Exploring the meaning of Tron Legacy

** Warning: This article contains spoiler information. Do not read further if you don’t want the story revealed. I wrote this article for people who have seen the movie. **

I was disappointed in Tron Legacy at first. I didn’t get the same thrill out of it that I got out of Tron when I first saw it at age 14. In some ways it met my expectations. Based on the previews, I figured it would suggest that technologists have gotten obsessive about technology, and they need to “get out more.” It did that, but at first blush it appeared to do nothing more. I thought about what I had watched, and some things came more into focus that made me like it a lot more.

I’ve read a couple movie reviews on it, and I feel as though they missed the point, but that should not be surprising. Like with the original Tron, this movie works on a few levels. If you are a typical moviegoer, the movie’s story line will entertain you, and the special effects will dazzle you. A couple reviews have said that it follows the story line of a particular kind of a fairy tale. I think it does, but this is just superficial.

With Tron in 1982, the “surface” story was a bit like the movie The Incredible Shrinking Man in that a character is transported into a micro-reality, and everything that once appeared small and insignificant became huge and menacing. The main character, Kevin Flynn, had to face the games he created, inside the system created by his former employer. A virtual, mysterious and reclusive master overlord (the MCP) sought to grab up other entities (called “programs”) and systems to merge with itself, so it could become more powerful. A recurring theme was a kind of atheism. Programs were expected to believe that only their own reality existed, that there were no such things as “users,” (something greater than themselves, off in another reality they could not relate to, but which had a direct relationship with them). This was so that the programs would feel helpless, and would not fight the overlord. Flynn, a user, is sucked in because the system is so arrogant it thinks it can defeat him as well.

The message embedded in the film, which technologists would understand, was political: Were we going to have centralized control of computing, which had implications for our rights, or was computer access going to be democratized (a “free system”), so that people could have transparent access to their alter-egos inside the computer world? This was a futuristic concept in one sense, because most people were not aware of this relationship, even though it was very real at the time (but not in the sense of “little computer people”). I thought of it as expressing as well that the computer world reflected the consciousness of whichever user had the most influence over it (ie. Dillinger).

The director of “Tron,” Steven Lisberger, talked about how we had alter-egos in the computer world in the form of our tax records, and our financial transactions, and that in the future this alter-ego was only going to grow in its sophistication as more data was gathered about us. The future that was chosen largely agrees with the preferred outcome in the movie. Though we have this alter-ego that exists in the computer world, computer access was democratized, just not quite in the way the movie predicted.

There was a metaphysical message that’s more universal: Just as computer programs have users, perhaps we have “users” as well in some reality to which we can’t relate. The creators of the movie deliberately tried to make the real world look a little like the computer world to make this point. The theme that Lisberger has talked about many times now is that perhaps we all have a “better self,” and the question is are we going to strive to access that better self, or are we going to go through life never trying to get in touch with it?

What drew me into “Tron” when I first saw it in about 1983 was the idea that in the computer world things could be shaped by our thoughts and consciousness. I had a feel for that, since I had started programming computers 2 years earlier. Dr. Walter Gibbs’s confrontation with Dillinger particularly resonated with me:

You can remove men like Alan and me from the system, but we helped create it! And our spirit remains in every program we design for this computer!

Tron Legacy is a decidedly different movie from the old Tron. It has some elements that are reminiscent of it, but the message is different. I won’t talk too much about the fairy tale aspect, but instead focus on the message that I think is meant for technologists. This will be my own interpretation of it. This is what it inspired for me.

Instead of talking about a complaint about current conditions, as if they had no antecedent, the movie subtly complains about a problem that’s existed from the time when “Tron” was made, in our world: The legacy of the technical mentality that came into dominance at the same time that the democratization of computer access occurred, and has existed ever since.

On the surface, in the real world (in the movie), the computer industry is slouching towards cynical commercialism. Kevin Flynn disappeared 21 years earlier, leaving behind his son, Sam. Encom lost its visionary, and innovation at the company gradually slowed. In the present, the idea of technological innovation is dead. Encom is set to release yet another version of its operating system (Version 12), which they claim is the most secure they’ve ever released. Alan Bradley, a member of the board, asks something to the effect of, “What’s really new about this product?” He’s told, “We put the number 12 on it.” They decide to sell the OS commercially (as I recall, it was given away freely in prior versions, according to the history told in the movie). Alan is part of the company, but he doesn’t have much power. Instead of talking about what their R&D has produced (if any R&D existed), one of the executives touts the fact that Encom stock will soon be traded 24 hours a day, all around the world. The company has lost its soul, and is now only concerned with coasting, milking its past innovation for all it’s worth.

Sam exists outside Encom for the most part, but is the company’s largest stockholder. In a nod to the free software crowd, when he hears about the Encom announcement, he decides to break into the company (like his father did many years earlier), hack into its data center and make the operating system freely available on the internet (odd…I thought the operating system was the most secure ever…), dashing the company’s plans to sell it. Shortly thereafter, Alan shows up at Sam’s garage apartment, telling him he received a page from an old number his father used at the “Flynn’s” arcade. Sam is alienated and uninterested, saying his father is dead. He seems lost, and without purpose. His only involvement in the story is to create mischief. Going deeper into this, we can see in mischief a desire to be involved, to change things, and yet not take responsibility for it, to not really try to do better. Maybe the reason is there’s a sense of incompatibility with one’s surroundings, but the mischief makers can’t quite put their finger on what the problem is. So their only answer is to attack what is.

For years Alan said that Flynn was still alive. He persists with Sam, saying there must be a good reason his father disappeared, that it wasn’t because he had intentionally abandoned him. He throws Sam the keys to the old arcade, and thus the voyage “down the rabbit hole” begins…

Inside the computer world, Sam goes through a similar initiation that his father went through in “Tron,” and then he is entered into gladiatorial games–most of the same games that his father competed in, only more advanced and modernized. Sam competes well, and survives. After a similar escape from “the game grid” as his father pulled off in the original movie (except with the help of a computer character named Quorra), Sam meets his father, Kevin Flynn, in an isolated cave (though with very nice accommodations). The look of this “cave” is reminiscent of the end scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. I won’t go into the details of what Sam and Kevin talk about. What I found interesting was that Kevin had spent a significant amount of time studying philosophy. Based on this background, he plays the role of a wise, though defeated, sage.

Kevin tells the story of how he became trapped in a world of his own creation (rather like in “Tron,” but this time Kevin never found a way out). A theme that emerges is the danger of perfectionism, a seductive quality of computer systems. This is embodied in a program Kevin created, named Clu. In the beginning of the computer world, Clu was helpful. As the system was being built from the inside, some mysterious entities “emerged” in the system. Kevin called them “isomorphs.” He marveled at them, and hoped they would become a part of the system. Their programming had such complexity and sophistication he had trouble understanding their makeup.

I recognize the idea of “emergence” from my days studying CS in college. There were many people back then who had this romantic idea that as the internet grew larger and larger, an “intelligence” would eventually “emerge” out of the complexity.

Later in the history told in the movie, Clu turned dogmatic about perfection. He killed off the isomorphs, and threatened Kevin. Kevin tried fighting Clu, but the more he did so, the stronger Clu got. So he hid in his cave, all this time. Meanwhile Clu built the game grid into his vision of “the perfect system.” Everything is “perfect” in his world. One would think this is ideal, but there is a flip side. Imperfections are rejected. Eventually Kevin came to understand that his desire to create “the perfect system” led to one that’s hostile, not utopian as he had imagined. He realizes he made a mistake. There is an interesting parallel between this story line and what happened with Encom, and indeed what happened with the computer industry in our world. By being trapped in his own system, being exposed to the isomorphs, and seeing how his vision was incompatible with this wonderful and mysterious new entity, and himself, Kevin is forced to come face to face with himself, and the vision he had for the computer world. He is given the opportunity to reconsider everything.

There were some subtle messages conveyed. I noticed that anytime one of the programs in the gladiatorial games, or one of Clu’s henchmen got hit with a weapon, or hit a barrier, they died instantly–derezzing. However, with Quorra, Kevin’s companion in the cave, when she gets hurt in a fight, the damaged part of her derezzes, but she remains alive. What this communicated to me is that Kevin and Clu imposed designs on the system whose only purpose was to serve a single goal. They imposed an image of perfection on everything they created, which meant that any imperfection that was introduced into one of these programs (a “wound”) caused it to fall apart and die. Is this not like our software?

Quorra was not created by Flynn, and her system did not demand perfection. She was fault-tolerant. If a piece of her system was damaged, the rest of her was affected (she goes into a “dormant” state), but she did not die. Sam realizes after she is damaged that Quorra is an isomorph. The last of her kind.

I realized, reading an article just recently on Category Theory, and it’s application to programmable systems, called, “Programmers go bananas,” by José Ortega-Ruiz, that “isomorph” is a term used in mathematics. Just translating the term, it means “equal form,” but if you read the article, you’ll get somewhat of a sense of what Quorra and the isomorphs represented:

A category captures a mathematical world of objects and their relationships. The canonical example of a category is Set, which contains, as objects, (finite) sets and, as arrows, (total) functions between them. But categories go far beyond modeling sets. For instance, one can define a category whose objects are natural numbers, and the ‘arrows’ are provided by the relation “less or equal” (that is, we say that there is an arrow joining two numbers a and b if a is less or equal than b). What we are trying to do with such a definition is to somehow capture the essence of ordered sets: not only integers are ordered but also dates, lemmings on a row, a rock’s trajectory or the types of the Smalltalk class hierarchy. In order to abstract what all those categories have in common we need a way to go from one category to another preserving the shared structure in the process. We need what the mathematicians call an isomorphism, which is the technically precise manner of stating that two systems are, in a deep sense, analogous [my emphasis]; this searching for commonality amounts to looking for concepts or abstractions, which is what mathematics and (good) programming is all about (and, arguably, intelligence itself, if you are to believe, for instance, Douglas Hofstadter‘s ideas).

Ruiz went on to talk about relationships between objects and categories being isomorphic if one object, or a set of objects in a category O could be transformed into another object/category O’, and back to O again. In other words, there was a way to make two different entities “equal” or equivalent with each other via. transforming functions (or functors). I think perhaps this is what they were getting at in the movie. Maybe an isomorph was equivalent to a biological entity, perhaps even a human, in the computer world, but in computational terms, not biological.

I offer a few quotes from my post, “Redefining computing, Part 2,” to help fill in the picture some more Re. the biological/computational analogy. In this post, I used Alan Kay’s keynote address at OOPSLA ’97, called “The Computer Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet.” The goal of his presentation was to talk about software and network architecture, and he used a biological example as a point of inspiration, specifically an E. Coli bacterium. He starts by talking about the small parts of the bacterium:

Those “popcorn” things are protein molecules that have about 5,000 atoms in them, and as you can see on the slide, when you get rid of the small molecules like water, and calcium ions, and potassium ions, and so forth, which constitute about 70% of the mass of this thing, the 30% that remains has about 120 million components that interact with each other in an informational way, and each one of these components carries quite a bit of information [my emphasis]. The simple-minded way of thinking of these things is it works kind of like OPS5 [OPS5 is an AI language that uses a set of condition-action rules to represent knowledge. It was developed in the late 1970s]. There’s a pattern matcher, and then there are things that happen if patterns are matched successfully. So the state that’s involved in that is about 100 Gigs. … but it’s still pretty impressive as [an] amount of computation, and maybe the most interesting thing about this structure is that the rapidity of computation seriously rivals that of computers today, particularly when you’re considering it’s done in parallel. For example, one of those popcorn-sized things moves its own length in just 2 nanoseconds. So one way of visualizing that is if an atom was the size of a tennis ball, then one of these protein molecules would be about the size of a Volkswagon, and it’s moving its own length in 2 nanoseconds. That’s about 8 feet on our scale of things. And can anybody do the arithmetic to tell me what fraction of the speed of light moving 8 feet in 2 nanoseconds is?…[there’s a response from the audience] Four times! Yeah. Four times the speed of light [he moves his arm up]–scale. So if you ever wondered why chemistry works, this is why. The thermal agitation down there is so unbelievably violent, that we could not imagine it, even with the aid of computers. There’s nothing to be seen inside one of these things until you kill it, because it is just a complete blur of activity, and under good conditions it only takes about 15 to 18 minutes for one of these to completely duplicate itself. …

Another fact to relate this to us, is that these bacteria are about 1/500th the size of the cells in our bodies, which instead of 120 million informational components, have about 60 billion, and we have between 1012, maybe 1013, maybe even more of these cells in our body.

So to a person whose “blue” context might have been biology, something like a computer could not possibly be regarded as particularly complex, or large, or fast. Slow. Small. Stupid. That’s what computers are. So the question is how can we get them to realize their destiny?

So the shift in point of view here is from–There’s this problem, if you take things like doghouses, they don’t scale [in size] by a factor of 100 very well. If you take things like clocks, they don’t scale by a factor of 100 very well. Take things like cells, they not only scale by factors of 100, but by factors of a trillion. And the question is how do they do it, and how might we adapt this idea for building complex systems?

So a lot of the problem here is both deciding that the biological metaphor [my emphasis] is the one that is going to win out over the next 25 years or so, and then committing to it enough to get it so it can be practical at all of the levels of scale that we actually need. Then we have one trick we can do that biology doesn’t know how to do, which is we can take the DNA out of the cells, and that allows us to deal with cystic fibrosis much more easily than the way it’s done today. And systems do have cystic fibrosis, and some of you may know that cystic fibrosis today for some people is treated by infecting them with a virus, a modified cold virus, giving them a lung infection, but the defective gene for cystic fibrosis is in this cold virus, and the cold virus is too weak to actually destroy the lungs like pneumonia does, but it is strong enough to insert a copy of that gene in every cell in the lungs. And that is what does the trick. That’s a very complicated way of reprogramming an organism’s DNA once it has gotten started.

Recall that when Kevin works on Quorra’s damaged body, he brings up a model of her internal programming, which looks like DNA. Recall as well that when Alan Bradley talked to Sam about the page he got, he told Sam about a conversation he had with Kevin Flynn before he disappeared. Kevin said that he had found something that was revolutionary, that would change science, religion, medicine, etc. I can surmise that Kevin was talking about the isomorphs. When I thought back on that, I thought about what I quoted above.

Moving on with Alan Kay’s presentation, here’s a quote that gets close to what I think is the heart of the matter for “Tron Legacy.” Kay brings up a slide that on one side has a picture of a crane, and on the other has a picture of a collection of cells. More metaphors:

And here’s one that we haven’t really faced up to much yet, that now we’ll have to construct this stuff, and soon we’ll be required to grow it. [my emphasis] So it’s very easy, for instance, to grow a baby 6 inches. They do it about 10 times in their life. You never have to take it down for maintenance. But if you try and grow a 747, you’re faced with an unbelievable problem, because it’s in this simple-minded mechanical world in which the only object has been to make the artifact in the first place, not to fix it, not to change it, not to let it live for 100 years.

So let me ask a question. I won’t take names, but how many people here still use a language that essentially forces you–the development system forces you to develop outside of the language [perhaps he means “outside the VM environment”?], compile and reload, and go, even if it’s fast, like Virtual Cafe (sic). How many here still do that? Let’s just see. Come on. Admit it. We can have a Texas tent meeting later. Yeah, so if you think about that, that cannot possibly be other than a dead end for building complex systems, where much of the building of complex systems is in part going to go to trying to understand what the possibilities for interoperability is with things that already exist.

Now, I just played a very minor part in the design of the ARPANet. I was one of 30 graduate students who went to systems design meetings to try and formulate design principles for the ARPANet, also about 30 years ago, and if you think about–the ARPANet of course became the internet–and from the time it started running, which is around 1969 or so, to this day, it has expanded by a factor of about 100 million. So that’s pretty good. Eight orders of magnitude. And as far as anybody can tell–I talked to Larry Roberts about this the other day–there’s not one physical atom in the internet today that was in the original ARPANet, and there is not one line of code in the internet today that was in the original ARPANet. Of course if we’d had IBM mainframes in the orignal ARPANet that wouldn’t have been true. So this is a system that has expanded by 100 million, and has changed every atom and every bit, and has never had to stop! That is the metaphor we absolutely must apply to what we think are smaller things. When we think programming is small, that’s why your programs are so big!

Another thing I thought of, relating to the scene where Quorra is damaged, and then repaired, is the way the Squeak system operates, just as an example. It’s a fault-tolerant system that, when a thread encounters a fault, pauses the program, but the program doesn’t die. You can operate on it while it’s still “alive.” The same goes for the kernel of the system if you encounter a “kernel panic.” The whole system pauses, and it’s possible to cancel the operation that caused the panic, and continue to use the system. As I thought back on the movie, I could not help but see the parallels to my own experience learning about this “new” way of doing things.

The problem with creating a “perfect system” is it requires the imposition of rules that demand perfection. This makes everything brittle. The slightest disturbance violates the perfection and causes the whole thing to fall apart. Also, perfection is limiting, because it must have a criteria, and that criteria must necessarily be limited, because we do not know everything, and never will. Not that striving for perfection is itself bad. Having a high bar, even if it’s unachievable, can cause us to strive to be the best that we can be. However, if we’re creating systems for people to use, demanding perfection in the system in effect demands perfection from the people who design and use it. This causes systems that are vulnerable and brittle. This makes people feel scared to use them, because if they do something wrong, it’ll go to pieces on them, or misinterpret their actions, and do something they don’t want. It also allows hackers to exploit the human weaknesses of the software’s designers to cause havoc in their systems and/or steal information.

Just thinking this out into the story of “Tron Legacy,” Quorra’s characteristics were probably the reason Clu tried to kill off the isomorphs. He didn’t understand their makeup, or their motivation. Their very being did not have the same purpose as he had for the overall system. They were not designed to contribute to a singular goal. Instead, their makeup promoted self-sustaining, self-motivated entities. Their allowance for imperfection, their refusal to adhere to a singular goal, in his mind, was dangerous to the overall system goal.

The “end game” in the story goes as such. Sam’s entry into the system opened a portal inside the computer system back to the real world. This presents an opportunity for Clu. He has been secretly generating an army that he hopes to use to take over the real world, and he plans to use the opportunity of the open portal. This particular sequence brought to mind the formation of the Grand Army of the Republic in the 2nd movie in the most recent Star Wars trilogy, Attack of the Clones. It also had a “sorcerer’s apprentice” (from Fantasia) quality about it, in that Kevin created something, but despite his intentions, his creation got out of his control, and became dangerous.

To me, the main computer characters in the movie were metaphors for different philosophies of what computer systems are supposed to be. Clu and his army are symbolic of the dominant technical mentality in computing today that imposes perfection on itself, and humanity, a demand that can never completely be satisfied. Quorra represents a different idea, and I’ve occasionally puzzled over it. Were the origins of the isomorphs meant to convey an evolutionary process for computer systems whereby they can evolve on their own, or was that just a romantic idea to give the story a sense of mystery? The best way I can relate to what Quorra is “made of” is that she and the isomorphs are a computational “organism” that is made up of elements in a sophisticated architecture that is analogous to human anatomy, in terms of the scale her software is able to achieve, the complexity it is able to encompass, the intelligence she has, her curiosity, and her affinity for humanity. She represents the ideal in the story, in contrast to Flynn’s notions of perfection.

I think the basic idea of the movie is that in the early going, people like Flynn were smart, witty, and clever. They were fascinated by what they could create in the computer world, and they could create a lot, but it was divorced from humanity, and they became fascinated by the effort of trying to make that creation better. What they missed is that the ideal creation in the computer world is more like us, both in terms of its structure and intelligence.

The final scene in the movie was a bit of a surprise. At first blush it was the most disappointing part of it for me, because I wondered, “How did they make *that* work??” I was tempted to extend the “isomorph” idea still further as I wrote this post, to say that a computer entity could be transformed into a human, just as the term “isomorphic” suggests, but I don’t know if that’s what the creators of the movie were going for. After all, Clu thought he could bring an entire army of computer entities into the real world, including himself. How was that going to work? I think that interpretation was too literal. Going along with the idea that Quorra is a symbolic character, what I took away from it was that Sam was taking this new idea out of Flynn’s “enclave,” and bringing it into the world. He said to Alan Bradley after they got out that he was going to take the helm at Encom. Sam had found a purpose in his life. It was a message of hope. It was a way for him to honor his father, to learn from his mistakes, and try to do better. There’s also a hopeful message that computers will join us in our world, and not require us to spend a lot of time in the world we’ve created inside the computer.

“Tron Legacy” asks technologists to reassess what’s been created at a much deeper technical level than I expected. It does not use technical jargon much, but subtly suggests some very sophisticated ideas. The philosophical issues it presents have deep implications for technology that are much more involved than how our computer access is organized (a technical theme of the first movie). It prompts us to ask uncomfortable, fundamental questions about “what we have wrought” in our information age, not in the sense of the content we have produced, but about how we have designed the systems we have given to the world. It also prompts us to ask uncomfortable questions about, “What do we need to do to advance this?” How do we get to a point where we can create the next leap that will bring us closer to this ideal? I think it dealt with issues which I have talked about on this blog, but extends far beyond them.

It will be interesting to see the DVD when it comes out. I wonder what the creators of the movie will say about their inspirations for what they put into it. I have not played the video game Tron Evolution, which I’ve heard tells the story from the time of the first movie up to “Tron Legacy.” Maybe it tells a very different story.

I leave you with a PC graphics/sound demo called “Memories from the MCP,” created in 2005 by a group called “Brain Control”. It looks pretty cool, and is vaguely Tron-ish. It has a “Tron Legacy” look and sound to it.

On another subject, there’s been a lot of buzz lately about a sequel to “Tron Legacy” (for lack of a better term, it seems people are calling it “Tron 3”). Apparently there is some reason to be excited about it, as there’s been news that Disney is actively pursuing this. Yori Lives also talks about it.

Edit 8/11/2019: I liked what Bob Plissken (otherwise known as “yorilives”) had to say in “Tron and the Future.”

— Mark Miller, https://tekkie.wordpress.com

15 thoughts on “Exploring the meaning of Tron Legacy

  1. Themes of Tron:Legacy include, a love between a father and a son. The movie also takes on biblical tones, Kevin is God, Quorra is humans, programs are angels, and CLU is Lucifer. Lucifer can’t create, he can only corrupt, hence he corrupts programs (angels) and turns them into demons. CLU (Lucifer) seeks perfection and sees the dawn of Isos (dawn of man) as an imperfection, and he can’t understand God’s love of them over the angels. Only Kevin (God) can actually create programs. In the end of the line club you see programs praying to kevin when he enters. the movie is very deep, the visuals are unreal, the music is unreal… it truly is a piece of art. Those who bash Tron are similar to those who bash inception… sheep who need simple movies that are easy to understand.

  2. Additionally, Tron is essentially Michael the Arch Angel. CLU (Lucifer) stands up to God (Kevin) and says “I will not serve humans” basically. Tron like Michael, stands up to Lucifer.

  3. @rinzler:

    But Tron was corrupted by CLU, until the last moment, and died in the end. I don’t recall that happening with Archangel Michael.

    I got a similar sense of Flynn playing the role of God, but I couldn’t reconcile that with the first “Tron” movie, when Flynn tells Tron and Yori that he’s a user. Tron asks, “So everything you’ve been doing is according to some plan, right?” Flynn laughs, and says, “I wish. Well, you know how it is. You just keep doing what you think you’re supposed to be doing, no matter how crazy it seems.” A theme of the first movie was that we’re in a world, too, and perhaps we have “users” as well. So that line was saying that Flynn’s existence was not unlike that of the programs he created. That seems a far cry from God.

    I remember years after “Tron” came out I read a bunch of comments from people saying it was a biblical story told futuristically, saying that Flynn was playing the role of Jesus, the son of God. He comes down to the computer world, and lives in the world, but not of it. He has powers no one else has, and knows some of the rules of the system, because he wrote them. This doesn’t really fit with the Jesus story, though. He brings the dead back to life (bringing Yori back to life), and is unaffected by the rules of the system. He “sacrifices” himself to disrupt the MCP so that Tron can throw in the disc that disables it. Flynn then ascends back to the real world. It’s a stretch, because who does Tron represent in that story, the program that frees the system from the oppressive MCP?

    If anything, Flynn seems more like a Greek god. In Greek mythology, the gods lived on Mount Olympus, but sometimes they would walk amongst the people as one of them, and they had the same character flaws, moral lapses, and conflicts between each other as ordinary people did.

    To me, the first Tron story was not biblical, though there were some supernatural elements to it. Really, to me, what it was about was Flynn having to confront the world that he and his adversary, Dillinger, had created in order to vindicate himself.

    From what I’ve read, the director, Stevel Lisberger, said that “Tron” was about getting in touch with your better self, and not letting any obstacles get in the way of that.

  4. Re. Tron Legacy’s spiritual message

    I could see Flynn playing the role of God in this movie in the sense that it emphasized how he created the programs in the computer world, and that he was the master planner of the system. Where it really diverges from the biblical story is that the isomorphs are not created by him. They just “emerge” naturally out of the system. Furthermore, they kind of baffle him. When he talks about examining their code, he says that their structure really challenges his ability to understand their programming. That sounds nothing like the all-knowing biblical God, who created humanity, and knows your heart.

    Where it really gets spiritual, in my view, is at the end, where he confronts Clu, and tells him about the impossibility of perfection. He says something like, “It’s always there right in front of us, but we can never grasp it.” He admits his own inability to understand perfection, and his error in thinking it was possible. He tries to teach that to his creation, who has tried so hard to be, and make everything perfect. He realizes he must destroy his creation to save his son, and in the process it appears he destroys himself, and his world. That doesn’t seem too much like God, either.

    Getting back to my post, I think the big message of the movie is the idea that perfection is dangerous and sinister. We can fall in love with this concept, but it is a fatal conceit to be avoided, and that to be imperfect is to be human.

  5. @Mark

    Tron: Legacy is a separate beast from the original Tron all together, you have to evaluate them separately. But also together.

    St. Michael doesn’t get corrupted, but who says a movie has to follow biblical things 100% to have some biblical things in it?

    If you took literary traditions/analysis in college you would know that many stories have buddhist/christian themes or undertones. After that education its really easy to see it in other stories.

    Is this really turning into a flame fest? did you see me discounting the OP’s original analysis?

    You can post your own without turning it into an argument with others.

  6. @rinzler:

    I wasn’t trying to turn this into a flamefest. When I looked for meaning in the two movies, I tried to find an explanation that was all-encompassing. It doesn’t mean it’s the right one. I’d welcome others that are just as broad. To me, Christian interpretations of them are interesting, but they feel like cherry-picking to me, picking out aspects of the story that fit Christian theology, but ignoring the stuff that doesn’t.

    The goal of my blog is to expand people’s perception in the technological realm, though there is an element of spirituality–something intangible–in what I do, so I don’t discount that. What I like, though, is spirituality with knowledge. In other words, not just “nice thoughts because they feel nice,” but as a way of trying to look at the world as it really is. What I tried to tease out with this blog post is what the creators of Tron Legacy were trying to communicate with the movie. My comments were just an extension of that. I state what I can see, and others are welcome to do the same. Hopefully we can learn from each other.

  7. I have never thought about Tron like that, but i have thought that technology is becoming more commercialized, Apple for example. Then again that’s everything even human people are a product now, actresses in merchandise.

    It’s all because of King Money.

  8. To all.
    I really enjoyed everyone’s feedback, and their own interpretation to the film Tron Legacy. I was a little disappointed that the story lacked what Tron had. I really liked the effects, the visuals, and the music though. Maybe this was really how the second one was supposed to play out; as an imperfect story. So we the audience would play the role of creator or philosopher and banter one another tell our heads explode. I think it’s interesting. If you take a look at this from a third person, point of view and examine what happened you will see how we all are trying to find meaning and or the answer to perfect our world. However we all have different ideas of what that answer or interpretation is and we all start debating, arguing, and in some cases fighting for what we think is the truth or “The Way.” Rather we should have been working together to find truth and balance, in our complicated world of ideas, beliefs, philosophies, and so on. I feel that the film had lots of variables and not just one, and like a biblical sense it has more than one interpretation.

    To be honest with everyone, I accidently bumped into this article by googling, “how Kevin Flynn was going to give his OS for free.” I am really puzzled by this because without some form of compensation how can one live and survive? We all need to buy food, shelter, and so on.
    Thanks for reading and always look forward to hear other ideas.

    P.S. Mark Miller you have written an excellent article. Your ideas came together and I wish that people with your skills could write more articles in the paper or magazines.

  9. Hi Jason.

    I don’t have a problem with being critical of other people’s ideas, and others criticizing mine, so long as it’s done with respect. I try to do the same. I tried to stay away from stating things as facts in my most critical points of this discussion, just stating, “This is what I see.” I think that kind of dialogue is constructive. It’s fine to have ideas, but without criticism of those ideas, people may not learn very much. I don’t like the idea of agreement and balance for the sake of these things, since all that does is allow weak ideas to be the ones everyone accepts. In a subject like this, I don’t expect to find truth. That’s just seeking perfection, and then we run into the same problem as the movie portrayed. 🙂 I intentionally called this post “exploring the meaning…,” however anyone who steps into my “realm” can expect to have their ideas criticized by me if I have reason to believe they are missing something. Others are free to do the same of me.

    Re. how do these people live without compensation?

    You’ll find this in movies a lot. I don’t know, but I think the way scriptwriters make movies is they want to provide an experience, transporting the audience into another world, and the point is the experience. They don’t expect the audience to think, “That doesn’t make sense. How did he get in there if he just left here?” They want to carry you along in the experience and not distract you from it by thinking about how things would work if it were real. The producers probably thought they’d gain some cred with a technical audience if they talked about software being free. Free software has been a major topic of discussion among software developers for the past 15 years. The idea has been around for a very long time, though. Some have looked at the economics of free software, and what they advocate is that software developers not sell the software, but charge fees for customizing it for individual needs, and/or maintaining it. You might be surprised to know that there is a billion-dollar potential in that market for any business that can do it. The challenge is in being more efficient at it than the people who use your software, since they could just customize it themselves, or any competitors who may pick it up and start offering the same service. A lot of businesses who use this model fail, because eventually they become less efficient, usually when they need to scale up, and management practices change to become more “corporate.”

    Anyway, the creators of Tron Legacy used this backdrop to provide a contrast with how the company had become crass and without soul. Obviously the company made money on something, because they talked about how its stock was trading. They just didn’t talk about what that “something” was. It’s not realistic, but it did have a point to convey that I thought had relevance to what’s really going on in our world, and was valuable to the rest of the story.

    Re. writing for papers or magazines

    The thought about writing for magazines has crossed my mind sometimes. I’ve had a little experience with it, and I haven’t liked it as much as blogging. Here, I can control what I write, and how I present my thoughts. When you write for a magazine, you have to think about what the editor wants. They have length limits. They have a particular audience in mind. Sometimes the subject matter doesn’t fit that audience, even if it’s intelligent and well written. They want you to put in visual imagery sometimes to illustrate what you’re talking about, and sometimes they want that just so. They also have deadlines. All of this is to be expected. I’m not knocking magazines, but the bottom line for me is the joy of writing is getting to express what I want, the way I want. If others don’t like it, fine. They don’t have to read it. Magazines can’t really say that, or else they go out of business.

    I’m not sure yet, but I might like commercial blogging. My impression is there are places that do that. The thing is I haven’t found a place yet that has an audience which would be compatible with the subject matter I want to write. This has more to do with where the public is at in terms of what they perceive as relevant.

    Once you get into commerce, that becomes another ball of wax. An expectation of blogging is that you are free to link to other material. Once a site goes commercial, I would think the issue of copyrights and royalties becomes more prominent. Not that it limits what you can express. It’s just that you have to get your ducks in a row, get permission from other authors/publishers, and pay your dues. So far I’ve avoided all that, just citing and giving credit where it’s due, but maybe someday I’ll get into it.

  10. Pingback: Belated news: Tron 3 cancelled | Tekkie

  11. Perhaps the uncomfortable truth that we need to address is that technology is far too often used for evil purposes. It’s far too easy to know everything about somebody these days and use that information for personal gain, or for governments to encroach and invade upon the privacy of individuals. When somebody steps out of line, there’s nowhere to hide, you’re tracked everywhere you go, and the only way to escape it all is to get off of the grid altogether.

  12. After enjoying this movie for years, i used to think the movie was about Kevin Flynn contemplating his creations: Clu versus is son Sam. Clu was frustrated because he never created the perfect system to Flynn’s satisfaction, and he was frustrated that Flynn chose Sam. But I think the movie is a bit deeper. The frustration came from Clu’s parameters that Flynn set for Clu when he was programmed.

    I rewatched the scene where Clu betrays Flynn and I noticed the dialogue and choreography is almost the exact same as the ending scene. It made me realize the movie was not about Clu’s frustration. It was more about Flynn’s absence from his son. As a young man, Flynn was obsessed with creating the perfect system, so much that he left his son to work at night. Clu represents the fervorent Flynn who was obsessed with his aspirations. Flynn was trapped in his obsession and missed his son growing up. He grew old and realized “perfection (or his son) was around him all the time”. But Clu (or younger Flynn) didnt realize that when he was created. In the ending scene,it is a recreation of Clu’s betrayal. But this time, Flynn chooses Sam. He sacrifices himself and puts an end to his obsession so that his son isnt consumed by it. That is why the director put in the flashback of Flynn reminiscing with Sam skipping rocks. He finally chooses his son instead of his obsession.

    Let me know your thoughts or if you disagree!

  13. @Chris:

    I’ve been catching up with some things. So I am late in replying.

    I don’t see how Flynn chose Sam only in the last scene. I think you left out the importance of the isomorphs to Flynn in your conception of what the story was communicating. What I saw was that the point of the movie was to say that Flynn was obsessed with creating the perfect system in the beginning, as if that was his life’s purpose, but he started to change his mind when he encountered the isomorphs. Remember, Bradley tells Sam what Flynn told him about how amazing they were, and what they could represent in all sorts of important ways. They did not represent the perfect system! They didn’t fit into that paradigm. That’s why Clu tried to destroy them, but it’s also why Flynn chose the one he could save, Quorra.

    Ever since Clu’s betrayal, Flynn secluded himself in his cave, along with Quorra. From that point forward, Flynn rejected what Clu represented. That happened very early in the story. Flynn wanted to leave the system, partly to get away from Clu, to get away from his original idea, and also to be with his son, but there was no way out for him, for years. In his cave, he had a library of philosophy that he pondered while in forced seclusion, wondering where he went wrong in his system objectives, and learned more about Quorra, and what made her different from his initial goals.

    What I saw with Sam was that he was someone who was lost. He felt alienated partly because of the absence of his father, and he had no purpose in life. He was dissatisfied with his life, though, which was why he pulled pranks on Encom.

    What I saw with how the story used Sam as a character was that he represented the future that Flynn did not realize when he created the system, and Flynn recognized that as well when Sam came into his system, though the movie doesn’t establish this very well (just speaking as a film critic). His reunification with Sam is almost spiritual (though of course he’s grateful that he could finally see him again. He thought he never would, being trapped in the system), because Sam arrives after Flynn has realized fully that Quorra is the real jewel of a new system idea that’s been in his presence the whole time, representing the much better alternative to “creating the perfect system.” She is not perfect, but what she represents is a better system idea, one that accommodates imperfection. That’s the point! In a way, this reflects on Sam. The story establishes that he is a damaged, flawed character, because of the absence of his father, but the story tries to say, “That’s the perfect vessel for this new idea,” though, again, it doesn’t say it very well.

    The way the story sets up Flynn and Sam is a lot like I’ve seen many other movies set up charismatic but flawed characters, and their followers, kind of on the model of Moses in the Old Testament. The charismatic protagonist leader is held back by their sins, and so they cannot enter “the promised land.” Only the next generation, who did not begin the journey with the leader’s flaws, and their consequences, can enter. The charismatic character can only represent the past. The newer generation represents the future.

    The main conflict in the story is Clu’s grand plan to “take over the world” with his “perfect system” idea, which is the epitome of oppressive anti-humanism.

    The way I saw it, the end scene where Flynn confronts Clu again was Flynn confronting his “original sin,” in the personification of Clu. Here, he pours out his regret, saying, “It was my failure, not yours.” But the tragedy of Clu is that he cannot see anything beyond what he was initially designed to do: create the perfect system. The idea that the original idea of his creation was a mistake is unfathomable to him. He cannot change his purpose. He’s like a zealot. All he sees is that Flynn is fighting him, which obstructs his objective, and that’s unacceptable. So, all he does when that happens is he tries to destroy Flynn, Sam, Quorra. His other objective was to spread his idea to the real world. That’s the conflict between him and Sam and Quorra. They represent the new ideal that Flynn wants to promote in the world.

    One of the points I made in my post was that the future that Quorra represents is that computers would be more like us, as complex, fault-tolerant systems, not simple, perfect systems, with all of the constraints that entails, and the conflict and danger that creates with our flaws. Part of that is this new idea would incorporate our sense of wonder, understanding, bonding, belonging, and a love of beauty–reflecting our human qualities. That’s what Quorra represented, a digital analogy of what makes us human. That’s kind of what I saw in the scene where Sam relives the memory with his dad. That’s the human connection that Flynn’s idea of the perfect system lacked, and it’s a foreshadowing of the promise of what Sam could bring forward with Quorra in the real world.

    I think what the final scene represented was a final reckoning with Flynn’s creation, and the decision to go with what Flynn had long wanted, which was to promote the system model that Quorra represented, and to release his own desire to bring that forward, but to have faith that his son, Sam, would do that. Only he could destroy Clu, and so that’s what he committed to himself. Flynn would have always chosen Sam over Clu, if it came down to who would live and who would die. I don’t think that was ever in question. What he neglected was how much Sam needed him all those years. You say that Flynn chose Sam in the end, but Sam did not get Flynn in the end, so the idea that “Flynn chose Sam over Clu” doesn’t make sense to me. The original plan that Flynn had was to escape along with Sam and Quorra, but it wasn’t to be. Flynn seemed to have been destroyed by his conflict with Clu, though the story leaves a little hope that Sam might be able to get him back.

  14. Pingback: Blog Post | Composing Digital Media

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