Thursday, February 14, 2008

8 ’Adhar Ri’shon 5768: Ferris Wheel Day/Valentine’s Day


Today’s news and commentary:In lieu of the usual weird thing (and as a break from the weird music I have been posting lately), I present my latest Divine Misconceptions-related review below. Enjoy and share the weirdness.


A theological review of Tron
by Aaron Solomon Adelman

Yes, I am reviewing Tron, the 1982 film famous for being one of the first movies with computer-generated graphics and for being campy. Tron is most definitely a B-movie. The idea of a megalomaniac computer program is not original by any means, having been done before by Doctor Who, Star Trek, and probably other TV shows and movies. The writers clearly have no understanding of computer science or computer-related culture whatsoever, thus ignoring the operating system, turning programs into people, creating a virtual environment within the computer the way they did, having items from video games wandering around loose, and other such inanities. I could easily be brutal and needlessly sadistic describing an ignorance so profound as to confound programmers with users, but to the credit of the writers, Tron gets basic theology amazingly right.

The foundation of Tron theology is that “Users” are gods to the programs they have written. Given the amount of control “Users” can exert on programs, essentially godlike powers, this is entirely sensible. This is manifested in a number of details:
  • Programs in Tron are created in the image of their “Users”. This is taken much further than in Genesis 1:27—programs are invariably played by the same actor as their “Users”. Even the Master Control Program (MCP), who is not depicted in human form, is voiced by the same actor as his “User”, Ed Dillinger.
  • Programs have exalted notions of what “Users” are, much as we humans tend to view our gods in terms of perfection, grand plans, and infiniteness; one of the programs, Tron, initially believes that everything “Users” do is “part of a plan”.
  • What is good and evil for programs is defined wholly in terms of the will of their “Users”, much as religious humans usually define good and evil in terms of the will of their gods; therefore programs believe they must act according to the will of their “Users”, much as humans often believe they must act according to the will of their gods. And much as religions usually have held that the will of gods is revealed through prophecy, prophecy has its place in Tron, too. Early in the movie, the “User” Kevin Flynn communicates his will to his security program, Clu, who despite some trepidation attempts to obey and find some hidden data. Tron, one of the heros of the story, actively seeks out communication with his “User”, Alan Bradley, so that he may know his will and fulfill it. He puts his life at risk making use of an I/O tower to do so, but fulfilling the will of his “User” is important enough to be worth the risk.
Example: the (program) villain of the story is the MCP. The MCP is an extremely sinful character. He takes over the mainframe at the software company ENCOM and extends himself into many other computers as well. In his own dominion inside computers, he bends other programs to his will, forcing them to either deny the existence of “Users” or to fight to the death in video games. To make matters worse, the MCP blackmails his “User” Dillinger; declares his superiority to humans; and brings the “User” Flynn,who tries to subvert him, into the world of the mainframe to die in the games. If merely offending a god is sinful, how much more so trying to kill one! Even the MCP’s lieutenant, Sark, hesitates to raise a hand against Flynn, though he does ultimately comply with the MCP’s wishes.

Contrast Tron. Tron is a security program. He recognizes that his “User” considers the MCP a danger and wants him destroyed. Tron spends the movie working with Flynn and other programs fighting against the MCP and Sark. Tron even takes the step of communicating directly with his “User” to learn what he wants—which is risky due to the MCP’s suppressive policies. He never wavers from his duty.

What is the difference in outcome? Although the “Users” do not intervene to reward or punish, the law of karma seems to apply. The MCP and Sark are defeated and destroyed, while Tron and the surviving programs get to live happily ever after—especially Tron himself, who has the opportunity to live happy ever after with his beloved Yori.

Karma also works on the “Users”, too. Dillinger had achieved a high position in the company by stealing five highly profitable video games from Flynn and passing them off as his own work, with Flynn being reduced to running a video arcade for a living. For something so widely condemned as immoral, Dillinger’s deception is revealed in the end. Flynn fights against the evil MCP and Sark in the mainframe world, even giving his virtual life to allow Tron to accomplish his mission. For this virtuous behavior, he merits not only to be rehired by ENCOM, but to become the boss as well.

Good as Tron is theologically, it still has some flaws.
  • I would have liked to have seen more detail on what the “Users” did after Flynn returned from the mainframe domain. Did Flynn and colleagues reward Tron and Yori? Did they resurrect the programs that the MCP and Sark had killed (e.g., Clu and Ram)? (Presumably they were backed up somewhere.) Did they condemn the MCP and Sark to some sort of cybernetic Hell? Did Flynn do anything to reward Alan Bradley and Lora Baines, who helped him in a quest to break into the ENCOM mainframe which ultimately resulted in the uncovering of Dillinger’s deception? What is the fate of Dillinger? And how does karma work in the first place—or does it truly figure into the story at all? Until (and if) there is a sequel, we will never know the answers to these questions.
  • So far as I know, there is no religion which posits that sentient life came into existence purely accidentally.
  • The MCP kidnapping and deliberately trying to murder the “User” Flynn may be unprecedented. Flynn is not a willing participant to his kidnapping; in contrast, Jesus—the nearest equivalent in Christianity—walked into his arrest willingly, even though it led to his execution. There is some worrying about mortals having powers over gods in the Mahabharata, but I am not clear that the Hindu religions ever posit the notion of the kidnapping of a god.
So Tron is not theologically perfect. Still, for a B-movie, it turns out much better theologically than one would expect.

Classification: Campy science-fiction (heavy on the fiction) B-movie.

Overall rating: C+ (nearly instantaneous failure of suspension of disbelief, lack of character growth, unresolved plot holes, and very enjoyable to watch).

Theological rating: B (fix in those theological problems in the sequel, and I will be happy to raise the score).
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