by Gary Westfahl
Whatever else one might say about Tron: Legacy, it must first be recognized as a superb example of film considered as an amusement park ride, and most audiences will readily succumb to the sheer, exhilarating thrill of its first hour, as protagonist Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) is drawn into a well-realized computer world, based upon that of the original Tron (1982) but technically superior, and finds himself involved in a series of fast-paced battles and chases, enhanced by an unusually restrained use of 3-D effects. While its second hour lags a bit, with quieter intervals for info-dumping and character development, there are still striking moments of shock and awe to keep one enthralled as the film advances toward its inevitable but satisfying happy ending. When the sleazy Zuse (Michael Sheen) tells Sam that “It’s going to be quite a ride,” he defines the essence of a film that invites viewers to turn off their critical faculties and immerse themselves in the experience of racing through a colorful fantasy landscape, and unlike other films of its genre, Tron: Legacy immunizes itself against criticism by openly acknowledging its very nature: the film both is, and is about, a computer-generated imaginary world crafted by human beings for their own entertainment. One cannot complain that a certain sequence is like something from a video game, because that, in a sense, is the point.
However, while there is something to be said for film reviews that simply advise readers to grab some popcorn and enjoy the show, that has never been my specialty, and when I watched Tron: Legacy for a second time and actually began to think about what was going on, I reached the conclusion that, in addition to its overt commentary on people who construct and inhabit their own realities, this is also a film that is in fascinating dialogue with Orson Welles’ and Herman J. Mankiewicz’s classic Citizen Kane (1941).
But before explicating these connections, some background information is in order. To set its game of cops and robbers in motion, the first film drew upon familiar themes: corporate greed and the oppression of the masses. Both in the real world and within his computer world, programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) must battle against corporate mogul Ed Dillinger (David Warner), who has stolen his game ideas, taken over his company, and established a virtual dictatorship over sympathetic programs like Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) who become Flynn’s allies after Dillinger traps him inside the Grid. The story of Tron: Legacy involves a similar conflict: Dillinger is no longer around, but his spirit is represented by current company head Richard Mackey (Jeffrey Nordling) and his subordinate Edward Dillinger (Gillian Murphy), Dillinger’s son, who are dedicated to maximizing profits by overcharging customers, as Flynn’s former colleague Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) points out during a board meeting. Flynn himself has been missing for twenty years, but his son and heir Sam, still the largest stockholder, allows Mackey to stay in control while regularly bedeviling him with damaging pranks like making the company’s latest operating system available for free on the Internet. Once Sam himself has been drawn into a computer world, he meets his aging father (Jeff Bridges) and joins him in battling against a new menace, the program Clu (“codified likeness utility”) (Jeff Bridges); while created by Kevin Flynn in his image to serve as an assistant, Clu has overthrown his master, made himself a dictator, and now plots to conquer the real world as well. The Flynns’ chief ally is now a representative of a new underclass, Quorra (Olivia Wilde), the sole survivor of a race of “Isos,” “isomorphic algorithms” and “a whole new life form” discovered within the Grid.
However, unlike his father, who had been reduced by Dillinger’s machinations to supporting himself by running a video arcade, Sam Flynn seems a peculiarly privileged champion of the working class. We see this in the opening sequence as he blithely speeds through traffic on his motorcycle, breaks into company headquarters, steals its data, and is finally captured by police after he parachutes off the building. But in a telling moment, he is soon walking out of the police station, clearly freed by a high-priced lawyer who will protect him from any further legal consequences, while a police officer walks toward the station holding two men who will undoubtedly find it more difficult to get out of jail. He also enjoys special protection inside the computer world: after beating two opponents in battles with flying disks, a third opponent is about to kill him when a drop of blood reveals that Sam is a “user,” a human programmer; his life spared, he is granted an audience with Clu, who determines that this worthy foe should not merely be slaughtered, but allowed to participate in one more game with Clu himself as one of the opponents. Needless to say, he also survives this battle when he is providently rescued by Quorra and taken to see his father, now living outside the virtual city in a stark but luxurious suite. The pattern is obvious: in both the real and virtual worlds, Sam, unlike the genuinely oppressed people and programs around him, can always escape from the consequences of his misdeeds.
To be sure, Tron: Legacy is hardly the first film to feature a powerful, aristocratic hero who fights for powerless poor people, since this is a trope that uniquely appeals to two conflicting impulses in typical audiences. Regarding themselves as victimized by various overlords in their own daily lives, most filmgoers are receptive to the general message that such figures must be opposed in order to promote the interests of ordinary working-class folk; yet they also like to imagine themselves as someday becoming wealthy, and want to vicariously enjoy the lifestyles of the rich and famous. The obvious solution is to present a privileged protagonist, enjoying the most desirable luxuries, who escapes opprobrium because he works on behalf of the oppressed masses; I mean, would anybody really want to watch a hero who returns from his adventures to a shabby apartment in some ghetto? Sam Flynn, then, is merely one of countless figures in a tradition that includes Zorro, Batman, and the Green Hornet (whose upcoming film was previewed in the theatre where I watched Tron: Legacy); and if these icons’ charitable impulses seem improbable, one can point to real-life examples, like members of the Kennedy family, of plutocrats who vigorously promoted the interests of the less fortunate.
Yet the value of Citizen Kane lies in its recognition that such people might be driven by questionable motives that would ultimately prevent them from achieving their seemingly desirable aims. Born to be leaders, these upper-class heroes do not genuinely seek to free the masses from oppression, but rather to replace their old boss with a new boss (themselves); and while they might imagine that their rule will be more enlightened than that of their predecessors, the people whose interests they are purportedly championing might recognize and resent their autocratic aspirations. Furthermore, if they achieve the status they aspire to, we don’t need Pete Townsend to remind us that the new boss always tends to become “just like the old boss.”
One will search hard for intimations of these problems in most stories about superheroes (though one might mention, say, Denny O’Neill’s Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories or Alan Moore’s Watchmen series), but one of the ways that Tron: Legacy outshines its predecessor is the way that its portrayal of the elderly Kevin Flynn, carefully examined, suggests what might eventually happen to youthful heroes like his son Sam. While motivated solely to create “a perfect system” with his Grid, Kevin Flynn essentially made himself the dictator of his own world, and he created Clu specifically to work as his servant. But who wants to be a permanent servant? There may be a few exceptional individuals like Tron, who figures fleetingly in this film (as in the original) as a representative of the contented subordinate who is always happy to “fight for the users,” but most people would come to resent their lowly status and seek to overthrow their master, even if that person regarded himself as a benign ruler. Clu’s “coup,” then, is perfectly understandable, and one could have tweaked the story to make him more sympathetic, at least at the onset, as he removes the Grid’s despot and undertakes to improve the status of all its citizens. And his announced goal of liberating his programs to occupy the real world has a certain amount of justice and logic on its side: if we could make computer programs into people who could enjoy normal lives, instead of a stark existence inside an artificial construct, aren’t we obliged to do exactly that?
But Tron: Legacy is designed to avoid raising such questions by portraying Clu as a man corrupted by power: despite his rhetoric, we know that he is not really motivated by any desire to improve the lot of his subjects, as we can tell by the brusque way that he constantly dismisses the aspirations of his lackey Jarvis (James Frain), and by his habit of killing subordinates who displease him. In other words, he has become precisely the sort of person that he once despised. It is less obvious that Kevin Flynn is open to criticism on similar grounds, although the man himself eventually recognizes and acknowledges that the whole situation confronting Sam was really his own fault. In this respect, there are clear parallels between Kevin Flynn and Charles Foster Kane: both men sought to become the champions of the people in the world they lived in (Kane, as a muckraking newspaper publisher and potential governor; Flynn, as master of the computer programs within his Grid). They both became more devoted to promoting their own interests (Kane, his romance with Susan Alexander; Flynn, his obsessive pursuit of perfection). Both were ultimately rejected by the people they sought to rule (Kane, by losing the election and failing to promote the career of his second wife; Flynn, by being overthrown by Clu). And both men then retreated to a luxurious home, far away from the concerns of the world, and dedicated themselves to relaxed inactivity (Kane, having parties at Xanadu; Flynn, meditating in his suite outside the Grid city).
The difference between the films, of course, is that Tron: Legacy, designed to function as popular entertainment, must have a happy ending, however contrived that might seem. Imagine an alternate version of Citizen Kane that concludes when the aged Kane is suddenly approached by a son and daughter he had lost track of long ago and is urged to abandon Xanadu and to join them in mounting one last campaign to oust mean old Boss Gettys from power once and for all. Then, after he improbably succeeds, Kane is finally vindicated, as he belatedly becomes the true champion of the masses that he always wanted to be. As a conclusion to Welles’ and Mankiewicz’s masterpiece, it doesn’t sound very appropriate, to say the least, but it is precisely the sort of rousing ending that Hollywood loves, and it’s hard to complain about seeing a film like Tron: Legacy move in this direction. The surprise is that such a film would sketch a more somber scenario at some length before rejecting it in favor of conventional uplift.
None of this, though, is intended to suggest that the multiple authors of Tron: Legacy set out to create a film that would thoughtfully explore the implications of failed heroism; rather, they were forced to confront this theme due to the unique requirement that they find a meaningful role for a sixty-year-old actor who, even with computer enhancement, could not persuasively portray a character under forty. Their solution was to employ the real Jeff Bridges as an elderly man inspired to interrupt his retirement by younger protagonists who could do all the heavy lifting for the plot, while a cybernetically-airbrushed Bridges could be deployed more sporadically to serve as the film’s villain. And, as occurred in the later Star Trek films with the original cast, when you bring old people into young people’s stories, incongruous topics like the effects of aging, disillusionment, and reconsiderations of youthful proclivities inexorably come to the forefront.
Also, when you place a greybeard inside what seems a virtual world for adolescents, the danger of spending too much time with fantasy instead of reality becomes an implicit message. This is another way to characterize Kane’s problems, since after he fails to conquer the real world, he sets out to create and rule his own little kingdom of Xanadu, only to find with his wife’s departure that he cannot even be successful at that. In the case of Kevin Flynn, he got into trouble precisely because he was spending too much time constructing his perfect Grid and not enough time playing with his young son Sam (Owen Best). It is interesting that both Tron films, apparent celebrations of video games, characterize their computer-generated playgrounds as places that people are desperately striving to escape from, as they prefer actual lives over virtual lives; characters liken their existence within the Grid to being inside “a safe” or “a cage.”
There is also a striking visual indication that lingering too long in unreality can be hazardous to your health, though mentioning it requires me to “reveal,” if that is the word, that Sam ultimately gets out of the Grid and back to the real world. (But could anyone really expect the film to end with Sam killed or permanently imprisoned in the Grid? Surely, the only genuine suspense in the film involves not whether he escapes, but precisely how he escapes, which I’m not discussing.) Throughout the film, as is fitting for a world inside a machine, Flynn’s construct is shown as relentlessly monochromatic, mostly various shades of blue, though the dark outfits of good characters are highlighted in white while the outfits of evil characters are highlighted in yellow or orange. To contrastingly illustrate the joys of living in the real world, one would expect Sam to emerge into a riotous assemblage of bright colors, which might be a welcome sight for color-starved filmgoers. But he actually steps out into a cloudy day of rather subdued colors, suggesting that if you spend too much time in cyberspace, you might bring some of its atmosphere back with you.
To underscore its various themes, the film offers a rich range of references to distinguished precursors, perhaps reflecting the combined knowledge base of its four credited writers. It is a nice touch that both young Sam’s bedroom and Kevin Flynn’s retreat include shelves full of books, the original device that people employed to escape from their everyday worlds, and that Chorra is a particular fan of the novels of Jules Verne, who arguably established the modern tradition of stories about adventurers into exotic realms. In contrast, while Kevin Flynn’s shelves include works by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and the I Ching, his favorite book seems to be Chogyam Trungpa’s Journey without Goal: The Tantric Wisdom of the Buddha (1981), which would account for his inclination to meditate instead of taking action. In commenting on the surprise of having the creator’s son walk into his establishment, Zuse delivers a version of Rick Blaine’s classic line from Casablanca (1942), “Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, she walks into mine”; and come to think of it, that is another story about an older man who withdraws into a world of his own until a figure from his past arrives to reignite his passion for justice. And, since one might say the same about Obi Wan Kenobi, it’s understandable that one scene of aerial combat within the Grid is explicitly modeled on the final scene of Star Wars (1977). (There is a poster on Sam’s wall from another space film of that era, The Black Hole , though that seems primarily an in-joke about director Joseph Kosinski’s next assignment, a remake of that film.) When Sam walks into his father’s abandoned arcade, the songs being played are Journey’s “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” and the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”; not only are the titles obviously relevant to the film’s events, but both songs debuted in early 1983, shortly after the film’s release and, presumably, the time when Kevin Flynn, now back into control of his company, would have shut down his arcade. Kevin describes the Isos as “flowers in the wasteland,” using the title of Lisa Chappell’s 2006 song, whose opening stanza might describe the situation of everyone inside the Grid: “A flower in the wasteland / Caught between nowhere and no place / A ray of light in the endless night / A night of broken promises, lost hope and stolen dreams.” And prominently on display in Kevin’s room is a bowl full of silver apples, which for some might recall W. B. Yeats’ 1899 poem, “The Song of Wandering Aengus,” wherein a man “old with wandering” resolves to go in search of a beautiful woman “And pluck till time and times are done, / The silver apples of the moon, / The golden apples of the sun.”
Still, despite all of these intriguing clues, I am not sure how far one should take the search for deeper meanings within Tron: Legacy, bearing in mind the lessons of the film. Would such analysis be a genuine service to a film that might otherwise be insufficiently appreciated, or would it rather represent an arrogant effort to assert control over a perceived subordinate in the manner of Kane and the earlier Flynn? Would efforts to find significance in every moment of this film constitute an obsessive quest for “perfection,” which is precisely the way that Kevin Flynn, in his own words, “screwed it up”? Perhaps, then, it would be best to follow my original advice and relish the journey of Tron: Legacy without worrying about its goal, though that is not the game that I usually play.