TRON: Legacy – Enter the Digital Dystopia


WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS

We live in a time of advancing technology. With amazing digital special effects and highly developed 3D graphics, the cheesy 80s franchise TRON has been revived in a movie sequel nearly thirty years after the release of its original. But is there more to TRON: Legacy’s blockbuster success than flashy graphics? Could it be that this fun, action-packed science-fiction flick actually resounds with a deeper message, coherent with the times we live in? TRON: Legacy is not just a movie about a computer game. It’s a vision of a digital dystopia.

Flynn is the creator of an arcade game, TRON. But he’s also a technological genius and has been experimenting with creating a whole new digital world.

This extract is from Flynn’s book, Structure and Dynamics in Advanced Computer Programming: Existence of the Digital Realm:

When a mind processes a thought, its synapses flutter at fantastic speeds… Could a sentient being conceivably load his consciousness into a computer, interact with the programs within, and emerge seconds later, his loved ones none the wiser? … Quantum is the future of science. With it, digital teleportation may be possible.

Flynn sets out to create ‘the game that will end all games’. Essentially, the next step up from virtual reality. A digital reality that physically consumes the user.

Flynn does indeed manage to create this technology. He calls this digital space the ‘Grid’. He spends time in the digital universe, building it from the inside. To help him create the perfect world, he creates a program in his own image, called C.L.U (Codified Likeness Utility). Flynn’s instructions to C.L.U are simple: create the perfect system.

This statement is ingrained into C.L.U.

So when a group of ISOs (Isomorphic Algorithms) spontaneously arrive on the Grid (without ever being programmed into creation), Flynn sees them as a miracle, but C.L.U sees them as an unquantifiable threat to the development of the perfect system. And so he uses an army of programs to destroy them all.

Flynn escapes C.L.U’s violent ambush and lives as an outcast on the edges of the Grid, with the one remaining ISO, Quorra. The portal that acts as a bridge between the digital and the real world closes on Flynn, and he is trapped.

And so we have a classic dystopian world. A ruler who believes he is creating a utopia, but is actually creating a world of oppression, dictatorship and violence.

The movie picks up when Flynn’s son, Sam, enters the Grid many years later. We are presented with the already established digital dystopia. The action and suspense is created by the heroes trying to stop the dictator from crossing over to the real world, using his army to stretch his vision of perfection across the globe.

But the lines are blurred between hero and villain. C.L.U is apparently the villain, but he is not real. Technically, he’s just a computer program. He is a creation. But he is also part of Flynn:

SAM (talking about the Grid): Must have been something, until C.L.U screwed it up.
FLYNN: No, no he… he’s me. I screwed it up.

As with all computer systems, the digital brain can only know as much as its creator.

FLYNN: The thing about perfection is that it’s unknowable. It’s impossible, but it’s also right in front of you all the time. You wouldn’t know that because I didn’t, when I created you. I’m sorry, CLU. I’m sorry.

(My emphasis.) C.L.U knew everything Flynn knew when he created him. C.L.U’s vision of perfection emerges from Flynn’s unconsidered values. The difference is, when something unexpected or negative happens, which influences the system, Flynn is able to consider it and use the new information to adjust his original vision. C.L.U is unable to do this. Even though he appears to be a complex humanoid figure, capable of initiative and emotion, he doesn’t have the ability to change his core, the core that came directly from his creator. His ‘mind’ is stuck with Flynn’s original unconsidered vision. It is Flynn who provides this villainous essence. It is his past values that create the basis of the dystopia.

But as with all good dystopian movies, a mirror is held up to our own society, and in this mirror we see a warning or a lesson. TRON: Legacy contains an underlying warning about the negative repercussions of creation without the consideration of moral and social consequences.

C.L.U: I did everything you ever asked! I executed the plan!
FLYNN: As you saw it.
C.L.U: You promised that we would change the world, together. You broke your promise.
FLYNN: I know. I understand that now.
C.L.U: I took the system to its maximum potential. I created the perfect system.

It is possible that a lot of the appeal of this movie comes from these fundamental themes, which we may not be wholly conscious of, but are very relevant for the times we live in. However, as with most dystopian movies, perhaps the scariest concept is not that executed in the movie, but the knowledge that the warnings will go unheeded. Because, after all, it’s only a movie, right?

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