So I went to see “Tron: Legacy” the other night. It’s an interesting story about a boy, Sam, who loses his father, Kevin Flynn — because, unbeknownst to the world, his father digitally teleports into a computer game he created. The boy grows up as the owner of a fabulously successful tech company — Encom — and eventually, he follows in his father’s footsteps, quite literally, and takes the journey from this world to the Other World: cyberspace.
The basic story of “Tron: Legacy” is that of the Hero’s Journey from classical mythology. There are direct parallels between Odysseus and Telemachus, the father and son who face many trials and tribulations before being reunited in Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey. There’s even a character named Zeus, the foremost Olympian god of Greek mythology.
But in the film, he initially calls himself Castor, which is startling and odd. That’s because Castor is most famous for being the twin of Pollux, both sons of their mother Leda, but Castor was the son of a mortal and thus doomed to mortality while Pollux was the son of Zeus and thus destined for eternal life. In the Greek legend, Pollux asks Zeus to let him share his immortality with his brother, and so they are turned into the constellation Gemini, forever shining over the earth, and they become patrons to sailors on the high seas. But in “Tron: Legacy,” I think the character who first calls himself Castor and then Zeus is on the one hand revealing his mortality and then his secondary status as a usurped god, for it is clear that Kevin Flynn is the “Creator” and Sam, as Zeus calls him in one dramatic moment when he revels in an attack on the young man, is “the Son of our Maker.”
The appellations given to Kevin and Sam create clear parallels to the Christian Creator God and Jesus Christ. Eerily, the “programs” of Tron who manifest as people with faces (often masked), often have the young face of Kevin at the age when he made them — they are “made in his image.” Further similarities to biblical stories emerge when the world of Tron is compared to a perfect place, invoking Eden before the fall, when Clu (“clue”), Kevin’s evil double and the arch-enemy of the story, handles silver apples like the snake in Genesis, and when the girl Quorra (like “cora” for “heart”), an isometric algorithim (or “iso), accidentally betrays Sam like Eve betrayed Adam. So Sam bears a resemblance to the first Adam as well as the Second, but his name, Samuel, is actually that of a biblical prophet, a name which means “God hears.” And Sam does seem to be carefully listening to his father throughout this story, beginning in his childhood when his father first tells him the story of things that unfolded for him when he visited the gaming world of Tron.
Yet the use of mythology in “Tron: Legacy” is ultimately syncretistic. Kevin is like the Christian Creator God, but he is also an imperfect representative of a Zen Buddhist seeking enlightenment, learning to do nothing and wait when acting might destroy his digital universe. The concept of “yin and yang” comes into play when it becomes clear that Clu, a program with a personality whom Kevin designed to help him create a perfect digital world, is actually his designer’s evil opposite. Kevin even says to his son Sam, who is quite ready to take quick and daring action to get his father out of cyberspace, that he is “messing with my Zen thing.” In response to disruptions of his mental peace, Kevin meditates, a process that he refers to as “going to knock on the sky.” This alludes to a Zen proverb: “Knock on the sky and listen to the sound.”
At the very end of the story, Kevin is reunited with Clu, so that, presumably, balance can be restored. This symbolic reunification only makes sense if we view Kevin, in the moment this occurs, through a Zen Buddhist world-view. If we try to continue to interpret Kevin and Clu from the perspective of Christian symbolism, things look wildly odd — as if the Creator is apologizing to the snake for setting him loose and demanding the snake make a perfect world (which does not happen in Genesis, though Romantic interpretations of Milton’s Satan may have influenced the “Tron: Legacy” script-writers here). Indeed, one of the key thematic messages of the film is that perfection is unachievable and the attempt to create it leads to imbalance, violence and psychological ill health. This, too, is more of a Buddhist idea than a Christian or classical Greek one.
Yet the film is powerfully drawing viewers into a meditation on creation and the Creator. In the digital universe of Tron, a star appears over the central city whenever the Creator — Kevin — enters from the outside world. It appears again when Sam makes his way there. The star lingers like the star of Bethlehem. At one point, Sam and Quorra are gazing at it, and Quorra — who has read books by Jules Vern, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky that Kevin has given her — asks if the star is anything like the sun that shines upon the earth in Sam’s world. Sam says “there is no comparison.”
He describes the sun as “warm, radiant, and beautiful.”
At the very end of the film, both Sam and Quorra escape the destructive intentions Clu has for them. We see them riding on a motorcycle together in the sunlight and going past green trees growing along the roadside. The contrast with earlier parts of the story is striking, for the events that happen in the digital world happen in the dark, as if in the underworld, but outside there is light.