TRON: Legacy, or, the Challenge of Painting the Machine

I hadn’t planned to see the new Tron movie. I didn’t want to go see another redo. In fact, I could barely stand the idea that they were going to make a sequel or remake or whatever it was going to be. Why would you want to tamper with such a unique vision? The nineties are littered with the debris of terrible remakes from my childhood – Annie, the Karate Kid, Fame, the version of Freaky Friday where Jodie Foster is replaced by Lindsay Lohan.

Are there really no new stories left to tell, that Hollywood must vomit up a dimmed version of all this pop mythology? Reinterpretation can be a wonderful thing, but the proportion of recycled stories seems to have grown exponentially in my lifetime, especially compared to cinema of the 1960s and 1970s. However – I still go to see movies based on special effects, so I went to see TRON: Legacy.

We seek to estimate the future and its bearing on our existence, as well as dwelling fondly on the past or indulging in escapist dreams. – Walt Disney

The original Tron (1982) was an absolutely magical movie, a live-action film with amazing special effects, in which a human goes inside a computer’s operating system and interacts with programs embodied in physical form. It was made at a time at which humans were really encountering for the first time this form of artificial intelligence that we had created, and which we barely understood. The original movie has a since of wonder about it, of the genuine novelty and alien-ness of computers, these thinking machines in arcades and mainframes, of how ‘perfect’ they are compared to messy human intelligence (which has deistic power as coders). It created a metaphorical language for computing that hasn’t been equaled since, largely based on the video games that were popular at the time and that were really how people first came to interact with computers.

Watch the camera movement:

This was a quite a feat. Translating the nature of the Machine into a human drama is hard to do, and what’s what I went into Tron: Legacy expecting.

Unfortunately, it was disappointing. Tron: Legacy is a gorgeous movie with a great Daft Punk soundtrack and absolutely stunning special effects. It had weird dialogue that went on too long, and some half-heartedly invented weird Singularity mysticism that just made me want to watch The Matrix instead. But where it really failed to live up to the promise of the original was that its portrayal of technology was completely static, as if computers had not changed since 1982.

Representing those changes is what the filmmakers could have done, but they decided not to, or maybe didn’t know how. There is a scene in the beginning of the film where Sam Flynn steals Encom’s software and puts it out on the Internet, and for a moment you think you’re going to get a movie that visually portrays the Internet and the concepts of open source/open technology, but no.

From that point onwards, aAll references to reality completely disappear as Sam Flynn goes back into 1982 computer world, fights a bunch of disc battles, and at the end of the movie, informs his dad that computers can now send information wirelessly. Legacy indeed.

It’s worth seeing, in the way that tricked out retro car shows are cool. It apparently made enough money to justify a third Tron movie, and hopefully when this happens, the filmmakers will take the opportunity to portray some of the things that have happened in technology since 1982. Like the World Wide Web. The visual interface. The mouse. Icons… mobile computing… cloud computing…networked videogames… there is no shortage of amazing things to portray, and it’s kind of amazing to imagine it.

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