TRON Legacy: A Modern Fairy Tale?

I did it. I went and saw TRON Legacy again. It was even better the second time around! Just as visually awe-inspiring as the first time, but more thematically deep. NOTE: This post contains major spoilers for the movie! So don’t click below the cut if you haven’t seen it yet and don’t want to have plot points revealed.

Having marveled at the film during its midnight release last week, I’d been wanting to go back and give the film a second screening — to see if it held up under closer scrutiny. As much as I liked the first screening, there are times when a film can overwhelm you on the first try and then let you down during successive screenings. This time I had the benefit of being with another author — Paul Genesse, who in addition to being one heck of a nice gentleman and a very good writer, was eager to see if TRON Legacy lived up to the advanced press it’s gotten.

Suffice to say, Paul came away very pleased. Which is probably appropriate because Paul works wonders with fantasy — and it occurred to me after we left the IMAX theater, maybe the reason the TRON franchise doesn’t get better marks with some people is that they think it’s science fiction, when what it really is is a Fairy Tale with technological trappings!

Allow me to explain.

For all of TRON’s visual “wrapping paper,” replete with neon imagery and computer geek lingo, its central premise is 100% fantastic — that we can dismantle a human being via laser and thereby ‘suck’ said human being into a three-dimensional, anthropomorphized realm inside the computer. Such a concept is so distant from actual science fiction — because it’s so distant from actual science — it’s almost strange to talk about it. Thus I think many people who go into a TRON movie expecting science fiction, might come away feeling burned. It too often doesn’t feel like a science fiction movie, and the layered themes and deeper subject matter deal very much with ideas normally reserved for religion; or at least mysticism.

Consider the character named Clu. In the original TRON he is the program written by Kevin Flynn to hack into the servers of the corporate giant ENCOM. Dogged and relentless, Clu is destroyed by the original movie’s main villain, the Master Control Program — MCP. For TRON Legacy we find that Kevin Flynn has resurrected a copy of Clu for use in Kevin’s then 1989-era private server. Clu 2 is a doppelganger designed to assist Kevin in his self-described pursuit to create the Perfect System. Now, what that means or what a ‘Perfect System’ looks like, we’re never quite sure. Suffice to say that it’s a cyberspace phantasm that Flynn chases, and to which Clu 2 — we will call him simply Clu from here on out — is particularly dedicated.

While watching TRON Legacy the second time, I found myself paying more attention to Clu than any other character. Jeff Bridges showed us in Iron Man that he’s no slouch at playing the smart villain — and he does a good job being very smart and very villainous as Clu. But whereas the first screening made me emote for Sam and Kevin — the father and son — during the second screening I experienced my strongest emotional reaction to the Clu scenes.

Especially the scene where Clu picks up the chrome apple from the tabletop in Kevin Flynn’s hidden redoubt. If you’ve seen the movie you will remember: Clu slowly wanders the living space of his old — now ancient — enemy, examining carefully the curious baroque trappings of the maker of The Grid, until he sees the bowl of chrome fruit, and raises an apple up to his face where he sees a distorted reflection of himself.

Somewhat imperfect facial replication software aside, the distorted image of Clu’s face in the chrome apple’s surface — Jeff Bridge’s face — really hit home for me during the second viewing. Along with the flashback to Clu’s inception, and the delivery of his prime directive from Kevin Flynn: you are Clu… You will help me build the Perfect System. At which point Clu — in the present — screams, and sweeps the chrome fruit (and all else) off the table in a display of immense, mind-bending frustration.

It is often said in writerly circles that the best kind of bad guy you can create, is the bad guy you can get your writers to sympathize with. Maybe not agree with, maybe not forgive, but sympathize. The second time around, in TRON Legacy, I found myself sympathizing with Clu a great deal. Sympathy for the Devil, you might call it. Because all Clu has really done is try to fulfill his stated purpose, as given to him by ‘God’ at the moment of his creation.

Granted, the Clu of 2010 has changed much since the Clu of 1989. His ultimate power on the Grid and his long isolation as its lone ruler have clearly made him vindictive, bitter, and callously cruel. Everyone and everything around him are simply tools he can use to get what he wants. And therein lies the problem.

Because what Clu seems to want most, Clu cannot have.

Like Lucifer condemned to rule in Hell, Clu would like most to escape The Grid. Preferably to the outside world — beyond the computer — a realm he has gradually come to regard as a treasure, jealously guarded and kept by Flynn.

Clu also wants the approval of his maker — something else denied Lucifer, even though Lucifer in the monotheism of Judeo-Christendom once promised to make the world absolutely conform to God’s will. This longing for approval is palpable during the final confrontation between Kevin Flynn and Clu, when Flynn apologies for setting Clu’s feet on the path down which Clu ultimately traveled in search of so-called Perfection.

Alas, Clu cannot bear it. He has worked his entire existence to effect the designs first given him by Flynn — and which Flynn walked away from once the Isomorphic Algorithms captured Flynn’s imagination, causing him to discard his initial conception of the Perfect. And Clu in the process. At least emotionally. Because for Clu there is nothing without the pursuit of Perfect, and he cannot alter his paradigm away from his original programming enough to accept Flynn’s embracing of the ISOs.

And so Clu, in almost Biblical fashion, ignites a War in Heaven — albeit digital. He turns on Flynn (God), he wounds and enslaves Tron (Michael, the chief angel), slaughters the ISOs (the host of Heaven) and in a bit of a reversal from the Biblical story, Clu exiles Flynn from The Grid — effectively casting God out of His own Garden of Eden.

This is not a technological story. This is mythology written with computer graphics and green screens! No wonder so many people — expecting a science fiction movie, due to marketing — have a hard time grasping TRON Legacy beyond its superficial eye-candy appeal. The movie is very much a fantasy, just with an outer shell of glowing lights and beeping circuits.

Such theological storytelling is replete throughout both TRON films. In the first, the MCP enforced a kind of atheism amongst programs — denying for them what he himself knew to be true: that the Users had created the universe in which all programs lived, and that each program had been written by a User. In TRON Legacy every program knows about Users, but in an almost eerie mirroring of 21st century real-world society, many programs have grown bitter and resentful against the Users — as abandoners who have condemned the programs to a closed-circuit existence under Clu’s rule. A sentiment I think familiar to many of today’s angriest atheists, who seem to despise the notion of God precisely because God does not rescue humanity from the ills of the world.

But I digress.

Clu — the fallen angel — fulfills a classically mythic role: the being who must perform Darkness because without Darkness, there cannot be Light. That he’s only doing (more or less) as he was originally told makes him an almost tragic villain. Especially since we get to see him from the early days, before the betrayal of Flynn and the events that followed on. Like all programs, Clu has an unbreakable, almost child-like fascination with his own programming — what was he made for and what is he in the world to do? Clu knows, but he can’t reconcile that knowledge with the evolving mission of Kevin Flynn, who discovers that imperfection is the paradoxical ‘perfectness’ he’s been seeking the entire time.

I’ll riff on these ideas a bit more, I am sure. I may even go back for a third helping of TRON in the theaters, assuming it sticks around through the holidays — as I am sure it shall, based on very solid returns at the Box Office.

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2 thoughts on “TRON Legacy: A Modern Fairy Tale?

  1. Great post.
    I particularly love that Clu picks up an apple. His creation is a sort of fall from Eden … knowledge of good and evil … Kevin/Clu … the birth of their dualistic conflict.

  2. I really enjoyed reading this post, thanks for writing it. Right from the first time i saw T:L i found myself sympathizing with CLU 2.

    People don’t seem to see it but there is a deep story line hidden away within the film and perhaps it takes a few viewings to really appreciate the depth of this hidden away beneath the glossy VFX. šŸ™‚

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