Tron, real virtuality, and the début du siècle
The new trailer for Tron: Legacy, the long-awaited sequel to Disney’s great experiment in blue screen film-making, was released this past week. Although doubtlessly it will be derided as spectacle, and with some justification — big dollars of course come from big dazzle — this film’s visual punch is going to be big precisely because, as filmmakers know very well, the image is often more meaningful than the word.
Popular science fiction always has its phases. Remember the confluence of asteroid movies, books, and games in the Nineties? Perhaps that trend reflected the calendrical (and cultural) fin du siècle. No surprise, then, that the Noughties tended to be concerned with themes of paranoia, surveillance, the schizophrenia of espionage, and asymmetrical warfare. The question, then, is what’s going on nowadays, for it seems virtuality, especially as related to transhumanism and the ultimate fate of humanity, has been really coming to the fore.
Storytellers have long been interested in how the virtual can affect the real, e.g., Lawnmower Man, or even replace it altogether, e.g., The Matrix and EXistenZ. However, the first Tron goes in a very different thematic direction, namely, the literal translation of the real into the virtual, as the main character, Flynn, is physically digitized and inserted into the world of the video game he had created. In terms of metaphysics, this represents a bold departure from other films, for it proposes that the boundary between the physical and the virtual is illusory.
The first filmmakers did not shy away from the Christian or even Gnostic undertones of their story. For example, Flynn, a very reluctant messiah, risks suicide by plunging himself into the depths of the Master Control Program in order to both liberate his creations and return himself to normal space. Some fans have complained that Flynn’s intentions here are murky — is he just trying to save himself or does he actually care about the inhabitants of the video game world? — but I actually enjoy this very real ambivalence at the heart of the film’s climatic moment: he, like us, is deeply unsure whether virtuality and physicality can or even should mingle, and yet he finds himself inexorably drawn to such a mingling.
Fortunately, the team behind Tron: Legacy appear to be picking up this tension and exploring it. On the one hand, from what I can see in the trailer, there appears to be romantic interest between Flynn’s son, Sam, and Quorra, one of the video game characters. On the other hand, he’s clearly intent on finding, and presumably liberating, his father, who appears to have become a prisoner or ascetic of some sort in the video game, and in doing so freeing himself, too. Sam may end up being a very ambiguous protagonist indeed.
Incidentally, this replicates the tensions in the first film between Flynn and Yori. Since childhood I’ve always been intrigued by the way Flynn’s feelings for Yori, as well as her real life counterpart Lora, go unrequited, for the two women love the eminently more noble Tron and Alan. Besides bending the traditional rules of American films, it shows how the virtual and real reflect each other. As to the character himself, it’s as if Flynn is willing to sacrifice himself precisely as a way to transcend his own impotence in both by an act of simultaneous supreme selfishness and supreme service.
In Tron:Legacy, it seems there may be a double echo effect of sorts, because Sam is himself a creation of Flynn as much as, although in a different way than, Quorra. They are kindred, if not siblings, which not only taps into some very old pre-Christian mythological resources, but also ratchets up the intensity in the puzzling over the mingling of virtuality and physicality. Should their union be consummated?
I would say yes: they are gateways for each other back to their shared creator. However, in reality, and ironically, the truth could not be so simple — I expect the filmmakers realize that Sam, like his father before him and like all of us here, in the real world, will remain deeply ambivalent. Which brings me to the issue of transhumanism, for consider: here we are watching our own creations struggling over these questions on behalf of us, and perhaps actually trying to communicate and reconnect with us, as Tron attempted with Alan in the first film.
Tron and Tron: Legacy, then, are no mere mindless special effects films. They question the limit between projection and reflection, fiction and nonfiction, characters and audience: are we somehow each others’ pathways back to an author behind it all, onward and onward in a dialectic of virtuality and physicality, the imagined and the real, toward some perhaps final, perhaps infinitely emanating author who is also his own story, creator who is also creation, audience who is also projection, self-authoring, self-creating, self-viewing?
And if so, do we dare take the critical step on this intimate journey by consummating the union with the creatures of our own imaginations? It’s a question I frequently pose to myself, on the one hand because my real aspiration, beyond journalism and even beyond scholarship, is to be a fiction writer, a storyteller, and on the other hand because imagination, as it did for Ibn al-Arabi many centuries ago, plays a very key role in my spirituality.
Again and again I’m surprised by the philosophical ramifications in the private fictions of my inner world. I do not purposefully invest these daydreams and mental meanderings with the shades of meaning that reveal themselves only in moments of reflection. I think many people can relate to this experience, and so the question is raised as to whether humanity’s fantasies may contain gems of truth, whispers from the divine, that we fail to realize or even dare to admit.
For this reason, I think we already are taking the journey, if unwittingly. The recent ubiquity of the themes of Tron may offer a measure. Consider: Battlestar Galactica‘s “head” characters and the controversial fate of Starbuck (God’s Cylon?); its successor Caprica‘s near total focus on virtual beings, both inside and outside the physical world; District 9 and Avatar, in which the main characters are translated into new physical bodies; and even Inception, which explores the more traditional terrain of dreams. Clearly, there’s a trend afoot.
Ours is an era in which the virtual and the physical are drawing ever-closer, from leaders like Barack Obama sweeping themselves to office via the power of online social networks to the emergence of entire online nations like Wirtland, Eve Online, and Second Life, in which the lines between gaming and governance, much less citizenship, are blurred. Digital space reminds us that virtuality and physicality are ultimately just different articulations of the same quanta, and that amidst the torrent of zeroes and ones the divine, long repressed under the mathematizing obsession of Modernity, may re-emerge.
Perhaps, then, just as asteroid apocalypses manifested the fin du siècle, real virtualities manifest the début du siècle. And thus cinema increasingly proves to be more than a mirror, but instead the theater of evolution, the conversation of being qua being on its epic return and ascent to the source of all that is. Just as in the highest levels of cosmology the lines between physics and metaphysics blur, at the highest levels of film the lines between reality and imagination merge, revealing intimations of the infinite and the alluring hints of our ultimate destiny.