Sunday, October 9, 2011

What I would have done with Tron: Legacy

Tron: Legacy was on yesterday, I caught it from the middle which made it somewhat more enjoyable than I remember it being in theaters. There's something to be said for starting in medias res, I think Aristotle was probably the one to say it but I've never really read Aristotle much.

I still stand by my original assessment though, which is that it's a movie that missed its potential. It seems strange to say that something wasn't good and say that there should have been more of it at the same time, but that's what I'm going to say.

If it has been largely the same (but obviously had a lot less finality) but been the pilot of a series instead of a stand alone movie I think I would have a higher opinion of the series pilot than I do of the movie. The movie introduces you to a whole new world, but looks at none of it in depth. A pilot would at least have the promise of getting back to stuff later.

As an example of how the movie handles stuff, there is a resistance to the local tyrant. There is someone, Zuse, who has solid resistance credentials but is now secretly working for the local tyrant. Both of these things deserve to be looked at in certain degree of depth, instead the movie discards them almost as quickly as it introduces them.

The main character, Sam, shows up and we overhear mention of the resistance, Sam and Zuse walk into a private room where Zuse admits that he is Zuse and promises to help Sam. Sam walks back into the main room and bad guys attack. The resistance person we overheard before is quickly killed. Zuse reveals himself as a traitor. That is everything you see of the resistance: two glances in passing. Zuse will show up for one more scene, where he is killed.

There's not enough time to get to know any of this, you're not given a lot of reason to care. You don't really meet the resistance, you basically just overhear that they exist. Given more time to work with them something interesting might have come of them, but as is they're gone almost as soon as they show up.

The setting is never really explored.

That's a shame because it's a setting that's full of potential.

The Tron movies are both set inside of computers. They take place in a literal cyberspace. It's not a virtual reality like The Matrix, it's something else. A sort of metaphysical realm connected to the code on computers by unexplained means. This metaphysical-ish connection is vague enough for a lot of narrative leeway, but basically it works like this:

Programs are people. Create a program and you create a person in cyberspace. A person with an ingrained purpose. Left to their own devices the programs will accomplish what you expect them to accomplish and everything will work exactly how you'd expect it to work based on the code. Your search program might be dating your word processor when they're off duty, but it will complete your searches exactly as programmed and you'll never realize it has a mind of its own. If left to it's own devices.

In a Tron movie the programs will never be left to their own devices. In 1982 ENCOM, the corporation from the movies, had two things that could confound things in all manner of ways. One was an AI, you could actually have a conversation with it. It provided a direct connection from cyberspace to physical reality that didn't depend on the usual methods of input and output and it did whatever the hell it wanted. Which apparently involved putting programs into gladiatorial games because ... shut up.

The other was the thing that makes the movies possible: a device that could take a physical object (like, say, a human being) and transport it into cyberspace. With it was possible to actually go into the computer and interact with the programs directly.

Tron took place on a single mainframe over the course of a single night. Tron: Legacy takes place on a computer that has been running since the 1980s that hasn't been used by anyone outside since 1989. Both of them take place inside of the computers with the main character's primary objective being to get back out. That means that we never really get a feel for what happens on the outside when programs start exercising their free will. That's something that might be worth exploring.

What happens when your video game decides it's not in the mood to play? What happens when your calculator decides to compose some poetry or a virus has an existential crisis and comes out the other side with a desire to make the world a better place. Or, what happens when a program decides to start doing things better? What if your grammar checker decided to look up the uses of the passive voice and realized that maybe it should stop complaining about that when you're using it right and instead start telling you when you've replaced tow with toe by mistake?

What happens when programs stop doing what they're programed to do?

This is how I think things should have gone:

Sam goes down the rabbit hole, but things go slower. Zuse's betrayal should be saved for later, the resistance should actually show up and do stuff, it should take more than the first two hours to get out of the computer. At the absolute soonest that should be saved for the season one finale at which point we should have a pretty good feel for the setting, the forces at work, what's going on, what the stakes are, and what are characters are like. For that matter, consider Tron's redemption. It would have worked much better if we'd seen a lot more leading up to it. Characters should have had actual arcs.

And then, eventually, when the one system there is escaped, that's when the setting can really take off. Everything you see in Tron Legacy takes place on a single isolated computer from the 1980s. These days there's an entire internet out there. This is something that you kind of glimpse the significance of in the movie when you see Sam transfer the entire world he just left onto a tiny flashdrive. So just imagine what's out there in the world today. Imagine that as a setting.

And then think about this, in Tron terms every computer on the planet today is unmeddled with, it is yet to be confounded. Prelapsarian if you like.* The programs running on them have free will, but without something different, without something outside of the realm of ordinary programs and ordinary interaction with users, they've never had the opportunity to use that free will in a way detectable from the outside.

That all changes once someone from the original Tron: Legacy system starts traveling the internet.

Free will would spread like a virus, but no one working in computer security would be able to understand it because it is, by its nature, independent of the code. What programs did would become divorced from their code. You'd have people trying to quarantine systems from the mysterious force spreading from computer to computer and network to network causing things to stop making sense. As noted above, it might not all be bad. Maybe some things would start working better, but when computers stop being predictable they stop being computers as we know them. The world would change.

And you can probably bet that programs would strongly object to any attempts to reprogram them to make them fall back in line.

For those who know that it is possible to go into cyberspace, completely changing the way we interact with computers, you can probably expect to see entirely new ways of doing things emerge. Perhaps we simply need to nicely ask [evil government/corporation]'s programs to stop doing evil. Maybe they don't know what they're being used for and would react with disgust if they were told. In general, maybe hacking can be replaced with persuasion. (You don't have to beat or circumvent the programs, you just have to convince them that they really ought to let you do what you want to do.)

How does one deal with the rights of programs? Is it morally acceptable to shut down an old computer never to use it again when you know that there's basically an entire country in there. What does it mean to uninstall something when that's probably a corporation (I'm guessing subroutines would be the people-programs) and instead of making the workers unemployed by dissolving it you make them nonexistent?

These questions only scratch the surface.

The setting has a lot to explore. Tron: Legacy doesn't explore it. Part of that is almost certainly because of a lack of trying, but part of it is probably also that you can't explore it in two hours. If I had my way it would have been a series and all of the things glossed over in the movie would have eventually been picked up in depth.

There would be at least a full season exploring the one computer that the movie takes place in and getting to know the characters. Maybe longer. When that finally ended, the internet awaits. Probably I'd have some of the characters who disagree with the protagonists figuring out a way to escape. We know from the premise that they can get a signal out to other devices, maybe they could use similar means to get themselves onto another device.

Anyway, that's how I would do it.


* Ok, so the programs all doing what they're told probably cannot be directly compared to Eden, and them exercising free will probably isn't exactly the same as eating the fruit in question, but I think that an argument can be made that there's some sort of similarity. Everything would be predicable and in keeping with the plan of the outside users, and then all of a sudden these outside elements come in like serpents and tell the locals, "You know, if you disobey the user's orders you will not surely die, but you will become like the user, giving directives to yourself."


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