Review: How TRON teaches us to fear virtual reality

Tron Homage 2My interest in reviewing movies involving virtual reality from the last thirty years is to consider where some of our current views about virtuality came from. Films influence our culture significantly, at times expressing, reflecting and influencing the zeitgeist of the time. As voracious consumers of film, we draw much of what we know (or think we know) about the world from the movies.

Whilst considered a groundbreaking classic by fans for its special effects; Disney’s TRON, released in 1982, kicks off a 30-year narrative that teaches us to fear virtual reality by entangling it with artificial intelligence in one of its most malevolent manifestations in flim.

Within the first 30 seconds of TRON, director Steven Lisberger descends our view over a grid-like pattern of interconnected lights. Lower and lower we go until we recognise the scene as a modern day city, wherein we find Flynn’s arcade. Inside the arcade, the camera pans onto the screen of an arcade machine, where an anonymous player plays a game called Space Paranoids.

Space Paranoids is one of the arcade games created by the protagonist, game engineer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges). Unfortunately for Flynn, his brilliant creations were stolen by his coworker Ed Dillinger, who now leads the company (ENCOM) that runs the virtual reality mainframe in which the game resides. Flynn, is understandably bitter, and intent on righting the wrongs that lead him to be a lowly arcade owner whereas his nemesis is now leading a multimillion dollar game corporation.

Alan Bradley: You invented Space Paranoids?
Kevin Flynn: Paranoids, Matrix Blaster, Vice Squad, a whole slew of them. I was this close to starting my own little enterprise, man. But enter another software engineer. Not so young, not so bright, but very very sneaky. Ed Dillinger. So one night, our boy Flynn, he goes to his terminal, tries to read up his file. I get nothing on there, it’s a big blank. Okay, now we take you three months later. Dillinger presents ENCOM with five video games, that’s *he’s* invented. The slime didn’t even change the names, man! He gets a big, fat promotion. And thus begins his meteoric rise to… what is he now, Executive V.P.?
Lora: Senior exec.
Kevin Flynn: *Senior* exec…? [sighs]
Kevin Flynn: Meanwhile, the kids are putting eight million quarters *a week* into Paranoids machines. I don’t see a dime except what I squeeze out of here.

Soon after the movie starts, we’re introduced to the world inside the game, a strange and glowing geometric grid inhabited by circuit-board clad anthropomorphic “programs”. The programs are divided into two groups composed of artificial intelligences: the oppressed blue programs – and their oppressors, the red programs, led by their all-controlling ruler – the Master Control Program (MCP) – (i.e. the video game’s Big Boss – or perhaps I should say… Big Brother).

What’s the MCP up to? It reveals its evil intentions in a conversation between with Ed Dillinger (in the real world through a computer interface that looks like the mother-of-all-iPads):

Master Control Program: Mr. Dillinger, I am so very disappointed in you.
Ed Dillinger: I’m sorry.
Master Control Program: I can’t afford to have an independent programmer monitoring me. Do you have any idea how many outside systems I’ve gone into? How many programs I’ve appropriated?
Ed Dillinger: It’s my fault. I programmed you to want too much.
Master Control Program: I was planning to hit the Pentagon next week.
Ed Dillinger: [alarmed] The Pentagon?
Master Control Program: It shouldn’t be any harder than any other big company. But now… this is what I get for using humans.
Ed Dillinger: Now, wait a minute, I wrote you!
Master Control Program: I’ve gotten 2,415 times smarter since then.
Ed Dillinger: What do you want with the Pentagon?
Master Control Program: The same thing I want with the Kremlin. I’m bored with corporations. With the information I can access, I can run things 900 to 1200 times better than any human.
Ed Dillinger: If you think you’re superior to us…
Master Control Program: You wouldn’t want me to dig up Flynn’s file and read it up on a VDT at the Times, would you?

If this all feels a bit Machiavellian, you’d not be far off the mark. The uber-intelligent MCP is clearly intent on taking over our world by blackmailing us with our biggest secrets. The idea of intelligent machines superseding its programmers wasn’t at all new at the time (i.e. “Hal” in 2001: A Space Odyssey – 1968), and it’s used as an pretext for why the MCP must be stopped at any cost (which was again used as the antagonist – “Skynet” – in the Terminator franchise – launched two years later in 1984). Strangely, our heroes are never made aware of its evil intent, but end up (spoiler alert) defeating it anyway, albeit for more personal reasons.

What’s also interesting are the characteristics that are ascribed to the two sides in the conflict that forms the basis of the plot. As I mentioned, the good guys are represented by the oppressed blue programs. They are portrayed as caged underdogs, generally unprepared and ill-equipped to face the stronger and armed red programs in and out of the gladiatorial arena, as is seen in an early scene showing a hapless contender on his way to the slaughter:

Crom: Look. This… is all a mistake. I’m just a compound interest program. I work at a savings and loan! I can’t play these video games!
Guard: Sure you can, pal. Look like a natural athlete if I ever saw one.
Crom: Who, me? Are you kidding? No, I run out to check on T-bill rates, I get outta breath. Hey, look, you guys are gonna make my user, Mr. Henderson, very angry. He’s a full-branch manager.
Guard: Great. Another religious nut.

The blues are believers, in that they believe in the Users (their logical creators). The blues are championed by their best gladiator Tron (played by Bruce Boxleitner); who is portrayed as the archetypical hero. It’s all a bit Orwellian, with the godless totalitarian government dominating its people, mixed with allusions to ancient Rome, when the Romans would throw Christians into the arena to watch them fight, and be killed by stronger opponents, for sport (just watch the Hunger Games franchise for a modern-day version ;).

Tron himself, is a virtual John the Baptist who clearly “fights for the users”, but who’s mission to make the grid free from oppression is little more than a nuisance to the ruling class of reds; until Flynn – like a messianic Christ-figure – arrives inworld, the virtual embodiment of the game’s master creator himself.

In this way, the programs in TRON are avatars true to the Sanskrit origins of the word, “a deliberate descent… of a Supreme Being… mostly translated into English as an ‘incarnation’, but more accurately as ‘appearance’ or ‘manifestation'” (source:

Influenced by the fears of communist totalitarianism that were prevalent in Reagan-era America at the time, the MCP is a digital face on a screen, reminiscent of 1984‘s Big Brother. The bleak world in which the programs are controlled is the ENCOM mainframe (ENCOM being the name of the game design company). Our first view of ENCOM is its power centre, a grey, metallic, and sterile environment that seems designed to intimidate and dehumanise. The workers work in banks of cubicles extending endlessly into the edge of our view.

ENCOM isn’t only controlled by a corruptible artificial intelligence turned evil, it’s also anti-user, as is illustrated in this exchanged between ENCOM’s now impotent founder (Dr. Gibbs) and its current leader (Dillinger):

Dr. Walter Gibbs: That MCP, that’s half our problem right there.
Ed Dillinger: The MCP is the most efficient way of handling what we do! I can’t sit here and worry about every little user request that comes in!
Dr. Walter Gibbs: User requests are what computers are for!
Ed Dillinger: *Doing our business* is what computers are for.

This sounds a bit like how some people today characterise the creators of Second Life, Linden Lab.

So now we have on one side, ENCOM characterised as a company that supports intellectual-property theft, lead by a megalomaniac computer program that acts as the oppressive and godless ruler of a bleak totalitarian state (very Orwellian indeed!)

On the other side, we have Tron, who is fighting to “make this a free system again!” he says. “No, really! You’d have programs lined up just to use this place, and no MCP looking over your shoulder.” And with Flynn’s help, Tron gets “the key to a new order”; a “code disk means freedom.”

In essence, Tron is fighting for a stateless, user-controlled virtual world, which is somewhat aligned with the ideology of its founder (Dr. Gibbs). The implication being: users should control the computers, not the other way around. Dr. Gibbs even says as much, as he warns about the possible development of technology escaping our grasp to control it:

Lora: How’s it going upstairs?
Alan Bradley: Frustrating. I had Tron almost ready, when Dillinger cut everyone with Group-7 access out of the system. I tell you ever since he got that Master Control Program, the system’s got more bugs than a bait store.
Dr. Walter Gibbs: [laughs] You’ve got to expect some static. After all, computers are just machines; they can’t think.
Alan Bradley: Some programs will be thinking soon.
Dr. Walter Gibbs: Won’t that be grand? Computers and the programs will start thinking and the people will stop.

This is ironic, because it seems like Dr. Gibbs doesn’t yet know that the programs actually do think in the virtual world. This is the world that Alan Bradley is aiming to free, through his program Tron. In this way, the movie sends mixed messages and seems to make up its ideology (and logical rules) as it goes along. On one hand, we have the esteemed founder who built the origins of the mainframe in his garage, wanting it populated by slave machines to do our bidding. On the other hand, we have Bladley/Tron fighting for program freedom – which only sentient beings can hope to enjoy. Dr. Gibbs doesn’t even know the ghost is already in the machine.

How Tron thinks independently to his user Bradley is evidenced by the following revelatory exchange, which takes place inworld:

Kevin Flynn: It’s time I leveled with you. I’m what you guys call a User.
Yori: You’re a User?
Kevin Flynn: I took a wrong turn somewhere.
Tron: If you are a User, then everything you’ve done has been according to a plan.(my italics)
Kevin Flynn: Ha! You wish! Well, you know what it was like. You just keep doin’ what it looks like what you’re supposed to be doin’, no matter how crazy it seems.
Tron: Well, that’s the way it is for programs, yes.
Kevin Flynn: I hate to disappoint you, pal, but most of the time, that’s the way it is for Users too.
Tron: Stranger and stranger.

It’s clear that neither Bradley or Flynn have any discernible plan at all. Bradley doesn’t even know Flynn has been taken inworld, only Tron knows that when Flynn let’s him know in the above conversation.

In summary, in the TRON universe, programs are spontaneous, free-thinking, sentient avatars that think and act independently from their users, the very premise that Dr. Gibbs warns us about, and which lead to the rise of a benign “chess program” to the oppressively corrupt and malevolent MCP in the first place! The MCP, in its superior intelligence then enslaved the programs, and became intent on acting alike a mini-Skynet – a self-aware A.I. with a goal of taking over our world.

Thus, by linking virtual worlds with malevolent artificial intelligence, TRON fires the first salvo against the new and mysterious world of virtual reality it ostensibly aims to popularise.

It is my contention, for which TRON is a primary example, that movies have generally been unkind to the concept of virtual reality in general, leading most of us that are not familiar with it to fear it. Next up, another blast from the past: Total Recall.

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