Like many science-fiction films, especially those about virtual worlds, Tron: Legacy (IMDB) cultivates a carefully-observed ambivalence about the effects of technology. In many of these films, virtual-reality technologies either enslave us through ideological spectacle (The Matrix) or distract us from real social problems (Strange Days). At the same time, the narratives of many of these films depend on digital effects that require extremely sophisticated technologies. As Eric Kohn points out in his excellent review of Tron: Legacy, this seems to lead to a “paradox,” in which “a franchise built around the fetishistic obsession with cyberculture now preaches its evils.” Although I think Kohn is correct, at least at the level of narrative (the main goal of the human characters is to leave the “grid” where Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has been trapped for two decades), the spectacular aspects of the film still embrace a kind of “techno-cool” that seems to be perfectly attuned to the legacy of the original film.
Although this tension between a technophobic narrative and technological spectacle is nothing new–Kohn and others have even identified intersections between Tron: Legacy and Chaplin’s Modern Times—Tron: Legacy’s unique status as a much-belated sequel positions it as an enticing case for talking about some of the challenges involved in transmedia storytelling, digital special effects, and especially what might be called technological nostalgia (although that’s not quite the right phrase).
As I was watching Tron: Legacy, I found myself feeling acutely aware of how the film was working to establish a “new” media franchise for Disney. After my recent trip to Universal Studios, I could easily imagine a simulation ride based on the interior of the game world, and the movie itself was planned with a video game in mind (and apparently a sequel or two). As a result, in a few places, the film seemed to be straining to establish the parameters for the grid, with many of these “rules” (escapees from the grid must have a disc containing all of their memories with them when they leave) defying any kind of logical sense, as Roger Ebert observes in his review. At the same time, aspects of the framing narrative seemed readymade for the cultural logic of Disney: young Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is essentially orphaned when his dad becomes trapped in the grid, turning him into a “safe” rebel who races motorcycles through city streets (preparing him nicely for at least one of the games he is forced to play in the grid) and pulls creative pranks on the board of the corporation he inherited. The result is that the film, early on at least, seems to hang on to a number of cinematic cliches, and later, once we have reached the grid, the rules seem to change according to whims driven by the film’s plot. Essentially, Kevin tells us that when he designed the grid, he created a bot of sorts named Clu that would ensure that the grid remained “perfect.” Of course, what happens is that Clu attempts not simply to eliminate imperfections but to get rid of difference itself (the film renders this idea by turning him into a kind of fascist leader who spits out speeches to faceless masses).
The opening sequences also present another representation problem, in that they were filmed in 2D, while the grid sequences were filmed in 3D. Given the rapid movements within the game world, the use of 3D actually seems fitting. Although a pre-credit title tells viewers to wear their 3-D glasses throughout the film, (like Ebert) I removed mine during the 2D scenes simply because the dark glasses made those scenes too murky. But an even more engaging aspect of the early scene was the use of digital special effects to make Jeff Bridges appear to be nearly thirty years earlier. The scene reminded me of an internet rumor that George Lucas had purchased the rights to reproduce digital versions of a number of classical Hollywood actors in order to create new films. But it’s an uncanny match, one that makes his weathered appearance in the grid later in the film all the more powerful, given all of the time we know that he has lost (leading to yet another logical problem: why would a digitized creation “age” in the same way that organic bodies do?).
The tensions between the visual design of the “real” world and the grid are also worth noting. Someone among my Facebook friends suggested that the film resembles a “bourgeois Blade Runner,” and I can see that reading. Many of the spaceships and visual design elements seem to evoke a slightly cleaned up version of the shabby cityscapes of Blade Runner. To some extent, I think this is due to what I have decided to call “technological nostalgia,” the film’s attempt to evoke and update older fantasies of “the grid,” the matrix, cyberspace, or computerization in general. This nostalgia is suggested in part by the closed down arcade that serves as a portal to the grid. When Sam answers a page coming from his dad’s office, he goes to find the old classic games covered in dust, a somewhat “lost” model of gaming in the internet era, in which broadband connections and powerful graphics cards on personal computers make popping quarters into a giant box completely unnecessary. But it’s the grid itself that recalls earlier attempts at depicting the virtual (worth noting: this Indy Weekly article offers a solid history of the original Tron’s visual influence). But I think it’s also suggested in some of tech noir imagery, the spaceships that evoke some of Syd Mead’s work in the 1980s, and other visual imagery that seems to have given rise to the cyberspace imagination starting with Blade Runner and running through William Gibson’s Neuromancer into The Matrix and, later, cyberspace itself.
These thoughts are, I’ll admit, somewhat scattered. I think that’s due, in part, to the tension described by Kohn between the film’s use of computers to render a visually engaging virtual world and the technophobic narrative. But there is also a lost sense of whimsy in this Tron update. In the original Matrix, the film powerfully captured the excitement and novelty of digital media. Keanu’s recognition that he could defy the laws of physics suggested that he could “free his mind” and imagine that anything is possible. In Tron: Legacy, the film stills seems to hold out hope that digital effects can astonish us, but it’s far less optimistic about whether those tools will do anything other than leave us isolated and alienated from others.