effects? It seems simple enough. It's a Disney movie, and people laugh at it. What the hell, really, is "TRON?"
Is it a film about technology? Is it a film about being stuck inside technology? Is it like the MATRIX?
I'll explain. TRON is madness. TRON is art. TRON is insanity at its finest. TRON is more than you think it is.
TRON is more than the MATRIX, no matter how many hip phrases they use in those Wachowski films. It is operating on a different level, asking different questions. TRON is an abstract brain twister that appears to be quite benign. There are many levels operating inside TRON which involve allegory, and symbolism, they involve mythological connections and much of it is abstract disguised in what appears to be a very ordinary sci-fi fantasy B-movie plot about freeing the land of electronic people.
To see this film merely as something like 'Star Wars' fantasy or as simplistic as STAR WARS, or FLASH GORDON, one is missing much of what they are looking at. TRON is Art, aimed at technology. It is not selling a futuristic utopia about living inside computers, it isn't necessarily commanding a mere political idea in its subtext, though one can be seen in there, it isn't so simplistic as it first seems. Context is everything in this weird piece of moving computer generated and photographic, cinematic art. Ideas bounce off eachother and in a way are reduced in form to something like a simple Hollywood plot, like Spartacus, or any movie where the hero saves the earth, saves the girl, but because of what those ideas are made of, they do not find themselves operating in the same way you would ever expect. In looking back at TRON, it helps to know what was going on in the early 80s, in terms of what TRON represented to a lot of people at the time, but embedded in TRON is a mythological framework, which has something to say even for our time now.
If you were to look at it merely by the plot, good guy rebels defeat tyranny in their little sci-fi world, however how they do it is important. Not to mention little details which make connections to things in the real world make all the more interesting because we are not dealing with a vague evil empire, nor a simple system of fascism, or that technology is the evil they fight. While the characters seem pretty ordinary, where they are and how they do what they do in relation to our real world is where the devilish details are.
Because of what technology is, and because at the time the technological ideas in the movie were not widely and publicly understood, you get something which reaches beyond the ordinary person's realm of experience, not simply an experience of 'living inside a computer' but an imaginary experience of the what is the computer itself and what it could mean to us. It isn't about accurately predicting technical aspects of future technology, but it attempts to imagine how it will affect us in a very abstract way. Many times in the past science fiction has predicted forms of society, and conditions of humanity without accurately predicting every technical aspect of that world. In this case, TRON attempts to abstractly imagine what all these things will do to our innermost selves, and how we respond to it. As children we don't analyze it, we don't question it, we just enjoy the fantasy aspect of it, but as adults it is like a psychedelic experience, shifting our consciousness, making us consider all sorts of strange things.
People didn't have computers like they do now, there were a couple strange folks on the fringes who had them, but literally a mere few, more people had VCRs, and these were scarce, a handful of people had cable television, or satellite television, however something was happening, and more and more people were wondering, and looking into getting them, though they were like the ones we have now. People were experimenting with computers, and corporate industry was financing many projects involving computers, but the average person did not have a laptop, wi-fi, access to an internet, and cellphones were scarce, and for the rich. Every time a generation sees a technological revolution, only a few rich people have access to these devices. Those who do have access to this technology are also limited, even those at the forefront of its development.
Imagine, a generation growing up with no computers, no cellphones, no iPods, no mp3 players, no iPads, no XBOXes, etc, and then like a flood or an epidemic, people were getting video games, computers, hand held electronic games and learning devices, beepers, and Walkmans. This was something new entering the culture of the masses, and only the imagination could even possibly attempt to grasp what was happening, or where it would lead. The control of this is usually in the hands of governments and corporations which direct the marketing of this technology and how it will be used. In this particular revolution, the computers which were in the hands of the people would direct its evolution. Access to a computer was limited at the time TRON came out. Budding personal computer companies like APPLE and COMMODORE weren't making computers so kids could chat and text, nor build vast websites like wikipedia, nor post nude photos on facebook, these simple machines were just beginning to be used for videogames, typing out papers, and perhaps as expensive calculators, they were not yet for the masses. Those who 'used' computers were programmers and technicians, utilizing them for something other than the mundane. They used consoles tied to 'mainframe' computers, heavily guarded by their priestlike technicians and maintainers. These were the insiders, while the outsiders like Steve Wozniak tinkered in their garages. Computers were not for the 'profane,' but for a kind of elite, and control of them and 'use' of them for whatever purposes was maintained by the corporate heads and their tech-minions who served them. After all, only a strange few had any interest in computers.
Things were changing however, and a new spirit of 'User Freedom' was on the horizon. People were being accustomed to electronic devices everywhere, and computerized devices. Hand held electronic games, arcade video games, wireless remote controls for everything under the sun, digital clocks and watches were the rage, and all sorts of unusual little electronic learning devices were coming out for children. The electronic was coming into social space, and electronic synthesizer music was coming into its own. The word wasn't 'digital' or 'cyber' back then, it was "electronic." It was coming into the hands of everyman, everywhere, and nobody knew what the hell it really meant. Things were all about to get smaller, and the technology was about to enter a manic race of ever-increasing development. What would all of this mean to us? We couldn't possibly have fathomed ebay, or youtube in those days, but here we are.
TRON set out to grasp what was happening, and it is a form of abstract art, which does not try to understand the specifics of social reality, but what could very well be operating on 'invisible' levels of reality. Not that little people were evolving inside machines, but somehow that whatever WE are, is somehow in some way going to end up in the machines we are making, and how will this 'embedded' spirit affect us? What will be happening to our senses, and how will we maintain our sanity, or our freedom in all of this? What alien strangeness is all this electronic weirdness, and how will it be corrupted and does it mean anything beyond our entertainment and amusement?
Using a familiar model, that of the hero, and the villain, and a struggle against tyranny, TRON brings us a mythic fable, perhaps the first of its kind which assimilates technology into its moral, its message, and prophetic dream. TRON is a bit of WIZARD OF OZ, and a cybernetic fairy tale where our celtic 'Flynn' gets sent to fairyland, via a laser light. He is transported into another dimension which is operating just outside our realm of awareness. He is taken inside a computer. But what is this computer? It is the Land of Oz, a trip into the hard-drive of a computer literally, or allegory of a simple plot about a hacker and a corporation? The motivations of our character Flynn are about retrieving what has been stolen from him by a very real evil corporate bastard... the kind that later "developed" software on the device you are now using to read this article. But Flynn is in another place, totally alien, is he really inside a box, shrunk to the size of a nanoparticle? Is this 'virtual reality' he is trapped in?
Nobody was using those words back then, nobody had invented 'avatars' for their internet alter-egos yet. Nobody was talking about nanotechnology, nor 'virtual reality.' It was on the cusp of the consciousness. We didn't know yet. It wasn't there, but speculated on by far-out sci-fi writers, and a few corporate weirdos with a lot of money. TRON was art aimed at technology, the imagination was open and free to come up with a myth about what was to come. In many cases, such attempts come up with relatable tales which in the end turn out to be extraordinarily ironic, and this is very much one of those cases. In TRON, what was important was freedom from tyranny, the tyranny of whatever system might come out of this revolution. Inside the realm of the computer user, the idea of a PC REVOLUTION would free them from the mainframes, and allow them to experiment on their own, and use these new magical devices how they wanted to. For everyone else, who would later come to use computers because you have to in order to 'be connected,' this strange science fiction fantasy myth pushed the edges of their consciousness, to understand what had to be a frightening and exotic culture coming from their children who had already begun their journey into the world of "cyberspace" with videogames. TRON is not an escapist fantasy with a technological motif, it is a cultural mirror, and contains what many great science fiction stories contain, an imaginative view of what is just around the corner for us all, but in an artistic and imaginative form, because who could really know? It was time to reach for mythology and give it a technological mask.
Tron's world, with its electronic little people, whether you see them as virtual alter egos of our main characters, or as simply fantastical spiritual counterparts imbedded inside a magic box into which the main character, FLYNN is taken into, it doesn't matter, its concepts are not just specific to the 80s, or any particular time, it is ultimately a cybernetic myth for all times to come. It mimics the real world, and may even be one day taken as serious as George Orwell's 1984, when people are playing video games as if their lives depended on it, and attempting to shut down a central computer system which watches over everyone, invading their privacy, creativity, and their minds... It also tells the story of the human condition in a possible future, but in its outward appearance, in blue neon, and computerized silicone walls, and light runners, it seems implausible, not possible, and totally unlikely, however, what is taking place in the characters is not so far fetched and ultimately one might draw parallels to what life is like now. People are stuck in a system, which they want to be free, they are kept occupied playing mindless video games, and forced into inhuman competitions, while overseers look on to conquer more worlds, and soon more dimensions. It is a story which will continue to be told again and again because its outer appearance is literal, from one perspective, the world inside the computer is just a bunch of imaginary 'electronic people' but on another level, it is about cyborgs living in a technological world, behaving like programs, thinking like computers, on a bland geometric landscape devoid of color and variety. It is a parallel land of Fey, which lives side by side with our own ordinary world, in which our souls enter into conflicts with demonic overlords and fairy beings. It is a psychedelic hallucination where our minds have transported into our own created technology, where we live out a mythological plot that follows real life as if it were a dreamworld, it is saying that though we think we're very modern with all our gadgets, we're still fighting the same battles, we're still being held back by the same old problems and temptations.
Tyranny will live in the future, no matter how great our technology will become, if we let it, it will live inside the machines we use today, hidden, and festering, if we ignore it, because part of humanity will always be greedy, evil and corrupt. This is the story of humanity, and with that, when we look at our machines, we cannot really believe they will save us, because we're there... inside them too, because we built them with our own human flaws, there's no getting away from it. TRON LEGACY waves its Wizard of Oz wand to look at how our new PC REVOLUTION of freedom has turned on us, and our personal individual computers have become little MCPS of their own, via the corporation that sold them to us. Through embedded secret spyware, and all sorts of involuntary updates and GPS tracking, etc, our little PC REVOLUTION had become repurposed, and our TRON HERO has become evil, ENCOM is reclaiming our 'personal' computers back under their control, via the internet. CLU is our darkside coming at us from an ignored and unexplored techno-dimension, arisen while we ceased exploring, and went off to be occupied by video games and mindless pursuits. We've ceased looking at our technology again, ignoring what it is we have and what we are doing. Nobody else had the balls to say something, so why not a TRON SEQUEL? Sure there are a few movies which have come around to it, but none with the abstract way in which TRON reaches us. The TRON phenomenon has returned, and I haven't really seen anything like it since the 80s. The amount of personal artwork that has been inspired since TRON LEGACY is amazing to look at, in music, art, design, you name it. Now that's what art should do, inspire more art.
The world of computers is so vast and complicated now, one can hardly look into it without being overwhelmed, not by mathematics, nor the science, but by the simple influence of this technology on our everyday lives. TRON isn't predicting some cybernetic future, as if we will one day live in a computer, but strangely in an odd way it does, as it suggests that a microscopic reality will mimic a macroscopic one, and vice versa. That which we create will not only be in our image, but may reach out into our world and turn us into its image, which is mind boggling if you think about it. However, this has to do with the idea of how people building these technologies fail to see that what they are making isn't entirely created out of a void, or in a vacuum, and that everything they are coming up with is a mirror image, though crude and having its own particular shape unlike us, is really a kind of crude reproduction of what we are, and though they think they know what they are doing, they are completely unaware of why they are doing it.
It might seem a fun idea to build a robot for instance, with your likeness, but without working parts, its just a statue of you. That statue can be endowed with a crude operating system, a brain, and perhaps a source of energy, and maybe every detail we think we see in ourselves... so we contruct a kind of replica, but what we don't see is why the hell we're doing it.
In the old days, we built statues of gods and goddesses and mythical beings. We fashioned them and worshipped them. They represented this story, who we are, who we could be, and what we could become. They became idols, and computers may be no different than silicone statues of yet more possible states of being. Whether they be seen as good or evil. The same myths re-inhabit our next new manifestations of our statues. These new ones 'think' and the only reason they do, is because we do. They will be manifestations of everything we are, and that means greed, arrogance, pride, courage, hope, and heroism.
Somebody knew we were creating yet another new world with this technology, and so they came up with TRON. It happens. It has happened before, and it will continue to happen long after computers are considered as ancient as the hammer or the wheel. This means the characters of TRON are more than what they seem. It means that the dynamics operating within that story are more than a simple laser-battle in another space. TRON points to the electronic, or computer-world, which points to our world, which points back to the computer world, which in turn points back to our world, and the influence of eachother creates an infinity of meaning, which ultimately begs us to evaluate what our technology really is. Examining TRON as cinema and whether its acting is deficient, or whether its cinematography is good enough, is not what we are doing here, TRON is what it is as a movie, and it does work as a movie, but clearly there's more than a movie within this movie.
TRON suggests we become more aware of our creations, whether they be SPACE PARANOIDS, or a new kind of computer technology. Within this creation is a mirror image of its maker, and in his unconscious manipulation of elements, he is not aware of the final implications of what this thing will become. Beyond the simple idea of it becoming a monster which might rebel against him, is what it means, no matter what happens, whether it tries to reach out and destroy, control, or manipulate its creator, when it comes down to it, this 'thing' is, more than anything else physically, a new word.
An idea is turned into sculpture, it is materialized, but not simply for the sake of materializing it, though it would seem that is the end result, it is an object for understanding and like child's blocks which can be arranged to spell his name, or to spell C-A-T, we build things in the physical world, to literally see that idea, we build so we 'see what we mean.'
This obviously has disasterous implications, for we sift through the delicate elements of physical reality, the earth, and we put them together to make these things, to summon them into physical reality, and we have come to a point of crisis where building and using these things is causing unbelievable problems affecting every living thing on earth.
TRON is an example of looking at the midpoint of what we are doing. It isn't predicting a TERMINATOR or MATRIX future, it attempts to examine the idea-in-progress, from a very unique point of view. It dives into the unconscious realm and attempts to examine this recursive angle, which includes these aspects of ourselves, like emotion, and will, and freedom, and domination, and peace, and destruction. TRON is a piece of moving, 'animated' artwork which is abstract x10, and multidimensional, it isn't necessarily the finest dramatic 'cinema' ever to come to the screen, it isn't the GODFATHER, it is science fiction, and it manages to fuse that with mythology in a way that STAR WARS cannot, nor had anything really been able to before it. It is a novelty which attempts to put into perspective all these new and alien technologies which have dawned upon the human race. Electronic music, electronic games, computers, 'video' games, the internet which all were about to transform the WHOLE WORLD, were spun into a bizarre tale offering to everyman a way to think about it, a way to respond to it. In a coming-era where technology would dominate almost everything, certain traits of humanity would have to be restored to meet this strange and terrifying challenge. Mythology is always used in such a situation to convey such ideas. The strong must help the weak. The mind must be employed with creativity and imagination, the spirit must be believed in for there to be hope, and in a rigid hypnotized society, chaos and rebellion is inevitable to change things.
In my next essay, I will discuss the more specific details of TRON, and just what they signify. I am not suggesting that TRON is a movie which is some sort of religious experience, but it does what art is supposed to do, and as art, it transmits ideas which are just on the edge of human consciousness, often without words that correspond to them, and it does so by employing the very technology it refers to make its point.