25 July, 2008

Tron Exegesis

3rd November 2007

Warning: some of the views held in this chapter might be utterly wrong. Memory being what it is, I may have "remembered" in false ways. All apologies to you if you spot out a mistake or two, or more.

In the same spirit as the chapter on Alien, this one will be about pressing out the juices of Tron, a 1982 movie produced by Disney, which features videogames in a time where videogames were, at best, prehistoric, to say the least. If you haven’t seen the movie, I recommend you don’t read this chapter. It’s not that I’m afraid to expose you to spoilers, it’s that I won’t sound quite as clever if you don’t know what I’m talking about.

Tron is, after a quick perusal of the Wikipedia article about it, a more complex movie than I remembered. I saw it often as a child, in the 80’s, because we had it on tape. I haven’t seen it again since. So this is all from memory, and the main point of the chapter wasn’t even discussed in the Wikipedia article, as of this day.

As you remember, and if you don’t, then you didn’t see the movie and then you’re not supposed to be reading these lines, the movie takes place in the real world, and some digital world, supposedly within the computer. This is going to be a key element. There is a division between our world, and some other world. If you’re familiar with Socrates and his myth of the cavern, you’ll be in known territories, if not, you will be soon enough. It has to do with Platonic idealism, but I’m not sure it will be such a major thing in the chapter, after all.

Just to refresh your minds, the plot has to do with programmers and how the bad one steals the work of the good one (Jeff Bridges), and how this latter attempts to prove the theft of the former. There’s a computer entity in the film called “MCP” or “Master Control Program” and it’s something like a digital Satan. While our good Jeff tries to hack into the system to find proof of the theft, he stumbles upon the MCP, and even has a little chat with it. The MCP then absorbs him into the computer, via a special laser gun thing that disintegrates and re-integrates objects of the real world – Jeff was hacking from a special laboratory zone where such devices were developed.

Then he comes to in the digital world, which is just like our world, except it’s entirely different. If you saw Tron, you know the very visual side of this digital world. So, Jeff finds himself in some cell with a program. A program, in the digital world, is actually a human, or rather, it has a human shape and talks like one, but it’s a program. Not sure I’m making myself very clear here, and that is alright because this will be difficult to understand only if you didn’t see the movie, and if you didn’t see it, I told you a while ago not to read this chapter. So this is your punishment.

In this digital world, programs are made to play in arenas as so many gladiators. The Roman comparison doesn’t stop there: if you pay just a bit of attention, you’ll notice all the programs are wearing togas, just like Romans. And the games are definitely gladiator games. In the movie, a program corresponds to a User, which is the human behind the controller. For instance, if you play a videogame, a program with your face will be risking his very life within the game, while you, the User, will play. This is where it gets interesting to me.

While in prison, Jeff, whose name in the film is Flynn, I believe, we learn that belief in Users is heretic or something. Now, if you’re as clever as me, you see where this leads us, and if you don’t, well you may still be very clever; don’t let me talk to you that way. Remember Christians during the Roman times? I’m talking about the times when Christians were persecuted, and used in the arena for public entertainment. That’s right, Christians believed in an entity that was above them, in some meta reality that was entirely beyond their grasp and comprehension and understanding. So with the programs in Tron.

You think that’s cool? Just you wait. Flynn, as you’ll recall, gets taken into this digital world, and this way, he is from the higher world, incarnate, or indigitate, into this other world. If that doesn’t ring any bell to you, here’s a clue: Jesus Christ.

Christ is God turned flesh. He’s experiencing what He has created the way one of us would. It’s the same in the movie: the programmer, the User, becomes a program himself, and that gives him extra powers in this world, like Jesus and His miracles, and also a more profound understanding of the mechanics of it all, which I don’t know whether Christ had or not.

In the movie, other programs tend to believe in a User, or their own private User, but, from what I recall, not everyone does. There are some atheists in Tron; especially the programs who are in fact playing the role of the Romans and force rebel programs to battle to death in the arenas.

Personally, I have never heard of this interpretation from anyone ever before, but I doubt that the writers of the movie didn’t have those things in mind. The baddie in the movie resembles a digital Satan in more ways than one. On a merely visual level, he’s red and has horns (I think, I may be wrong on that, it’s been a long time, I don’t remember), and he definitely acts like the quintessential villain. That character is Sark, but he is not the top villain; that would be the MCP itself. It shall be said that the MCP intends to take on the computers of the Pentagon because it firmly believes it can do a much better work than any human could. And that, my friends, reminds us of Skynet from the Terminator movies.

So, this guy Flynn, who is really a human in the “body” of a program, is our cyber Messiah. Or rather, the Messiah of the programs within the digital world. He is there to save them. And if you recall, he does so by thrusting himself in some shaft of light, and there may even be some Christic position there, but I wouldn’t bet my head on it because I don’t recall. However, by doing this, sacrificing himself, he saves the digital world, because he somehow merged himself with that column of light; and he disappeared from the digital world, but is restored to ours. Same with Christ after the Crucifixion.

The whole movie has this theme of paralleling Christianity in ways that aren’t so obvious, but are definitely very interesting. Flynn even shows mercy at a point where he is not supposed to: during one of the arena games, he refuses to kill his opponent when this latter is obviously powerless. Maybe it would be a stretch to compare this to Jesus’ reluctance to stone the adulterous woman, but it nevertheless shows a different behaviour in a cruel world.

So that’s about it for the bulk of the chapter. The rest would be about the idea of other worlds. Let’s see if I can do it or not.

Timothy Leary wrote about the internet and the virtual world as the realisation of Plato’s concept of the Ideal world. To Plato, everything we experience in this here world is but a pale reflection or copy or the real thing, up there in the ideal world. In this world, the ideal one, everything is about ideas, directly accessible by the soul in its purest form, without the interference and deficiencies of the senses. That’s what the myth of the cavern is all about; in that myth, people watch shadows on the wall of their cavern, instead of seeing the real things that produce those shadows. That is what Plato means when he says that all of what we experience with our senses here is just a reflection of the ideal real thing behind it. We’re living in a world of shadows according to Plato, or Socrates, don’t get me started. If you know nothing about either, quick sum up for you.

Plato is the guy who wrote the texts in which Socrates exists. Socrates himself never wrote anything, that was part of his philosophy. Plato wrote down conversations Socrates had with his students and the likes. If you buy that, then you must believe that Plato either had a demoniac memory capable of the most insane feats, or that he learned stenography at a very early age. That’s why I use Plato’s or Socrates’ name indifferently.

To a program, in Tron, this means that their world is just a fake thing created by an entity, or entities, in some higher world. The Users, the programmers, would be those higher people. They indeed are the ones who create the programs, their world, and everything they live in it. Applied to our world, this would be God, or gods, or whatever superior entities we believe in. Much like a program, a human doesn’t really know or understand the world in which he lives, despite the progress of research and science. Indeed, for a program to understand his world, he’d have to be out of it, and be able to look at a computer, and see its innards, and even that wouldn’t be enough because when I do that, I’m none the wiser. But suppose this program could come to our world, study electronics and informatics, then perhaps he would understand his world better, but then he’d not understand ours just as we don’t ourselves. The question is: would he ever be able to be a human? Wouldn’t that take away everything that defines him as a program? Or in other words, if us humans were to get up to that superior world that created us, wouldn’t we cease to be humans altogether?

That’s getting deep. In Tron, we know that their Messiah is basically just a guy like us. And that gets us to this next thing: what if our God is something like Flynn? Could it be that our God, if any, also has a God? And so on ad infinitum? How many worlds are there? Are we living in some metaphysical insane set of Russian Dolls? A meta-meta-meta-meta-meta-physical world. The word wouldn’t even apply further than the next world, since we know nothing of the parameters of said world. Our words apply to our world. Remember Christ is the “word made flesh”. I think generations of scholars and of regular people have been fascinated by this description of Jesus, to be found at the beginning of the Gospel of John. The word made Flesh! Isn’t that like Plato’s idea of the ideal turned reality? And by “reality”, I mean ours, nothing more or less real.

Where do I go now? I’ve exploded this chapter into so many directions at once, and such destructive ones, that I don’t know how in Heaven to go on. I do find all this disturbing. Maybe you think it’s a little too much thinking for a Disney movie, and that I should perhaps stick to Snow White & the Seven Dwarves. Ah, but that wouldn’t show your knowledge of me! I love Tron for all the implications it has, and how interesting the whole theme is. To say nothing of the obviously pioneer condition of the movie, which, I remind you, came out in 1982. That’s early! Who can name a videogame from that year? Sadly, I think I can, but that’s only because I bought some really old stuff from the Wii’s virtual console, which allows you to get your hands on seriously classic games, meaning terribly old ones.

Philip K. Dick could have written Tron, and perhaps he should have, and perhaps he did write a novel like that; I didn’t read everything he wrote, so I wouldn’t know, but I venture to say that had he lived longer, he would have certainly been profoundly interested in the subject, and no doubt would have written about it.

The fact is, Philip K. Dick died the year Tron came out, 1982, which also happens to be the year when Blade Runner came out – the movie based on one of his novels, and one of the best movies in existence – and also, interestingly enough, the year when I came out.

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