The James Clayton Column: Tron: Philosophy

Does Tron: Legacy provide a neon-fringed window into Buddhist philosophy? James certainly thinks so…

In the game, the user gets out what they put in. In the movie, the viewer gets out what they put in. So it goes when you engage with pop culture, immerse yourself in a creative experience, buy the ticket and take that ride.

Ergo, Tron: Legacy can be appreciated in a number of ways. You can simply see it as a reboot of a retro cult property amping up dated effects to today’s cutting edge. You can take it as a blockbuster blast of neon visuals, electro noise and spectacular light cycle arena combat action.

The film can be swallowed as a flashy father and son reconciliation story in a hi-tech digital dimension (‘Honey, I Was Abducted by an Arcade Console’). You may also interpret it as an excuse to multiply Jeff Bridges and allow his Dude persona to do some ‘jamming’ in an environment lifted out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, ultimately producing a bizarre mix of The Big Lebowski and New Age Kubrickean Yoda.

What I personally take from Tron: Legacy, though, is a lot of deep, profound stuff. Products like this – reboots packed with SFX, industrial light and magic – are inevitably going to be targeted by critics as ‘all style, no substance’. I’d argue, however, that this flick isn’t about its detail, even though its details are the selling point: the main features that viscerally strike the audience and that sucked up most of the production budget.

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This isn’t the place or time to totally deconstruct a vast and ambitious film that’s only just been released. As the Earth moves and as things sink in more over coming years, there’ll be whole theses and books written. What I’ll seek to do in brief is just de-rezz some of the hasty dismissals that this movie is shallow junk, dazzling eye candy devoid of value. I could be completely off grid but, hey, man, this is how my mind was illuminated at the multiplex when I took the Tron 3D trip.

Tron: Legacy is an awesome electro show and a pretty impressive piece of motion picture entertainment. It’s also an incredibly relevant and resonant work, reaching into the zeitgeist and running over philosophical, intellectual and spiritual ground. This convoluted electronic gladiator blast really does have soul and intellect, if you read between the reels and appreciate it as such.

In a way, the new Tron movie is a sort of blue-tinged sister flick to The Matrix which, just over ten years ago, was blowing minds and pushing boundaries, albeit with a green-hued colour scheme. Of course, they are very different creatures with, for instance, the Wachowski Brothers’ series offering a dystopian vision in which we are already in the ‘machine’ overlorded by artificial intelligence. In contrast, Tron: Legacy has humans still in control outside of the machine, as long as the tyrannical Clu doesn’t break out and bring his aggressive ‘perfection’ mission down on our reality.

Through the big-screen blockbuster entertainment framework, both franchises glide across similar intellectual territory and highlight vital issues. Mirroring the digital age that produced them, they surf the zeitgeist and reflect the brave new world we’re living in, where technology and humanity segue seamlessly.

The questions about our own identity, how we project ourselves in cyberspaces, how we engage with AI and the immense, potentially unlimited possibilities that advancement’s offering are just some of the subtexts present in the Tron reload.

It provokes thought on what happens when sentient technology starts to create and generate life itself (that’s my understanding of Quorra and the ISOs). Culturally, as claimed by Flynn in the flick, we could be on the verge of breakthroughs and shifts that will completely change everything. Tron: Legacy is pop culture matter reflecting an actuality in which the digital frontiers and scientific advancements are presenting potentially incredible progress for humanity.

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There are a vast number of debates and techie readings floating about out there alongside all the other interpretations (the father-son stuff, the theory it’s ‘Computer Game Hamlet’, etc.). So far, so exceptionally complex, but I’d personally argue that the point of the whole mindboggling Tron: Legacy plot and its eye-searing action is geared towards getting to a very basic, fundamental point.

All this stuff, all this detail, all this artifice doesn’t matter. Nothing matters. What we have here is pure Zen presented through your 3D specs for you to absorb over a carton of popcorn. 

I see in this film an electrified equivalent to elaborate Buddhist artwork and mandalas that provide a portal through sensory perception to immense metaphysical ideas and philosophies. Bear with me here. I did my Masters on this, studied a lot of lavish tapestries with scenes of Himalayan demon sex and learned enough to get a postgraduate degree.

We’re saturated with imagery and artifice but, paradoxically, by confronting and engaging with it, we comprehend the true illusive nature of appearance. The cultural construct, movie or mandala, is a door to deeper things acting as a catalyst to enlightened realisation. Once you buy the ticket, insert the coin and immerse yourself in the actual thing you can, if you wish, proceed to those principles.

Nothing matters, and ultimately life comes down to a cosmic Universal oneness. Getting bogged down, intellectually and emotionally attached to the sensory world and in judgements is not the point. (Flynn: “You’re ruining my whole Zen thing, man!”) Perhaps Tron: Legacy‘s point isn’t about the sprawling advance of a game grid over an interval period, awesome movie special effects, Walt Disney marketing hype or a complicated story of father-son reconciliation in a slick cyber chic secondary universe. Perhaps it’s a digi-pathway to illumined appreciation of ultimate truths.

And Flynn is the essence of it all , the creator of this arcade game conduit to spiritual epiphany, sage wisdom dispenser and vital soul of the narrative and concept. Beyond his role explaining everything and giving us a plot to underscore the light cycle battles and Daft Punk soundtrack, he’s the exemplary avatar encapsulating the Zen ethos.

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The ego death in Flynn’s self-sacrifices, in exile from the Grid and in the climactic destruction of himself and projected self in Clu’s form, achieves peace. Both as nirvana and narrative closure, it’s arrival at a state of wholeness.

You’re the user, so you choose. Tron: Legacy could be trash or it could be a transcendental experience through which you find freedom from samsara and connect with universal oneness. Pure Zen freedom. Now that’s bio-digital jazz, man…

James’ previous column can be found here.

James sketched a series of movie spoof comics and they can be found here.

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