Computer Science in Tron Legacy

Posted on 4th April 2011 by Ryan Somma in Geeking Out
Tron and Tron Legacy
Tron and Tron Legacy

I attended the Experiments with the Imagination session at Science Online 2011, where we discussed what made good versus bad inclusion of science in fiction. Interesting points were made, such as audience members being able to excuse bad science for kick-ass portrayals of scientists, like in the movie 2012, and a deep concern for how science is portrayed in film because Hollywood blockbusters carry so much cultural influence in America.

There was also an intriguing question about working scientific elucidation into fiction, which stuck in my mind when a member of the audience mentioned how terrible was the film Tron Legacy and was met with lots of head-nodding and murmurs of agreement. I had actually enjoyed Legacy, and, after rewatching it, realized that I was seeing a very different film than the average audience member.

Unexplained Computer Science in Tron Legacy

Legacy starts out promising enough, with hard SF possibilities and discussions of deeper, real-world issues being tackled in software development. Alan Bradley, the programmer who invented Tron in the first film, questions the cost of the software his company markets at a software release meeting, “Given the prices that we charge to students and schools, what sort of improvements have been made in Flynn–I mean, Encom OS 12?” To which, the CEO cynically replies, “This year we put a ’12’ on the box.” The story appears to be setting up a conflict between open and closed source software, but then doesn’t.

When Sam Flynn puts the latest version of Encom’s software online for free, Edward Dillinger, the company’s star programmer and potential villain for the sequel, hops onto the server and types in: ps -ef | grep -i os12. The ps -ef part tells the OS to provide a full listing of every process running on the server. The grep -i os12 performs a case-insensitive search for files with name and contents matching “os12”. He then types in the command kill -9 17319, telling the OS to kill the process identified by the number 17319 with the “-9” part forcing the termination in the most forceful way possible. Sam put the file online for free, Edward killed it.

TRON Arcade Game
TRON Arcade Game
Credit: driph

When Sam finds his father’s workstation still up and running after 20 years in the old arcade, the first thing he does when he sits down at the console is type whoami to find out what user was working on it last. The answer is that his father, Kevin Flynn was the last person to work on it. He then types uname -a to find out the current system’s basic name information and follows that with an unsuccessful attempt to login to the system with full privileges. Finally, he tries the history command, revealing the last dozen commands his father performed on the system. The last of these is an ominous sounding “LLLSDLaserControl -ok 1,” but preceding it is a little joke, if you understand that the vi command stands for “Visual Editor,” a text-editing program:

Kevin Flynn's Final System Commands
Kevin Flynn’s Final System Commands

This is what I saw happen in the first 20 minutes of Tron Legacy, and it made for a much more engaging film. It got me primed to really geek-out when the protagonist inevitably gets zapped into the special-effects laden fantasy world. But what did anyone unfamiliar with a command-line operating system see? People looking serious and typing gobbledeegook. I appreciate the inside-jokes for computer geeks, but would it have hurt the film’s pace to clue the audience in a little more as to what was going on here?

Missed Possibilities in the Fantasy World

The film throws some important terms around in describing what is taking place on the “Grid,” Kevin Flynn’s personal server where the world of the original TRON is preserved and evolving. Alan Bradley mentions that Kevin was working with genetic algorithms, a fascinating realm of computer science where software developers actually grow and evolve programs through a kind of natural selection, where the programs that perform their tasks most efficiently are allowed to propagate. The mention of this term got me leaning forward in my seat, but since the film doesn’t define the term for the audience, they continue to twiddle their thumbs waiting for the action to start.

Once on the grid, we learn a little about Flynn’s history in creating it, establishing order and producing a digital mirror of himself in the character Clu to help with his plan. Then, the ISOs emerged from the system. Isomorphic Algorithms are objects that are similar in their structural properties if you can ignore their minor differences. In the case of the grid, the ISOs are identical in their consciousnesses and in their digital DNA, but they are remarkable for their differences and what we can learn from them,
“a digital frontier to reshape the human condition” as Kevin Flynn calls them.

Flynn VS Clu
Flynn VS Clu

There is a fascinating evolution taking place on the grid, and the director even refered to the computer system as a digital Galapagos island where life is evolving along divergent lines in isolation. With this background, we can see Clu as an artificial intelligence who does not understand the complexities of evolution. It is a being who believes life on the Grid will best evolve through games of life and death, survival of the fittest, but that is unnatural selection.

We can’t fault Clu for his misunderstanding; after all, Clu itself is the product of artificial selection. Genetic algorithms are selected by the programmer for traits the experimenter finds desirable. Clu imposes order on the grid the way Flynn imposed order: unnatural selection. The ISOs are an unexpected, messy development, undesigned and unplanned, and Flynn has lost interest in actively directing the evolution of life on the grid. So Clu purges them both.

Quora the Isomorph
Quora the Isomorph

The Computer Science Fiction Frontier

It’s easy to indulge in cynical speculation as to why the creators of Tron Legacy decided to gloss over all of these deeper aspects of the plot. Maybe they didn’t trust audiences to appreciate the philosophical conflicts. Maybe they wanted to avoid the geek-factor that many use to explain the original Tron being such a flop.

1982’s Tron was unabashed geekdom. Kevin Flynn wasn’t a fighter, he was a programmer and a gamer. He’s an intellectual renegade and his coworkers are serious nerds. The film was brimming with little techie inside jokes, like the Bit who can only answer with “yes” and “no” to questions put to it and an actuarial program named Ram who got great satisfaction from his work before being assimilated by the Master Control Program (MCP). The MCP itself was an evolved being, a chess program that grew by assimilating the intellectual property of other software developers and crushing the faith of programs who believed in the existence of “Users.”

Such nerd-appeal may have doomed Tron’s box office take, but it’s also what made the film a cult classic. Does Legacy delve into its philosophical issues deeply enough to stay engaging into the future? Or is it just another CGI orgy destined to be forgotten with all the other action films overloading theaters each year?

For science fiction enthusiasts, Tron Legacy does at least have the benefit of trying something different. Computer science has opened a new frontier for fiction, from Tron, The 13th Floor, The Matrix, and Dark City, there are deeper and shallower explorations of what it means to create a tiny, virtual world and the unique ethical conundrums that possibility brings. If you think of Tron Legacy in this context, the film is a quite enjoyable piece of science fiction.

Additional Notes

  • Gotta plug my book here, Entropy of Imagination, written before Tron Legacy, deals with a World Wide Web populated by AIs abandoned by the minds that created them and the inevitable breakdown of ideas that will doom them.
  • For a deeper engagement of the philosophical issues in Tron Legacy I recommend Alasdair Stuart’s Digital Galapagos: Tron Legacy, which deals more with the character-driven drama.

    1. I noticed the accurate command-lines too.

      Comment by Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos — April 4, 2011 @ 9:25 am

    2. I noticed the command lines, and one other thing that I appreciated as a military buff – the hammerhead stall in the dogfight scene. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that anywhere except History Channel ‘Dogfights’ Appropriate for a CGI film, I guess :)

      I had low expectations, and my overall reaction was that, like Battlestar Galactica, it managed not to be so bad on science as to snap you out of your involvement with the film (actually somewhat better than BSG in that regard) while also telling a compelling story. Not easy, and not common in recent Hollywood output. I remember thinking that somebody did really try with this movie.

      Comment by Stacy — April 4, 2011 @ 10:03 am

    3. Check out this article by the guy who made some of the effects, and chose what was going to be on the computer screens and such:

      Comment by Rev. Xanatos Satanicos Bombasticos — April 5, 2011 @ 7:23 am

    4. What an awesome article! I love that so many of the special effects were generated with so much third-party software. It makes me appreciate the film even more.

      Comment by ideonexus — April 6, 2011 @ 11:50 am

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