POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT: I’ve made an effort not to reveal anything about TRON: LEGACY that you wouldn’t get from the trailers, but I can’t guarantee that I haven’t mentioned something that you might consider a spoiler.
Virtual reality is practically a science fiction cliche these days. The holodeck on the Enterprise. The Matrix. The “Better Than Life” game on Red Dwarf.
But in 1982, when the first TRON movie was released, the idea of a human being experiencing a computer-simulated world was new and exciting. This was two years before William Gibson’s Neuromancer–the book that introduced the term “cyberspace”–would be published. In 1982, personal computers were primitive and considered the province of nerds, modems had just gotten sophisticated enough to spur the rise of BBSes (bulletin board services), and we were still seven years away from the inception of the world wide web by computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lees. If you wanted to play a game on your PC at home rather than at the arcade, you could choose between text adventures like Zork or games with extremely simple graphics by today’s standards.
You can see why my 14-year-old mind was blown by the idea of anthropomorphized programs living in a computer-based reality and worshipping their users. Plus, that mind-blowing idea was tricked out with amazing special effects and a love story set in the midst of revolution against an unjust corporate overlord. How could I not love TRON?
So when I heard that Disney was making a sequel, I had mixed feelings. I love TRON. But in the 28 years since the original movie was released, we’ve seen much more sophisticated depictions of virtual reality. How could Disney possibly return to the TRON universe and come up with something that would grab me today?
As it turns out, I liked TRON: LEGACY–but not because Disney came up with a newer, better twist on virtual reality. Sure the 3D graphics were stunning, the action sequences were intensely exciting, and the TRON universe was brought to life even more vividly than the original. But that’s not what grabbed me.
Disney got me with good old-fashioned storytelling. More specifically, they got me with theme. The plot of the movie was simple, but it had multiple themes running through it that added complexity and emotional depth:
- The Revolution: as in the original, the villain is a powerful overlord who deserves to be overthrown
- Absent Father, Lost Son: a father who disappears because he’s literally gotten sucked into his career, leaving his stuck-in-childhood son struggling to grow up emotionally
- Religion Gone Awry: the villain’s story is also a metaphor for how religions get started and how they become corrupted
- The Perfection of Imperfection: in his quest to create a perfect world, the villain fails to recognize the beauty and goodness that already exists in the imperfect world, and as a result, destroys it
Yes, TRON: LEGACY is mostly high-powered action scenes interspersed with brief exchanges of dialogues, but because these themes drive the plot and motivate the characters, what could have been a mind-numbing onslaught of explosions and special effects is transformed into a coherent, emotionally-engaging story.
That’s the power of theme.