Computers cannot act. This has been an irrefutable fact since the original Tron was unleashed by Disney in the early 1980's, but managed to cleverly sidestep the issue by capitalizing on the mystery, wonder, and illicit quality of the embryonic video game industry. Who were these guys, in their brown blazers and horn rimmed glasses, who worked at darkly sinister corporations with names like 'Encom', tapping out thousands of lines of code that floated in green on screens of black? These cubicle dwellers seemed to have clawed their way out of some kind of subterranean milieu, where the trappings of physicality were stripped away, and power was achieved through ingenuity and intellectual prowess. Tron showed us the machine rooms, the cubicles, and the sight of 'hackers' - their faces illuminated by the glow of their screens - as they punched a hole in the wall dividing reality and the digital, fighting against an enemy that manifested as abusive corporate authority and the corruption of the pioneer spirit. In the twenty five years since Tron's release to a largely bemused, indifferent audience, the industry that the film depicts has grown into the kind of monolithic superstructure that acts as a nexus of commerce, politics and culture - a powerhouse of both engineered obsolescence and determinedly progressive innovation. We have seen the erection of giants like Microsoft and Apple, who stride through the capitalist technocracy like confident, all-powerful gods, their decrees directly influencing the lives of both the economies which they inhabit, and the millions of users who depend on their existence.
Tron: Legacy demonstrates - with considerable aplomb - just how ill-prepared American popular culture is to understand and acknowledge the world-changing influence of the younger technological brothers that have seized the controls of our artistic, social, and political futures. For if Tron: Legacy is anything, it is a film that is obsessed with ignoring the fundamental truth of the film's narrative - it is, allegedly, a film about computers. Those wonderful machines that offer us a direct connection to the breadth and depth of human consciousness - the computer, all but invisible in modern life, is the one reality that Tron: Legacy refuses to acknowledge. With the exception of a brief preamble in which we are introduced to Sam Flynn - the son of the original Tron's Kevin Flynn, played with smarmy insincerity by Jeff Bridges - we are given very little to remind us that the action taking place is set inside a computer. I think there are very good reasons for that.
Online culture - for all intents and purposes - remains culturally ghettoized. Certainly, this is a multi-billion dollar industry which dwarfs film, television and literature in it's potential for economic exploitation, but the social currency of video games - the mechanism through which their reach extends beyond the confines of their own medium - is still negligible. There have been attempts to culturally reimagine this new social reality - 'geek chic', the forced hipness of Xbox Live, and the family friendly exploits of the Nintendo Wii, to name some examples. They have succeeded in some ways - it is no longer a shameful thing to play Call Of Duty or Halo, and the 'games are for kids' label has long since evaporated, swept away by the obstinant refusal of the monetary value of gaming to fade. The truth is, however, that video games remain as they always have been - a domain where physicality, aesthetics, and social hierarchies have no value, and where it is exceptionally difficult for a pecking order based on the traditional value systems of modern life to be established. Gaming, the internet, and new media are blind to your weight, your skin, your teeth, your hair, your wallet, your home, your car, or your ability to attract a desirable partner. They are a realm in which all things are an abstraction - I am as I want myself to be, and the value of disposable, easily monetized elements of my physicality cease to have any meaning. Video games and new media are, then, a threat to the established mechanisms of pop culture iconography as established in late capitalist culture. In a world which places such massive value on the physical and the aesthetic - these things are fundamental to any thorough understanding of modern, corporately controlled culture - the video game and the online world represents an irreparable rupture in the way we use culture to conceptualize ourselves, and the way culture operates as a modelling agent for behavior, physicality, aesthetics, and the very DNA of our humanity.
Lest I appear to be drifting away from the subject at hand, Tron: Legacy is a film which presents a deeply broken representation of the subject matter. Afraid of the outcasts, misfits and nerds which Tron depicted to such potent effect - and who power the industry in 2010 - the film becomes an inane approximation which is utterly enslaved by it's reliance on prior knowledge of Tron's lore, and which awkwardly injects the elements of modern cinema that a mainstream film can understand. Sam Flynn, played with irritating smugness by Garrett Hedlund, is written as a heroic, high flying man of action, capable of extreme stunts for no reason other than it is expected that a modern audience has no ability to relate to a character unless they are jumping a Ducati over a bus. Or leaping from a skyscraper and parachuting to the ground with a triumphant scream. Or whipping out high tech gadgets - we know they're the kinds of things that only Mission Impossible-style spies use as they are covered with green, blinking lights. The plot tells us that Flynn Snr. of Tron has vanished - and if you'd seen even a minute of the previous film, you'd know that he has been sucked into a computer and recreated as a digital version of himself. Sam's mission is to find his father, somewhere inside the electronic reality of the computer.
And my, how times have changed. Afraid to let the story guide us, and desperate to fire sex appeal on all cylinders, the neon-striped costumes of Tron's digital inhabitants are replaced with skin-tight latex pulled over smooth, muscular, perfect bodies. The ladies of Tron: Legacy are - naturally - the kind of women who have stepped off the set of a Robert Palmer clip, with swaying bottoms, pouting lips, and smoky eyes. Thrown into the mix is the hapless Olivia Wilde, here a tangle of bangs and sass, who acts as a sidekick to Flynn Jnr. on his quest. As it happens, one of Flynn Snr's programmes has turned rogue, and has created exactly the kind of fascist regime that we have seen a billion times from Star Wars onward. Flynn Jnr's mission, then, becomes one of liberating the computer from the renegade programme - and saving his father.
And that, essentially, is the plot of the film. With a pinch of pseudo-mystical nonsense that seems to have been cribbed from a condensed edition of The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, we finally meet the elder Jeff Bridges, in full Lebowski mode, as a sort of guru/shaman who holds the secrets of an ancient race that will 'save humanity', although what that entails is never explained. And so, in a blaze of red and blue neon, the film becomes an exhausting chase through a seemingly random landscape, building to an underwhelming finale that somehow manages to blend deicide, fraternal anxiety, sun worship, and a pose cribbed directly from the one sheet poster of Tron in a melange of incoherence, expensive special effects, and acting so overwrought and ill-conceived that it would put Bruce Boxleitner to shame.
Throughout Tron: Legacy's convoluted plot, the one thing that is desperately absent is - of course - technology itself. If you weren't familiar with the original film, a viewer would have a hard time deducing the parameters of the film's world. How, exactly, does this work? Are they on the Internet? Are they programs with functions? Cast your mind back to Tron's delightful incarnations of mortgage and accounting software, depicted as middle aged men, and the Tron character's status as a security suite. The word 'computer' isn't even used - and, indeed, no references are made to programming, computing, gaming, the Internet, technology, or any of the other terms that could be pulled out of the computing lexicon. It is a curious decision, and it renders Tron: Legacy a sterile and lifeless experience - one which, as I wrote earlier, belies a distrust and disdain for the realities of computing. Bizarrely, Tron himself only makes two wordless appearances before being unceremoniously written out of the film. Perhaps Disney, with their crypto-fascist agendas of sickly misogyny and covert imperialism, felt that audiences would reject a film which dealt with the paradoxically ubiquitous yet quizzically surreptitious nature of gaming and new media. Maybe they found it difficult - or impossible - to hammer the solitary, socially undesirable stigma of 'the gamer', 'the dork', and 'the geek' out of Tron's fetishistic adoration of the technologically progressive, and rather than cash in their chips, they simply wrote the problem of existence.
Either way, Tron: Legacy represents a missed opportunity. What could have been a potent utility for the continued cultural rehabilitation of the tired, hackneyed image of 'geeks' as objects of ridicule and persecution, or - at the very least - could have been a fascinating, unique exploration of the explosive fury of the evolutionary, revolutionary computing industry has become a depressingly predictable 'hot people in peril' story. Not even the budget of $200 million could save the film from deliberate irrelevance - in ten years, it will be as quaint a relic as Sandra Bullock's 1995 embarrassment The Net. Ultimately, Tron: Legacy will be disappointingly remembered as a defiant architect of it's own cultural obsolescence, and a discouraging reminder that while video games have achieved commercial rewards beyond anyone's wildest predictions, their cultural currency remains questionable, and often incompatible with established narrative paradigms of Western storytelling.