Friday, December 17, 2010

Tron: Legacy

MPAA (PG) CNS/USCCB (A-II) Roger Ebert (3 stars) Fr. Dennis (3 stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert’s review -

I suspect that Tron: Legacy will be a movie that many people will probably still not like. It will probably do better in the box office and reach a wider audience than the original Tron movie because we are far more at home as a culture with computers than we were in 1982 when the first Tron movie came out.

Nevertheless, Tron: Legacy will continue to irritate many viewers because it remains true to the original by choosing to place more emphasis on concept and form than on actual or sensical execution of the story. One must recognize this as a legitimate if “avant-guardish” choice made by Tron’s makers, which promises to make the movie “cool” to some, notably to techies as well as to a generally younger crowd, while being distracting to incomprehensible to others who may miss or reject the film makers’ choice of emphasis.

To better understand what I’m talking about, consider that the basic premise of conceptual art (which became popular in art circles in the last decades of the 20th century) has been that any work of art can be divided into the object/representation (the actual work of art) and the idea/concept behind it. In conceptual art, the idea/concept behind the work of art can become more important than its representation to the point that at its extreme the object/representation begins to disappear.

A criticism of conceptual art can be that it’s a cop-out. Why not strive for art in which _both_ the object/representation and the idea/concept behind it are of high quality?

Defenders of conceptual art can respond by noting that there are times when our ability to express or represent an idea/concept may not be up to the task. This can be the result of the lack of ability of the artist (let’s face it most of us probably can only draw stick figures rather than realistic representations of people). It can also be that the whole society is as yet incapable of fully or adequately expressing/representing/realizing the idea or concept in question. So we can only do the best that we can with the limited tools and abilities that we have at our disposal _and_ producing an incomplete or imperfect representation of the idea/concept in question may be preferable to not trying at all.

From an even more general perspective, a hallmark of our postmodern era has been to approach difficult questions through team or interdisciplinary approaches, which seek to arrive at solutions through increasingly accurate approximation rather than direct mathematical solution. Arguably, the postmodern era was born with the advent of quantum mechanics where it was discovered that the structure and dymamics of matter at the molecular, atomic and subatomic level could only be arrived at through approximation.

The great triumphs of postmodernism would then be the internet itself and then heretofore unimaginable projects on it like wikipedia (conceptually related to but not to be overly confused with its evil and probably shortlived cousin wikileaks) where a _master programmer/editor_ and _elite staff_ have been supplanted/replaced by a far larger, open and even self-correcting _ad hoc team_.

Very good, but how does this all apply to the Tron movies? Tron is strong in concept. It seeks to call attention to the relationship between a programmer (creator) and the computer programs (creations) that the programmer creates.

In the Tron movies, a human being (a programmer or more generally a user) finds himself sucked into a computer video game and to his surprise encounters the programs operating within the computer anthropomorphized, that is, represented _as people_. The programs inhabit and travel among well designed chips that look like complex cities. Games or contests played out on the computer screen appear to the programs inhabiting the computer as if they were being played out on a large stage or playing field. And one quickly learns that the "people" to avoid are those representing the computer system’s “security programs” (the computer system's "security police"/Gestapo/Stasi/ICE) especially if one finds oneself to be an unexpected “intruder” in the system.

The analogy is imperfect, and while technical marvels in themselves, many people will find the “special effects” in the Tron movies to be irritating to impossible distractions.

Still, the concept behind Tron series is compelling: Could we see ourselves as “computer programs” living in a universe “a physical device/computer” created by a programmer (creator) living outside of the device?

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