Yes, even a CGI-filled big-budget glowing Disney spectacle can provide opportunity for theorization. Of the recent Internet-themed blockbusters – namely, Avatar (2009); The Social Network (2010) – Tron: Legacy (2010) best captures the essence of this blog: that the digital and the physical are enmeshed together into an augmented reality.
This seems surprising given that the film is fundamentally about a separate digital world. Indeed, the first Tron (1982) is all about strict a physical-digital dualism and the sequel plays on the same theme: physical person gets trapped in a digital world and attempts to escape. However, Tron: Legacy explores the overlapping of the physical and digital. The story goes that Flynn, the hero from the 1982 film, develops a digital world that does not have the imperfections of its physical counterpart. His grand vision was to gloriously move humanity online. Simultaneously, the beings in the digital world wanted to export their perfection out of the digital world and to colonize the offline world, removing all of its imperfections (that is, us). Flynn comes to realize that enforced perfection (read: Nazism) is unwanted. Instead of a highly controlled and orderly universe, what has to be appreciated is what emerges out of chaos. And it is here that the film makes at least two theoretical statements that are well ahead of most movies and popular conceptions of the digital.
First is the tension between (1) top-down order and restricted information flows to create profit versus (2) generative spontaneity and the information-should-be-free ethic of cyberlibertarianism. This is Web 1.0 versus Web 2.0, and the Tron sequel is fundamentally a Web 2.0 movie. The movie begins by showing a super-powerful software company overcharging for a stale product. One might be reminded of Microsoft here, and that fits, but what is more fitting is Apple. Apple exerts far more top-down control over their products and software, e.g.its walled-garden Apple Store. In fact, the software giant in the movie refers to their main product, an operating system, as simply “OS”, just as Apple does. This Web 1.0 software giant is the enemy in the physical-world and in the digital world the enemies are those who believe that information should be ordered and perfect. Instead, the heroes in the film are hackers who make the software available for free and believe that all information should be free. They believe in spontaneity and the generative power of chaos –the cyberlibertarian/hacker ethos of Web 2.0.
Second, the film updates the digital-physical dualism of its characters. In the 1982 version, one was either a digital “program” or a physical “user”; or as is the case of Flynn, a user transformed into something digital. The dualism was strict. The purpose of this blog is, in part, to describe the ways in which the physical and technological and digital have enmeshed together creating an augmented world occupied by cyborgs. And Tron: Legacy takes this directly into account by introducing revolutionary (and perhaps emancipatory) beings that are part digital and part physical –what Jeff Bridges character calls “bio-digital jazz, man.”
While The Social Network suffered from a clear misunderstanding of the Internet and social network sites specifically, Tron: Legacy seems to get it. Yes, the plot is weak and the dialogue is often cringe-worthy. However, one can instead focus on the theoretically-forward conceptual decisions that went into the film while enjoying the head-thumping Daft Punk soundtrack and the amazing neon head rush visuals that CGI was made for.