Category Archives: Pop Culture

TRON: LEGACY and the Power of Theme

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.


Warehouse 13 and the Psychology of Artifacts

When I first saw an ad for Warehouse 13, I thought, “SyFy made a show based on the last 30 seconds of Raiders of the Lost Ark?”

It was the punchline of the whole movie:  Indiana Jones goes through hell to retrieve the Ark of the Covenant from the Nazis and outwit unethical archaeologist Rene Belloq, so that the U.S. government can crate it up and stuff it in a warehouse.  It was also Spielberg’s homage to Citizen Kane, a note of comic relief that had personal meaning for him.

Since Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of my favorite movies (and I’ve been hoping for a reason to forgive SyFy since they cancelled The Dresden Files), I was tempted to watch an episde.  But did I want to watch a show about a warehouse full of stuff?  Even if it was magical stuff?

Like most human beings throughout history, I’m fascinated with artifacts.  Our literature is filled with objects that serve as a focus for power.  Gilgamesh’s pukku and mikku–we no longer know what these objects were, only that Gilgamesh valued them so highly he allowed his best friend Enkidu to die searching the netherworld for them.  Excalibur, the sword that conferred kingship on Arthur when he removed it from the stone in which it was embedded.  Sauron’s Ring, which Frodo and company risked life and limb to throw into a volcano.  We love the idea that the objects around us could have hidden powers or personalities.  A world where a hair comb can channel the personality of Lucrezia Borgia and a pair of old gym shorts can turn an ordinary man into a superhero is a world where anything can happen.  A world where adventure lurks beneath the surface, and anyone who’s lucky enough to find just the right THING becomes special.

Artifacts appeal on a deeper level too, as an external symbol for elements of our own psyches.  Finding an artifact that gives you new abilities serves as a metaphor for self-discovery.  Sure, you could come across a jewel-encrusted Renaissance comb and find yourself gripped with the murderous urges of a Borgia ghost.  But you could also, in a moment of honesty, admit that we all have a little Borgia in us–a dark, manipulative side that we restrain every day for the sake of functioning in society.  Watching a story about someone whose inner Borgia is set free by a magical artifact is a safe way to explore our own inner darkness:  as long as the artifact is active, we voyeuristically experience the havoc wrought by unrestrained selfishness, and as soon as the artifact is contained again, whew, the threat of that inner darkness is contained again.  By manipulating the external symbol, we gain more control over the invisible internal–that’s the basis of ritual, and it’s one of the most powerful of psychological principles (just look at any religion that’s ever existed; it’s their primary method for motivating/manipulating their followers).

There seem to be two kinds of artifacts in the Warehouse 13 universe:  intentional and accidental.  Intentional artifacts are the kind we’re used to, crafted by wizards and alchemists, gods and mad scientists.  They’re artifacts that were created for a specific purpose, often for a specific individual to wield, and they’re in the warehouse now that they’ve served that purpose.  I’m even more fascinated by the accidental artifacts–according to the Warehouse 13 mythos, these are objects which gained powers by being used by someone who was unusually skilled or talented (almost as if some of that person’s spirit or talent is transferred to the object).  My favorite accidental artifact so far as been the pen of Edgar Allen Poe:  you can use it to write an action down, and anyone who reads it is forced to perform that action.  In the Warehouse 13 world, new artifacts are created all the time, and no one knows it until someone inadvertantly activates the new artifacts’ powers.

Think about what that implies:  everyone in the Warehouse 13 universe is potentially an unwitting mage, imbuing the world around them with their own personal magic.

How cool is that?

If the Warehouse 13 folks had simply chosen to focus on the powers of the artifacts themselves, the show would have quickly fallen flat as they struggled to come up with new and unique attributes for each new object.  But by making the artifacts an extension of human will, and stating that we are creating these artifacts by the good and bad actions we choose to engage in, they’re saying that the show is about humanity’s struggles with ourselves.  The artifacts are concrete manifestations of the emotions and desires that we all wrestle with–and every time the Warehouse 13 crew safely contains another artifact, one more dangerous aspect of the human psyche is symbolically brought under control.  The search for artifacts becomes a metaphor for the search for morality and the struggle to become a better person.

Couple that universal theme and intriguing use of artifacts with strong, action-filled plotting, excellent writing, and great acting–kudos, creators and writers of Warehouse 13.  You hooked me!

Note:  Warehouse 13 isn’t the first television show to propose accidental artifacts; The Lost Room, an outstanding but short-lived science fiction show explored the same idea in a much different way.

I’ve got your sugar right here, Campbell

Scifi Wire recently published their tribute to Bruce Campbell, in honor of his birthday, a hilarious parody in the form of four labels for an imaginary line of Bruce Campbell soups:

For those of you who aren’t fans, it won’t be that funny. But for me… well, I must confess, I have a secret geek-girl crush on Bruce Campbell. Okay, I guess it’s not so secret now that I’ve just announced it to the world. But since I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve, I might as well count the ways…

What do I love about him? He’s Erroll Flynn with a sense of humor, a swash-buckling action hero whose tongue is always in his cheek. A guy who’s so comfortable with himself that he can utter a cornball line like “Gimme some sugar, baby,” and make it sound sexy.

How does he pull it off? I think it’s the gleam in his eye that says “I’m not taking myself entirely seriously, and you shouldn’t either.” That hint of self-mockery turns characters with the potential to be two-dimensional goofballs into self-aware people who are conscious of their flaws but can’t quite break free of them.

In other words, he takes comic roles and gives them enough internal conflict to make you empathize with them. And as the character laughs at himself, you can laugh along with him, without feeling guilty.

Bruce’s ability to add touches of self-deprecating humor to roles not only brings complexity to his characters, but it allows him to take a scene that would otherwise be completely over the top and give us permission, as viewers, to enjoy it without feeling self-conscious that we’re total goobers for cheering him through it. It’s weird, but that ironic awareness that it’s all in good fun makes it easier to suspend disbelief. Bruce knows it’s silly, we know it’s silly, but gosh, wouldn’t it be cool to pretend you’re taking on army of killer zombies with a chainsaw for a hand? Just for a minute?

You may, of course, bring along the boomstick of your choice…

Hope you had a wonderful birthday, Bruce!