To be a cult movie doesn’t necessarily mean to be a great movie. You don’t always need superb direction, a excellent screenplay, or well developed characters. You might just have a small movie with a pioneering view of the future. Stunning (but now Jurassic) computer graphics, glowing suits, technological marvels and geeky jargon have probably helped, but what made Tron a milestone in the history of science fiction cinema was its pioneering embrace of virtual reality its play with the mutual influences and analogies between the real and the virtual world.
Director Steven Lisberger said that the inspiration for the film occurred when he first saw Pong, one of the most successful arcade video games, featuring a minimal two-dimensional graphic and simulating a tennis table game. In the early Eighties, at the time Tron was being produced, home consoles were becoming popular, and personal computers were appearing in more and more households in the States (1982, when the film reached the movie theatres, is the same year the legendary Commodore 64 was released). However, it was not until a few years later that criticism started circulating around the idea of video games as having a negative influence on players (especially the young ones) and being associated with addiction, aggression, violence and anti-social behaviour. In The Skin of Culture Derrick de Kerckhove writes: “Right now, Nintendo tunes the nervous systems of generations exposed more frequently to computers than to television screens. While they are playing, our kids are turned into hapless extensions of their Nintendos and Segas, as if they were complex, organic servo-mechanisms of crude joystick and digital video cartoons. That’s another image of our new selves growing up.”1
The risk of becoming an avatar of ourselves, slaves of our own machines and programmes, trapped in a perpetual game keeping us out of touch with reality: all this is already prefigured in Tron, where inside the computer network lies a dystopic society of bits, data and applications. The regime of the tyrannical Master Control Program is forcing its virtual inhabitants to ceaselessly fight each other in insidious challenges and spectacular races. The virtual realms of codes and integrated circuits expanded inside the calculator turn out to an ideal setting for the establishment of a perfect totalitarian, hyper-controlled universe. Here, a digitalised version of the protagonist, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) tries to find the proof of his own authorship on some blockbuster videogames which has been stolen by his treacherous colleague Dillinger, and at the same time to find a way home to the physical world.
The best analysis of the danger associated with a splitting of reality into two separate dimensions can be found in the words of technophobe and media theorist Paul Virilio. He depicts a catastrophic scenario where the virtual city of information is overlapping the old urban infrastructure, which is now the periphery of itself. Telecracy is round the corner, simulation is replacing reality and people are forgetting what time is, subdued by the simultaneity of a global, accelerated space. According to Virilio, virtual is not the opposite of real, but the opposite of its actuality, that is, it is real in potential. This means, in the end, a world with two coexisting realities alternatively superseding each other; a scenario which is possible because reality is in any case always built on the consensus of a community sharing or inhabiting it.
Besides these gloomy perspectives, we shouldn’t forget that we are still watching a typically family oriented Disney production, with all its essential ingredients: a hero, a deuteragonist, an enemy, a female character, some funny details (such as the star-shaped “bits” able to communicate only with yes or no) and non-human creatures endowed with (sort of) human feelings. From this angle, Tron can be seen as a pure fantasy, where virtual reality appears as one of the thousands of possible versions of an imaginary, enchanted world and the whole dynamic of the film can be traced back to the idea of the adventurous mission. The world inside the machine is then a slightly distorted mirror of our own world, including our belief or search for a God that resembles us and created us: the User (interestingly, the original meaning of the Hindu word avatar refers precisely to the descent of a deity in an incarnate form).
It is intriguing how the Disney Corporation in the Seventies had experienced trouble finding its way creatively, in ways similar to that of Encom (the company Flynn was working for, which had been remoulded in the hands of the evil Dillinger). The lack of creativity following the death of its founder Walt Disney was compensated for by a strategy of assimilation of other companies and independent productions such as The Muppets. Therefore, some saw analogies in the fraudulent acquiring of Flynn’s programmes by Dillinger, who made this way his rise to the position of Encom vice-president. If the subject of intellectual property makes Tron even more forward-looking than expected, it also is likely that contemporary viewers spotted a subtext concerning the Cold War climate, with a fight between the blue-dressed defenders of freedom and the red-glowing (notice the “subtle” use of colour symbology) communist / totalitarian enemy, adding to the long list of American films where the Soviet Union is embodied in either alien or mechanical (non-human anyway) entities. Reduced to slaves of the system, the blue characters are involved in a game that is matter of life and death. The imperative to win as crucial for survival not only emphasises the tyrannical nature of the red regime, but also suggests the implications of gaming in terms of chance and accidents, and its ultimate association with death: “Those who are addicted to card games or the roulette table always end up playing Russian roulette. Games and death, games and accidents, are related. When you play at chance, you are compelled to play and thus no longer free to play; and a physical or mental death occurs. Now video games or the more sophisticated games of tomorrow's virtual reality will induce this same desire for death. A desire to cross the boundary”2 (Paul Virilio).
1. Derrick de Kerckhove, “The Skin of Culture”, Somerville House, 1995.
2. Paul Virilio and Jérôme Sans, "Game Of Love & Chance", interview, 1995.
in chief of undo.net, she now contributes to a number of contemporary
art magazine. She lives in Newcastle upon Tyne (UK) where she also
works as translator. She is part of the collective Nopasswd
in[ter]dependent contemporary culture.