The (not so) subtle theology of TRON: Legacy?

BEWARE: THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD!

(Seriously, if you haven’t seen the film, don’t read this)

Greetings Programs!

Some of these ideas have been bouncing around my head for some time, but I wanted to get in a second viewing of the film TRON:Legacy before jotting them down. You see, I wanted to be sure.

Read any number of online reviews of the film and you will find that although audiences generally received it well, the film almost universally elicits two criticisms; that it is overlong and flawed. These are opinions of course, and I’m going to go ahead and diverge from those right now. I adored TRON:Legacy and put it down as one of my top 10 films for the year. Sure, there’s the spectacle of the visual effects, the 3D, the action of the light cycles, the disc wars, the flyers, Olivia Wilde and Beau Garrett, but I’m going to suggest that if that’s all you saw in TRON: Legacy, you need to go and see it again.

See, there’s something else going on in this movie. Beyond the libertarian politics and corporate bashing in the first act, beyond the neon and tight fitting suits, there is a theology at work – a philosophy, an argument for looking at religion and discussing the nature of God. Science fiction is at its best when it offers us a paradigm to examine real world issues through a distancing membrane. In some cases, it can be propaganda, at its best, it can isolate and highlight a serious issue that may be too entangled with other real world topics for us to examine objectively. In this latter use, TRON: Legacy succeeds brilliantly, presenting us with an allegory, which while at times might come across as heavy-handed, is never so intrusive as to derail the story.

The first hint we get that something a little deeper is going on, is when Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), playing the role of the herald, is talking to Sam (Garrett Hedlund) about the last conversation he had with Sam’s father Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges). Alan says that within the computer world he had created, Kevin Flynn found something that was going to change everything – science, medicine, religion. Science and medicine fit right in with advances that we could glean from a computer simulation, but insights on the nature of religion?

Sam then crosses the threshold into the computer world that his father created. He is taken before the Sirens who change out his mundane clothes for new suitable digital digs and equipment. Immediately, one of the Sirens notices that, “He’s different.” Then Sam faces the test of the disc war game, which he survives, but his opponent identifies him as a User.

The 1982 film TRON was filled with religious overtones when Programs spoke of the Users. Questions popped up, “Do you believe in the Users?” etc… but the ’82 film didn’t explore the theological aspects as deeply as TRON: Legacy does.

Sam, now identified as a User, is taken before C.L.U., a program his father created ‘in his own image‘. Flynn created CLU to help him manage and build ‘the perfect system’. But something went wrong and CLU betrayed his creator. In this sense, CLU clearly is the film’s Lucifer figure, but instead of the Paradise Lost archetype, it is he who has cast out the creator and who is now running the world (granted it is the computer or ‘lower’ world, but still). TRON tries to save Flynn, in this way fulfilling an archangel archetype, but this doesn’t work and CLU is able to use his abilities to corrupt TRON and turn him into his enforcer, Rinzler. We hear later in the film, and I’m paraphrasing, that CLU doesn’t have the ability to create, all he can do is destroy or corrupt the other programs, sound familiar?

CLU intends to use Sam as a propaganda piece before his subject programs. He has his adjutant deliver a speech where he talks about the tyranny of the Users and then plans to execute Sam in a staged light-cycle duel. He almost succeeds but Quorra (Olivia Wilde), Flynn’s beautiful and able ward, rescues Sam. She takes him to the Outlands to reunite him with his father.

When we first see Flynn, he is sitting like a guru meditating, digital streams flowing up from the floor. Quorra approaches him and tells him he has a guest. Flynn answers that, “there are no guests”. Quorra tells him that ‘something has happened’. This is a bit of an understatement considering that Flynn’s son, who he hasn’t seen in twenty years, is standing behind him. Theologically, it isn’t hard to draw a Christian parallel here. At the start of the first century A.D., Judaism had stagnated in many ways. Some of the strictest traditions were no longer being observed, or at least being treated in a lackadaisical manner. The incident with the moneylenders in the temple serves to illustrate this. But ‘something had happened’, the Christ had arrived on the scene and shook things up, to say the least. It would be simple to draw the parallel between Sam being the son of Flynn, the creator, and find in this a Christian allegory, and although elements of this are certainly there, the film contains too many Buddhist and Deist overtones to categorize it as strictly Christian.

We now learn that Flynn, the creator, has recused himself from his creation, the computer world. He is content to stand aside and let events play out without taking any direct action to influence things one way or the other. In his own words, he has removed himself from the equation. He remarks to his son that he would be amazed how much could be accomplished by doing nothing. And at one point, channeling the computer Joshua from another favored ’80s film “Wargames” quotes, “The only way to win is not to play.” This jives heavily with Deist theological thought. There God is seen as the absent and Divine Watchmaker, who has set up the rules and ‘wound up’ the universe, but will not interfere with his own creation. During this conversation, there are a number of Buddhist ideas that surface as well, primarily the idea of being ‘still’ and refusing, by strength of will, to allow the corporeal world to affect one’s state of being. Later in the film, in one of my favorite lines, Flynn even admits, “You’re messing with my Zen thing, man!” when his son’s actions manage to upset him.

In the discussion that follows over dinner, Flynn reveals that a new life-form surfaced in his created world, the ISOs, who manifested without Users. “Bio-digital jazz man,” is the way Flynn describes it. In the film’s theology, the Creator is not omniscient and didn’t foresee the ISOs. I can make the argument that Flynn still created the ISOs because he created the digital world and established the conditions for them to come into being. But the film sets up the argument that the Creator might not have total control over his creation after he set it in motion. (We could take a huge detour here and explore ideas of free-will versus predestination, but we don’t have time.) When Flynn reminisces that the digital world used to be something great, Sam comments, “Until Clu screwed it up”. Interestingly, Flynn does not blame his world’s Satan figure instead he corrects his son, “No, I screwed it up!” and takes full responsibility for everything that has happened.

Frustrated by his father’s lack of action and helped by Quorra, Sam heads off to the city to meet a resistance leader named Zuse. He is brought before a characterful energetic figure named Castor (Michael Sheen) who runs the ‘End of Line’ club (a reference to the MCP’s catch-phrase from the ’82 film). When we first see Castor he is talking to other members, believers in the Users, who are now being persecuted. The parallels to early Christians are easy enough to see. When they catch a glimpse of Sam, the resistance leader mutters, “So it is happening.”

In the meantime, Clu has traced Sam’s origin to Flynn’s secret hideout. In one part of the scene he picks up a silver metallic apple and then flies into a rage sweeping everything off a table. Think back to the parable of the Garden of Eden, the apple there came from the Tree of Knowledge. When Adam and Eve sample the apple from the tree, it is under the serpent’s promise that they will become like God. In the film, Flynn’s disc contains all the knowledge of the User, once Clu can get his hands on Flynn’s disc, he becomes like the Creator. The apple in this scene is the filmmakers’ nod to this.

Castor takes Sam under his wing, he is an entertainment program and promises all manner of diversions and excitement. Anything Sam could want Castor can provide. Castor here is clearly an agent of Clu/Satan. And it is no accident that the filmmaker’s dressed him in all-white so that he could be the polar opposite of Sam in the same scene, who is in all black. Michael Sheen’s performance here also reminded me greatly of the Fox in the Disney version of “Pinocchio” who leads the boy-puppet to Pleasure Island. (For some reason, I also picked up a vibe here that mirrored a sense of Christ’s trial before the Sanhedrin, but I’ll need another viewing of the film to see what all that’s about.  Upon subsequent viewing I’ve found that this scene contains echoes of Christ’s trial before Pontious Pilate, the give-away here is that Zuse uses the phrase as he mocks Sam, “Behold, the son of our Maker!”.  This definitely contains elements of the “Ecce Homo” (“Behold the Man.) scene that occurs during the events of The Passion.) After revealing that he is indeed Zuse, Castor betrays Sam and when Sam realizes it, Zuse answers, “I used to believe in the Users”. CLUs blackguard arrive to arrest Sam. A few of the User-believer resistance try to help Sam but are quickly de-rezzed.

Before anything else can happen, Flynn arrives with Quorra. Flynn, now in full-on User/Creator mode, dims the lights of the club, and stops the action. Quorra jumps to Sam’s rescue, but becomes gravely injured in the process. As Flynn moves through the club, there are several instances of programs in the background falling to their knees and praying. They also spontaneously come to Flynn and Sam’s aid and overwhelm Clu’s blackguard. Sam, Flynn, and Quorra escape, but not before Flynn loses his identity disc, that could give Clu the User’s power of leaving the digital world. From this moment on in the film, we can look at Flynn, Sam, and Quorra as an analogue to the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Sam’s actions have forced his father to take action and the trio boards a solar-sailer train headed towards the portal to the real world, which in the digital space manifests itself literally like a light from heaven. Flynn uses his abilities as a user to repair the injured Quorra and we learn that she is the last ISO. Flynn delivers the koan line, “Your old man’s about to knock on the sky and listen to the sound”, which brings up another allusion to Zen-Buddhism. (Upon subsequent viewing, when Quorra relates her rescue during the purge, she talks of being “saved”.  While she is speaking literally, the language she uses echoes that of many people who relate deep religious experiences, “…just then, I felt a hand on my shoulder and when I looked up, it was the hand of our Creator.” -paraphrased).

Instead of reaching the portal, the trio find themselves diverted to an immense carrier ship. There are numerous parallels to the Holocaust here as rail cars full of programs are unloaded so the programs can be ‘processed’. Clu, now in possession of Flynn’s disc, plans on taking his army through the portal and into the real world. Since Clu’s ultimate mandate is to seek out perfection, this would be a very bad thing if he succeeds. Realizing that her presence is hindering Sam and Flynn, Quorra sacrifices herself and is quickly captured. In Flynn’s words, “removing herself from the equation’.

Now Sam and Flynn observe Clu giving a egomaniacal motivation speech to his newly minted army of believers. He rails against the Users, even shouting out, “Kevin Flynn where are you now?” He then goes on to explain that the real-world was forbidden to the programs because Flynn was selfish and wanted to keep the ‘promised land’ all to himself. Here Clu is playing out the Satan-figure role for all its worth. But then the tone of the speech changes and it becomes very much a sermon. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the mega-churches full of charismatic preachers screaming promises to the masses of the rewards of the next world. “Out there is a new world! Out there is our victory! Out there is our destiny!” shouts Clu, unknowingly echoing Flynn’s similar ‘Digital Frontier’ speech from the montage at the start of the film. This also brings up parallels to the Dispensationalist idea of the Rapture that the believers might be caught up physically into God’s kingdom, in the film’s case, the world of the Users.

Sam rescues Quorra and the trio steals a digital flyer and head to the portal with Clu and his henchmen in hot pursuit. During the course of the chase, Rinzler reverts to TRON after he sees Flynn and Flynn passed judgment on him with the line, “TRON, what have you become?” This seems to snap TRON out of Clu’s hold and he remembers that he ‘fights for the Users!’ He tries to battle Clue but loses and the last image we see of TRON is of him sinking into the sea of simulations. This could be viewed as a new baptism and a forgiveness of his past sins. As TRON sinks into the water, his system reboots (he is reborn?) and his inner light changes from red (evil) to blue (good).

Within reach of the portal Clu confronts Flynn explaining that he tried to do everything Flynn wanted him to and tried to create the perfect system. Again, Flynn does not battle Clu or accuse him. Instead, he apologizes to him, “The thing about perfection is that it’s unknowable. It’s impossible, but it’s also right in front of us all the time. You wouldn’t know that because I didn’t when I created you. I’m sorry, Clu. I’m sorry…” (It is also interesting to note, that as far as I can recall, Flynn doesn’t destroy any programs in the course of the film, though he clearly has the ability to do so. He chooses to reprogram one in one case, but does not destroy him. I’ll need to see the film again to know if I’m right.)

Sam and Quorra escape through the portal and Flynn chooses to absorb Clu within himself and the film implies that both are destroyed by the process. (God joining with anti-God?) The film ends with Quorra, a new creation enjoying a sunrise in our world. I haven’t quite worked out the theological implications of that particular plot point yet. Though I’m thinking that a potential theme for the film overall is that Religion and Science are not mutually exclusive and can co-exist.

I’ll need another viewing of the film. And that’s also the recommendation I have for anyone who thinks that the plot was too thin, or that TRON:Legacy didn’t have enough of a story.

TRON: Legacy is a film that requires multiple viewings to take it all in, and not just for the spectacle, but for the subtle (and not so subtle) sub-text flowing within it.

END OF LINE.

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