Sometime during the hype-storm that preceded the release of The Matrix Reloaded in 2003, I saw a preview video in which one of the film’s producers advised the potential audience to “read your Kant”. Though it was a faintly ridiculous thing to say, and came from a man I had a hard time believing cared what people read as long as they paid to see the movie, it was another example of how invested The Matrix franchise was in the idea of the philosophically rich blockbuster. (See also the inclusion on the DVDs of a commentary track dedicated entirely to discussing the philosophy behind the films.)
The extent to which, particularly with the second and third films of the trilogy, the Wachowskis succeeded in building a story that meets their goal is still debated, but the fact that the goal existed is irrefutable. The nature of reality; the relationship between creator and creation; the existence of free will… these considerations and more are interwoven into the Wachowskis' story at such a basic level that it’s easy to believe that they provided the inspiration for telling the story.
Tron (1982) however, came about because director Steven Lisberger was fascinated by Pong. It’s a humble genesis, and the movie it produced, whilst still thoroughly entertaining, hasn’t aged well. Viewing it now for the first time, without the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia, it must be difficult to understand why it is so beloved, and why it was hailed as such a revolutionary method of film-making. Reading accounts of the film’s production (such as the one in the Nov / Dec 2010 issue of Little White Lies, or the excellent article in the January 2011 issue of Empire) I was reminded of nothing more than of those reports from the ‘set’ of Avatar: all those effusive remarks about what the advent of a purely virtual shooting environment would mean for the future of cinema; how it was now possible to create something almost entirely in post-production.
The original Tron is a romp. Its pace is surprisingly slow, but not because the characters stop to ponder the philosophical meaning behind their circumstances, just because that’s the pace of a family adventure story shot in the ’80s without the crutch of C.G. to up its whizzbang quota. Joseph Kosinski’s sequel is a different story. Wasting no time in getting his protagonist zapped out of the physical world and into the virtual one, the pace rarely lets up once Sam Flynn is neon-suited and thrown straight out onto the game grid having been told merely to “survive”. From here it’s virtually all chase and pursuit, with a few martial arts brawls, lightcycle battles, and dogfights thrown in to keep the Daft Punk soundtrack busy.
But there are a couple of pauses, and it’s in the pauses that Tron: Legacy really gets interesting. The film complicates the hero / villain dynamic by having both characters played by one man, albeit two versions of one man at two different ages. And despite all of the attention (deservedly) being paid to the technical process which allows the younger Jeff Bridges to appear in the film, it is the fact of the characters' homogeneity within the story that is more interesting. Clu, though his actions are villainous, is in fact motivated purely by his creator’s original instruction: to make “a perfect system”. To do so he instills order at any cost and eradicates imperfection wherever he finds it. His creator, having been trapped within Clu’s dystopian creation for centuries, has spent his time meditating, reading, and seeking to cultivate within himself and his pupil Quorra, a selfless acceptance, tranquility, and stillness.
One particularly telling line comes when Sam remarks to his father that the Grid must have been beautiful before Clu ruined it, and the older Flynn replies that “Clu is me; I ruined it”. Kevin Flynn is a wiser man than Clu precisely because he is a wiser man than when he made Clu in his own image. Tron: Legacy is a story about a man maturing, and learning to accept that his idea of perfection was flawed. Clu, as the unbounded version of Flynn’s younger self, presides over a nightmarish dictatorship of virtual clones. The older Flynn has learned that the world is far wider than his experience, and that his concept of perfection is — ironically — flawed. He has learned humility, and shows himself to be capable of great personal sacrifice.
The film is far from perfect. It has some pacing problems, and Michael Sheen’s turn as a strange Ziggy Stardust-inflected version of The Merovingian leaves a lot to be desired. But in amongst the impressive action and razor sharp environments, Kosinski does an admirable job of leaving the viewer with some of those questions the Wachowskis sought to prompt a decade ago.