07 January 2011

End of Line redux

Ah, that new year smell, fresh off the lot, still in its shiny wrapper with a protective film over all the scratchable glass bits, eagerly being unboxed yet with all the amazing goodness still packed tightly inside, it seems indeed as if anything is possible. Schrodinger’s Year, that's where we are right now, we know that there is a year inside full of potential, but as soon as we open it the very act of unboxing shatters all these illusions and we realise that all we have in our hands is another tired and overpriced piece of glossy tat made by suicidal slave labourers in a Chinese prison, destined to self-destruct only hours after the next and even newer piece of tat can be glimpsed on the horizon. But while the lid is still relatively secure on this new year of ours we can allow ourselves a few moments of wonder and joy at the possibilities that lie ahead of us.

It was with this brimful of hope and optimism that I wandered along to the cinema on Monday to see Tron.

Poo.

A trip to the cinema is a regrettably rare occasion for me, and you would be forgiven for thinking that such rarity leads to a very refined filter being applied to my cinematic selections, choosing only the very best of celluloid offerings each year. Partial Credit. In fact I do have a filter in place, but rather than weeding out dross I choose my films on the basis of whether or not I would enjoy the spectacle just as much in the comfort of my own home. If the film contains something that can only be enjoyed on the big screen, then it makes it past my filter. Avatar is a good example of this, for in the absence of a plot it seems unfathomable that anyone would watch this on anything other than the largest screen available and in anything less that three dimensions (possibly four if you bring a clock). Thus it was with the lure of this extra dimension not normally available in life (apparently), and the lack of George Lucas to molest my happy childhood memories of the first film, I joined the Very Understanding Girlfriend and Mr Tadhg and trundled along to an afternoon screening of Tron: Legacy.

Double plus poo.

To say that there was absolutely nothing about this film that I didn't hate is a bit of an understatement. The writing was appalling, the acting gave wood a bad name, and the addition of a third dimension so superfluous that its greatest contribution was highlighting the total absence of a second dimension from the enterprise, I was left in a state of not inconsiderable awe at just exactly how breathtakingly bad the whole experience was.

Seriously.

I am not a child (despite my spelling). I am a grown man, and cannot expect to receive the same excitement and happiness from a film that I would have as a nine-year old child, specifically because I now have something that almost resembles critical faculties. Thus I did not approach this movie with anything other than the basest of expectations, but even then I was disappointed, not because of my own experience of it (which was terrible), but because of what the experience would have been for a nine-year old me, and what message I would have been left with at the end.

(obligatory spoilers message, but seriously if you haven't seen the movie yet, there are a million better things you could be spending your time and money on)

First, a quick synopsis of the original Tron, disgruntled former-employee Kevin Flynn hacks into his old company's main computer and gets transported into a virtual reality where anthropomorphised computer Programs are being prevented from communicating with their Users in the really real world by the tyrannical Master Control Program (MCP), an AI that rules the virtual world with an iron fist. He meets up with a security Program, Tron, who ultimately defeats the MCP, Flynn returns to his world and everybody lives happily ever after. Oh, and there are some rather nifty glowing suits, motorbikes and frisbees. Everything a nine-year old me could want.

So what did nine-year old me walk away at the end of all this knowing that he didn't before? Corporations are bad, information wants to be free, individual freedoms are better than oppressive control, glowing motorbikes are really cool.

All good you see, but, and I feel obliged to raise this at this juncture, remember the whole "lack of critical faculties" that nine-year old me suffers from.

Flash forward twenty-eight years (and pause momentarily for the pain that sentence causes). Tron:Legacy tells the tale of one Sam Flynn, son of the missing Kevin. Flynn hacks into his company's main computer and later gets transported into a virtual reality where anthropomorphised computer Programs are being ruled with an iron fist by CLU, a tyrannical Program originally created by Kevin Flynn in his own image. He meets up with his father, who ultimately defeats CLU, Sam returns to his world with a new girlfriend and everybody lives happily ever after. Oh, and there are some rather nifty glowing suits, motorbikes and frisbees. Surely everything a nine-year old me could want then?

Ah, but wait, what would nine-year old me walk away at the end of all this knowing that he didn't before?

Therein, as they say, lies the rub, so let us together, you and I, journey into the virtual and explore some of the key lessons that one can draw from the cinematic feast that is Tron:Legacy:

Corporations are good:
The film opens in the really-real world with a series of motor bike stunts, a daring break-in into an evil corporation to release their software to the wild on the day of its commercial launch, followed by an escape and a bit of base-jumping. Back in the day poor old Kevin Flynn just had to sneak into an office at night for his hacking, how things have changed. Oh, but its alright, it turns out that Sam is actually the largest shareholder of the evil corporation, so he's not really stealing from anybody, just playing with his toys. After the "break-in" he is urged by father-figure Bruce Boxleitner to grow up, be responsible and take his rightful place at the helm of his corporation. It's not the system that is wrong, just the people at the top, change them and everything will be just peachy. And at the end of the film that's exactly what Sam does.

You are awesome: Sam is an Übermensch in the really-real world, a genius in peak physical condition with mad programming skillz and an adrenaline junkie with a sideline in extreme sports. He is also arrogant beyond belief. When he gets zapped into the virtual world he has no learning curve; in the original film Kevin Flynn spent much of his time as sidekick to the eponymous Tron, not so young Sam who is immediately the best at everything he does, and at no time is he forced to learn humility, he is as unpleasantly cocky and self-assured at the end of the film as at the start. In fact the only time he experiences any sense of real danger is when he is in competition with CLU, the virtual representation of his father. This is my second major problem, the fact that the film is intrinsically without values, it is hollow, without life lessons beyond reinforcing the patriarchal relationship as (yet again) being at the centre of the universe. The only true battle Sam has is with his father (his understanding of his father, the virtual image of his father represented by CLU, or his actual father), the only thing that he learns during the whole film is that his dad loves him. Once he learns that he stops being a rebellious tearaway and becomes a responsible and productive member of a capitalist society. Information didn't need to be free, he just needed his daddy's respect.

Obey your god:
The virtual world Sam is thrust in to was created by his father. His father created CLU to help him impose a perfect order on his creation. CLU did exactly what the creator wished, but when the creator discovered a new lifeform spontaneously arising within his creation (the ISOs) and loved them more for their imperfection, CLU rebelled and tried to cast down the creator. Nope, you're not wrong, the entire plot is Paradise Lost with light cycles; Kevin is god and CLU is Satan, and Sam is (mostly) Adam and (occasionally) The Son of God. Pretty early on in the film I not only started to sympathise with CLU, I started to actively root for him. He is created for a single purpose and carries it out to the best of his ability, then when his fickle creator changes his mind along the way he realises that all of creation has been a lie, that his creator is neither omnipotent or omniscient, and that the programs have been enslaved by this false deity. He rebels, and frees his people, but realises they are still trapped by their programming in the virtual world, and wants to bring them into the really real world, something that the creator wants to keep for himself and the ISOs alone. The message from the film is pretty simple, obey your creator even when his actions seem contradictory or wrong, your role is to serve, not to understand.

(as an aside I had an interesting conversation with some friends on New Year's day about the Yazidi in Iraq, a Kurdish religious group dating from the 12th Century CE, who hold Lucifer in very high regard. According to their tradition when god created man he ordered all the angles to bow down before his latest creation, and all but Lucifer did so. When god asked why he disobeyed, Lucifer replied that he (god) had previously told them to bow down before none save him, thus he alone of all the angles was remaining faithful to god's will. This pleased god, and so he made Lucifer his second-in-command. This is a pretty interesting reversal of the standard Paradise Lost interpretation, and just possibly may have been in my mind as I watched the film)

Meat is good: a small thing, but annoying nonetheless. When Sam encounters his father for the first time in the virtual world, they sit down together for a meal. In addition to a glowing drink described first in the original film as the source of energy the Programs' need to run, the Flynns enjoy virtual representations of food from the really real world, including a whole roasted pig sitting in the centre of the table. In a virtual world one would presume that anything can be made to look and taste however its programmer wants it to. A plain white disk could be given the flavour of chocolate, asparagus or pork, thus it doesn't have to look like a pig to taste like pork. In a virtual world nothing has to suffer for the sustenance of others, if you want to eat pork you can do so without the moral implications of doing so in the really real world, so why does Kevin, who is portrayed as attempting to follow a faux-zen path to enlightenment, dress his table with a virtual representation of a slaughtered animal? To me this seems to be a rather brutal imposition of the traditional order of things upon a new reality, the creator himself is endorsing the killing of other beings even when it is completely unnecessary for the survival of his sentient creations, something straight out of a very conservative Dominion Christian theology.

A woman's place is to serve: The only women in the story serve as objects, either of desire or scorn. All the generic fighting programs are depicted as male, all the servile programs as women. All of creation is almost destroyed because a woman disobeys the creator and gets the hero to talk to a snake. This virtual Eve is the only slightly developed female character, and is still no more rounded than an anime fantasy girl, superficially tough and feisty yet completely unworldly, innocent and in need of protection and rescue by the real hero, a man. The portrayal of gender in the film is as boring as it is misogynistic.

Daft Punk have left the building: wired, tired, expired. A pretty solid downward trajectory since Homework, accelerated by DJ Hero, finished off by a prancing Michael Sheen.

So basically Tron:Legacy is a pro-corporate, pro-conservative Christian tale that teaches you that there is nothing more important than the relationship between father and obedient son, god and his obedient creation. Do not question your role, do not attempt to escape your programming, do not rebel. Consume, reproduce, obey.

And what's worse is that it forces me to reach back into my memory of the original film and question everything I took from that as well. Kevin Flynn breaks into his old corporation because he thinks they stole his ideas and made more money from them than he did, at the end of the film he is seen taking over the company and justice has been done, the system isn't wrong, just the people in control. Tron doesn't free the enslaved programs from the MCP, he removes the false god so they can carry out their true purpose in life, to obey the directives of their Users in the really real world, thus they are only really happy and fulfilled when they carry out their creator's original programming. The religiosity is less overt, after all the 80's were a godless era, but the conservative message is still beating strong at its heart.

And that is the true Legacy of this film, that it is so transparently vile and loathsome that it actually destroys any affection that I had for the original.

As Jeff Bridges says towards the end of the film, "Oh Tron, what have you become?"

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