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.
Oh, my user, my user
Now, once we get past the opening scene in Tron 2, Jeffries quickly transports us to the cyber-world, where the script gains some momentum. Rush links up with some fellow programs and (as per his orders) takes on the seemingly nefarious Tron. Before I get into how Jeffries script short-shrifts the religious themes introduced in the original movie, let me provide a run-down of the characters in Tron 2 and what I thought of them.
Pretty much a cipher. He doesn't have any dialogue, and Rush kills him about midway through the movie. His new look and new moves sound extremely badass, though, as seen in the original teaser trailer for this movie:
(Side note: Remember my fancypants "deep metaphor" interpretation of Lisberger's cyber-world? Well, the role of light-cycles in these movies short-circuits it. I'm not sure how random programs can use the code from a video game for transportation, but despite that, I still like my interpretation. And also: Light-cycles are awesome.)
Oh, here's one other cool thing about Tron: This is the only instance in this movie where we see a program that's the result of more than one user -- Flynn and Alan. That's a missed opportunity in this movie. Back in the early 80s, single programmers writing entire programs from scratch was a little more common than today, when teams of developers will work on a single app. Just a thought.
Confused leading man and our proxy in the story. He eventually claims the Tron mantle.
The hot babe. I presume that Olivia Wilde is playing this role, and the thought of her in luminescent spandex sounds just fine.
The bad guy. Indistinguishable from Dillinger/Sark in part one. Will John Hurt play this role?
A search program, and the movie's comic relief. Pretty funny, with lots of off-kilter dialogue.
A powerful deletion utility that helps out the heroes. Has the potential to be pretty cute. He growls menacingly at various bad guys while clobbering them and dies in a scene sure to distress the kiddies.
A frazzled denizen of the cyber-world. I'm not sure what kind of app he is, but he can teleport from one place to another.
The hero of part one. In this movie, Flynn's trapped deep inside the system and is the rougish leader of an army called the Finity Fighters. Jeffries portayal of Flynn isn't bad, but as a leader, Flynn is stuck saying a lot of sis-boom-bah, inspirational speeches that feel strange coming out of his mouth.
Rumor held for years that Tron 2 would follow the structure of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, and that we would discover a Flynn who had retreated deep inside the system and lost some part of himself. Jeffries' script clearly includes an element of that idea, but it's missing two things:
1. Flynn hasn't lost his mind.
2. Flynn isn't a god.
Fighting for the Users
Once again, I go back to Lisberger's original movie, in which the MCP has shut down all Input/Output towers and made it illegal to believe in "users." When Flynn first sees Tron, he asks:
Another program answers: "That's Tron. He fights for the users."
Later in the movie, Tron infiltrates a defunct I/O tower. Here's the scene -- skip to timestamp 1:20:
I know this is obvious, but this is church for programs. Programs get to interact with their creators first-hand. Lisberger suffuses the entire scene with religious imagery and language. Note how Tron bows his head in prayer when the tower guardian says, "All that is visible must grow beyond itself, and extend into the realm of the invisible."
Elsewhere in the original movie, Flynn -- an actual user -- hooks up with a friendly program called Ram, who eventually gets killed, and before he dies, he utters the (now infamous) line, "Oh, my user, my user."
Jeffries script also includes a "users don't exist" ban from the bad guys in charge, but he keeps his script completely secular -- and that's a shame. I've never read Heart of Darkness, but in Apocalypse Now, Kurtz has become a god among men deep in the jungle. By comparison, Flynn actually is a god in the cyber-world, and it's too bad that Jeffries' script doesn't explore that very rich thematic territory.
Or maybe I just want to hear Flynn yell the battle cry, "Fight for the users!"
Like I said -- I think this is a fairly early draft, and I hope that later rewrites have repaired the problems I laid down here, because if the teaser trailer is any indication, this has the potential to expand upon the wonderful world Lisberger introduced. It's filled with great action sequences, and despite my earlier complaints, there's still plenty of invention. To wit:
The code monkeys in the beginning have to break out an old Apple Lisa -- one of Steve Jobs' biggest boondoggles -- to hack into the old mainframe. Awesome.
Flynn as an urban legend
Around Encom, it's become the stuff of myth that Flynn actually went into the computer. Nice touch.
We finally get a close look at a "city" in the cyber-world, where Encom's operatives are running advertisements everywhere that X-Net is the latest and greatest thing.
While on the run, Rush, Krod, et al, have to surf along waves of data. Could go either way, but it's a neat idea.
Memory leak, a pretty common problem for programmers, as I understand, is a deadly green sludge in the cyber-world. Cool.