This SPOILER-FILLED review takes a deep look into the script for Disney’s upcoming sequel.
A look at an early draft of Tron 2 reveals a script filled with problems and potential.
It’s a sequel in the Die Hard 2 sense of the term. Meaning, it’s less a pure continuation of the original narrative — like The Empire Strikes Back — and more a dutiful remake told on a larger scale and with a bigger budget. You know, like most sequels.
I don’t begrudge it for being that. I love the original Tron, but my biggest problem with it is its length. It’s too short by half an hour. Steven Lisberger, the animator and brains behind the 1982 cult classic, undoubtedly poured most of his budget into Jeff Bridges’ salary and the movie’s fantastic bleeding-edge CGI. He probably had to keep it short and sweet.
But man — Lisberger packed his original movie with invention. Over the years, we’ve seen dozens of movies revisit virtual reality, cyberspace and the basic idea of going inside a computer, from the terrible (The Lawnmower Man) to the great (The Matrix), but Lisberger’s movie has retained a lot of its charm over the years for its simple conceit that the programs we write have lives of their own, all without us knowing it. I wanted to see more of that world. It’s worth exploring again, though the draft of Tron 2 I read didn’t explore this world — or the interesting ideas Lisberger introduced — with the depth I’d like to see.
Before I go on, let’s get the caveats out of the way. Richard Jeffries receives sole writing credit on the draft I read, though the IMDb lists Lost scribe Edward Kitsis as a writer, too. In addition, the lead role in this draft is a young programmer named Rush, while the Hollywood trades have confirmed that Garrett Hedlund is set to play the movie’s lead: young programmer Sean Flynn, son to the Jeff Bridges character from the orignal.
I suspect that the production team reworked the Rush character to be Flynn’s son, and it’s a good call. Rush is your typical eager young code monkey, and it probably didn’t take much work to give him an interesting relationship with his father, who shows up midway through the story — but more on that later.
Remember the Encom corporation? Well, they’re hard at work on a new global information network called X-Net. They’re pitching it as the world’s only 100 percent secure information network. Encom code monkeys are working ’round the clock to get X-Net ready for launch, but a powerful virus keeps attacking their core system: a virus called Tron. Meanwhile, other computer viruses have been proliferating around the world, making X-Net a massive success before its launch. Everyone is terrified that the world’s computer systems — from the Internet on down — are going to crash, and X-Net is the only solution.
The first twist
Encom’s evil CEO, named Sinclair in this draft, engineered the global virus attacks to frighten everyone (and I mean everyone) to get on board with X-Net so he’ll have total control over all the world’s information.
The second twist
Years ago, Sinclair managed to use the lazer-digitizer thingy from the first movie to zap Jeff Bridges’ character (Kevin Flynn) into the Encom system. Sinclair thought he killed Flynn, but Flynn has remained alive inside the system as a freedom fighter. Flynn used the Tron program as the base code for a powerful new app that’s designed to take down X-Net.
Well, the problems. My main issues with Jeffries’ script are its lack of tech literacy and its failure to explore the religious themes introduced in the original movie. Let’s address those individually.
Lack of tech literacy and my insanely detailed interpretation of Tron’s cyber-world
I’ll use the term “cyber-world” to refer to the neon-luminescent realm inside computers that these movies explore. OK, I readily concede that I’m being a nit-picky nerd here, but walk with me on this. One of the challenges of making a Tron movie is to accurately present cyber-world analogues for digital events.
What does that mean? Let’s take a simple example: In the original movie, when a program was erased, we saw that action presented as that program’s death. The residents of the cyber-world call this death “deresolution” and casually use the term “de-rez” instead of “kill.”
That’s a simple example. Here’s a more complicated one. Check out this scene. It’s only about four minutes, and it’s packed with a lot of the interesting ideas that Lisberger introduced:
Let’s break this down. In this scene, Flynn is trying to hack into Encom’s mainframe to recover evidence that a former coworker (Dillinger, played by David Warner) ripped off his programming ideas. He wrote a program called Clu to help him do it. We see Clu attempt to infiltrate a memory center, only to be removed from the system and deleted.
That’s what happens in the real world.
But in the cyber-world, Clu is represented by a human avatar played by Jeff Bridges. (Side note: Having the same actor play the programmer and their program is still a great device.) Furthermore, Clu is riding in a tank from a videogame that Flynn himself programmed called Space Paranoids. Here’s where it gets interesting. Think back to the real world. Is Flynn playing a video game? Nope — he’s looking at a bunch of code onscreen.
So if Flynn isn’t playing a game, why is his program riding in one of his tanks? A literal way to interpret this is that Flynn used some code from his video game in the Clu program, but allow me to submit a different interpretation:
Flynn’s a great programmer, and his programs reflect that. He may not have used code from Space Paranoids to write Clu, but he wrote Clu so well that it’s like he was riding in a tank from Space Paranoids.
Allow me to pre-empt some of the reaction I’ll get for this review: Yes, yes yes — I am a gigantic fucking geek. It’s ridiculous that I’m 1,000 words into a review that reads this deep into Tron. No argument here, but I think that Lisberger is working on a wonderfully rich level of metaphor. If we go back to my “de-rez equals kill” idea, we can see it applies to the end of the clip above, where the Master Control Program kills Clu.
But once again, here’s where it gets interesting. When the MCP is “interrogating” Clu, what exactly is happening? Are they having that dialogue inside the computer? I submit that they aren’t. The MCP is trying to break whatever encryption Flynn applied to Clu, but it’s too strong, even for the mighty MCP. We see the strength of Flynn’s craft represented as Clu’s defiance in the face of torture and death.
Back at the beginning of the clip, we see and hear the transition into this world of metaphor as Flynn calls up the Clu program in the real world. In the real world, he’s mumbling to himself like any good code monkey, but when the movie shifts to Clu’s perspective, Flynn’s dialogue changes — he starts giving orders and his tone shifts to that of a military commander who’s goading and encouraging his digital lieutenant. Is Flynn really saying all that stuff? I submit that he isn’t, but that is how the Clu program perceives his interactions with his user.
Lisberger came up with some great shit!
The human brain, when confronted with unusual stimuli, will usually try to interpret that information in the best way it knows how. When Flynn gets zapped into the cyber-world in the original movie, I submit that his digitized gray matter interpreted the insane input from the cyber-world in the best way it knew how — and the result was a literal realization of the metaphorical relationship between the physical and cyber worlds that Lisberger imagined.
Now for the bad news
Jeffries’ script kind of misses the point.
It starts out fine, with an action scene played out among operatives for X-Net (deliciously called “X-Takks”) and the amped-up Tron program, but when it cuts to the real world, we see dozens of Encom computer techs — including Rush — running around trying to “find” the Tron program. Rush leads the charge, naturally, chasing Tron around the mainframe and eventually onto the old game grid.
Let’s get this straight: The script depicts Rush coding, and then his coding somehow transposes into a video-game “chase” with Tron.
OK, don’t get me wrong: That’s pretty cool, and I suspect that it’ll play well onscreen, but it just doesn’t make any damn sense, and it jettisons the metaphorical framework that Lisberger established in the first movie.
An obvious counter to my argument is: “Hey, asshole, scenes with programmers typing at keyboards aren’t interesting.” True, but that’s why most of the original movie takes place in the cyber-world. Let’s not forget that there’s a whole parallel storyline in the original movie that Lisberger didn’t show us: Alan’s. Flynn’s plan was to go into the mainframe, distract the MCP and let Alan activate his Tron program. We see that happen in the cyber-world, but in the real world, the events were almost instantaneous. It’s easy to miss, but Lisberger established that the inhabitants of the cyber-world function on a much faster timeline than humans, which makes sense, given that they’re freaking computer programs.
The idea of a human clattering away at a keyboard to prevent a hack is also one of the singular idiocies propagated by Hollywood. I once ran across a comic strip online that blasted this myth. I can’t find it, but the gist was this:
(Apologies to the original artist and for my shitty, shitty cartooning!)
Unfortunately, Jeffries’ opening sequence falls for this old idea and shows us a bunch of frantic programmers working to stop a hack in progress. Now, to be fair, his script later justifies this choice by revealing that the hack is coming from inside the system itself by way of Flynn and his freedom fighters. It’s not a huge deal, but the opening scene could use a polish.
And speaking of polishes, Jeffries also fails to show the audience the stakes at the beginning of his story. When Sinclair — that’s Encom’s current boss/villain — asks Rush to go inside the computer, the whole scene plays out over a page and a half in which Sinclair persuades Rush to undergo an insane, experimental procedure — the whole “getting zapped into a computer” thing — and Rush agrees to do it because Sinclair promises to make him a partner in the company.
It just doesn’t wash, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t. Jeffries later reveals that Sinclair and his cyber-world counterpart (the evil program Plexor) have been dispatching viruses around the world to frighten everyone into signing on with X-Net. There’s no reason why this movie couldn’t open with a newsreel about how a plague of cyber viruses is threatening the integrity of the world’s computer systems — and X-Net is the only hope. That would add very real tension to the opening scene. These code monkeys wouldn’t just be working to meet a deadline — they’d be working to save the world.
Author: Tony Lazlo, CC2K Staff Writer
Robert J. Peterson is a writer and web developer living in Los Angeles. A Tennessee native, he graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. He’s written for newspapers and websites all over the country, including the Marin Independent Journal, the Telluride Daily Planet, CC2KOnline.com, Offscreen, and Geekscape.net. He co-hosts the podcasts Make It So and Hiram’s Lodge. He’s appeared as a pop-culture guru on the web talk shows Comics on Comics, The Fanbase Press Week In Review, Collider Heroes, ScreenJunkies TV Fights, and Fandom Planet. He’s the founder of California Coldblood Books.