Inside the Computer

To many, computers are an enigma.

The average computer user doesn’t understand the first thing about what goes on behind the screen.

They know how to do what they need to do. They know how to play games, browse the web, check email, use a word processor; but everything else is a mystery. And if something goes wrong, or things get complicated, they wouldn’t even know where to start. In those cases, they might call their friend or acquaintance who once used the word ‘processor’ and ask them for help.

It’s much like my relationship with cars. And as one of those ‘processor’ people, I should tell you, it can get annoying. Especially when you’re asked to do mundane stuff that a trained monkey could pull off.

However, these days, if you don’t use a computer, you’re either Amish or trapped in an underground cave. So people do have a general idea of what they do. But back in the 80s, this was not the case.

Most people didn’t use them at all, or at least, they didn’t recognize them as computers. The closest the average person might get to an electronic computer system was in an arcade, or through the Atari 2600, if they were lucky and rich.

Even their use in business was extremely rare. They were a brand new technology, that not everyone saw the purpose of, or potential in. Even the idea of a computer as a consumer device was received with skepticism, since few understood what a computer could actually do.

It was mysterious, and confusing; and as always, such mystery and confusion allows science fiction writers to do what they do best: make stuff up, and not get questioned on it.

You all remember the series, Reboot? Canadian-made by the way. It starred Bob, a sprite in the city of Mainframe, and his friends, Dot and Enzo. Ostensibly, Mainframe was actually the hard drive of a computer system, or something. Our characters were essentially packets of data… I think. It’s actually a little confusing at times, but the show was generally entertaining, and the computer nerds had a laugh with all the puns and inside jokes.

The series sort of took a turn for the dark in season three, which I kinda liked. But in season four, it just got weird. And there was never any need for Dot and Bob to get married, especially since they never actually dated or anything before then.

But, that was the 90s. We’re talking about the 80s, when this idea, of a story starring characters that were merely several ones and zeros strung together, first got traction.

It all started, with TRON.

TRON was a story about Kevin Flynn, a computer programmer, hacker, gamer, and entrepreneur. Very prolific guy. Possibly a genius. The story opens with Flynn trying to hack into the servers at ENCOM, a software engineering firm, and his former employer. He uses a program of his own design called Clu. However, during his little mission, Clu is attacked by security programs, and crashes. I assume it’s in more ways than one.

Long story short, this ends up being the catalyzing event that starts our story. Clu gets captured and decompiled, and his credentials, classified as ‘Group-7’ are suddenly red-flagged by the Master Control Program, a program (natch) that runs every aspect of the ENCOM servers.

This grabs the attention of Alan and Lora, two employees at ENCOM who are also former coworkers, and I assume friends, of Flynn.

You see Alan was planning on working on his latest project: A security program dubbed, Tron. But the revoking of his ‘Group-7’ access, impairs things somewhat.

He decides to speak with Ed Dillinger, senior executive, who likely has the power to restore access.

Dillinger asks about Tron, and Alan explains exactly what it does, and says it’s designed to run independently, and oversee everything, even the Master Control Program I mentioned earlier.

You know, that’s a mouthful, I’m gonna call it, ‘Micky.’

So Dillinger says the blocking of access is only temporary, but Alan isn’t satisfied. You see, the reason he can’t work on Tron isn’t simply because his access was revoked. It’s because Micky annexed the memory block it was stored in. That shouldn’t happen.

He leaves, and Micky, who can talk in words for some reason, explains to Dillinger that it can’t have another program monitoring it, because it’s been doing all sorts of illegal crap. And it’s planning even more illegal crap, including a hostile takeover of the US military.

You know, this is a bit odd, since I’ll remind you, this is the pre-internet days. It’s also the days before we were digitally dependant. I’m pretty sure if Micky took over all the DoD computers, all the humans would just pull the plug and restore from an old backup. And that’s assuming he could connect to them in the first place. I’m not worried.

But it seems this little plot device was written merely to give the rest of the story a bit more weight, since it’s never brought up again.

So, Alan goes to speak with Lora, who works in the Laser Bay, where they are researching ‘digitization.’ A process a grey-haired scientist explains as turning something into nothing, and then back again, to a woman who helped develop it. I wonder if he’s that condescending to all his employees, or if he’s just a misogynist.

Basically, digitization turns physical objects into digital data. The matter is stored in a laser beam, and the pattern is recorded by the computer.

In a word: it’s teleportation. Now, it is a bit more complicated, but practically, that’s what we’re looking at. This day, they digitized an orange, and restored it as it was. Fantabulous! This is gonna change the world my friends! No more long flights across the world, we’ll just digitize!

Anyway, Alan starts to bitch to Lora and grey hair. Apparently, the entire system’s been complete shit ever since Micky was installed, and this Group-7 thing is just the latest.

Lora suspects their old friend, Flynn, for triggering the lock-out. So it’s time for a road trip. But Alan objects due to shit I don’t care about.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way. Lora used to date Flynn and Alan is mentally ill. Yes, how dare someone date your girlfriend before you!

They arrive at Flynn’s Arcade, owned by our hero, and they start sharing stories. Flynn explains exactly why he tried to hack in. He wants evidence. Turns out the best-selling games out of ENCOM were designed by Flynn, then stolen by Dillinger, which resulted in his promotion.

Here’s a question: Why are they only hearing about this now? If these three have a history, you’d think he’d share the story about the time his intellectual property got stolen right from under his fucking nose.

Also, why did he wait three years?

Flynn says with a direct connection, he would have been more successful. Then Alan mentions Tron.

A plan is formed. They sneak Flynn into the office, and Lora grants him access to her terminal. Which just so happens to be located within the testing bay for the digitization laser, and positioned directly in front of it. Okay, why?

Seriously, why was her console located there, of all places!? Oh, no, can’t locate it outside the testing area, or even beside the laser. No, it has to be directly in the laser’s path.

Also, since we’re on the topic of safety. Shouldn’t the testing area be a bit more contained?

So Flynn tries to forge security credentials, but Micky notices and can’t find a way to stop him. So it shoots him with the digitization laser.

Yeah, it’s never been used on a human before.

The scene itself is pretty shocking, and graphic, which I kinda like. This movie doesn’t fuck around!

So begins the real story. As Flynn is digitized, and begins to see the computer in a completely new way: From the inside.

Programs look like people, vehicles and structures are made of simple geometric shapes, and everything is run by Micky, through his minions, including one named Sark, who runs the Game Grid.

This is where programs are trained to play games, and then slaughtered by other programs, with better training.

Why do some programs get better training than others? Well it’s because they renounced the users, of course!

Yeah, seems ‘users’ are worshipped like gods in there. Which makes a bit of sense… I guess…

So Flynn ends up on the grid, and is given a frisbee-I mean, identity disk. It’s used as a sometimes-weapon, but is also meant to store all their memories. I don’t get it. It can’t be stored within the actual program?

Whatever. So, to summarize, after a few games, Flynn is placed in a Light Cycle match, where he meets two programs, named Ram and Tron. The ladder of which he initially mistakes for Alan, Tron’s user.

Turns out, programs share the appearance of their users. This is actually explained by old grey-hair early on. He explains that part of every programmer’s soul resides in their creations. Da hell? We getting into the metaphysical/fantasy now? Odd as hell.

So what are light cycles? Basically, they’re cycles, made of light… A light cycle match involves each of our players driving around a large arena. They can only make sharp, right angle turns, and their trail is actually a wall made of solid light. They can’t stop, and if someone impacts one of these walls, they immediately derez, which is Tron-world for die.

Hell of a game. Turns out, it’s based on a real world arcade game of the same name. It’s Nibbles in reverse. If you’ve never played Nibbles, you are so young.

So our heroes, wearing blue suits, and in their red, orange and yellow cycles, are facing off against Micky’s lackies, dressed in red, and driving blue cycles. That’s known as the opposite of logic. Seriously, if you’re gonna colour-code the good guys and the bad guys, remain consistent.

So during the match, one of the drivers on Micky’s team crashes into one of the arena walls, and dies. But oddly, the impact leaves a crack in the wall, which makes no sense. It’s a game about driving vehicles that are designed to crash. Yet the walls are not designed to handle crashes?

Oh, fuck it. So Flynn leads Tron and Ram through the crack, and out of the Game Grid.

From this point, the story gets better and better. Ram and Flynn get separated from Tron. Ram dies in a light cycle crash. Flynn finds a wrecked Recognizer (which is an oddly shaped flying craft), and brings it back to near-full operating level (one of the legs breaks off, but it flies).

Tron meets up with Yori, another program, and his own love interest, who bears a spitting image to Lora. The two go straight to an I/O tower so Tron can receive a data packet from Alan. It contains code that can take Micky offline. But they need to get it in Micky first. It’s uploaded to Tron’s Identity Disk, turning the thing into the perfect weapon.

You know, I find it odd that a tool so crucial to a program’s basic operation is also a highly formidable weapon. We see the things in action. They can be thrown like a discus, and when that happens, they glow in a bright light. If they hit their mark, the program is often immediately derezzed. Also, they can be used to block incoming disk attacks. Formidable, versatile, and ubiquitous. This is the primary weapon of the Tron series.

Now, where was I?

Flynn’s annexed Recognizer ends up crashing in a very comedic way in the middle of a relatively busy city. Virtually all objects in the Troniverse are composed of basic geometric shapes, reminding us that these are merely computer models. Not just because this is a movie, but they are literally models in a computer. Anyway, it crashes like this:

See, that’s what we call a “comedy number.”

He tries to meet up with Tron and has a brief scuffle with one of Micky’s lackies. The lackie dies, and in the process, we see the glowy bits of Flynn’s outfit change from blue to red, matching the outfits of Micky’s minions. Basically, he pulled an Agent 47, stealing the outfit of one of his victims to blend in.

Tron and Yori annex a simulation of a Solar Sailer, which I assume is actually a physics model of a real, hypothetical spacecraft of some kind. Now, by ‘real’ I don’t mean anyone actually built it outside the computer. I mean real people want to build it outside the computer, but they’re still working on it.

Actually, the use of the term ‘real’ feels kinda odd in this movie. Our first scene outside the digital realm is subtitled with the phrase: “Meanwhile in the real world…” Later on, as Micky and Sark are talking about Flynn, Micky explains that he digitized him because the user provoked him in the ‘real world.’ I have to say, I find the use of this word odd. Since the implication is that the Tronworld isn’t real.

Well, technically it isn’t, but I doubt the programs within appreciate such a sentiment, including Sark. It isn’t real in the same way we know reality. However, it is real in the sense that it exists. The computer exists. I’m not making it up. It’s real. Now, some might argue that by that definition, anything that happens, even hallucinations in someone’s head, are also real. But no, actually there is a big difference. The events that occur in Tron are not just contained to Flynn’s head, and actually end up having real world consequences. If it has impact on the real world, it is real.

I’m not sure I’m explaining this right. But this is just semantics. I’m going to move on. Though, I’d love to have someone rebut this.

So, the Solar Sailer. As it leaves its dock, several of Micky’s soldiers, plus Flynn, force their way on. Tron takes them on, and knocks several lackies off the ship. Including Flynn, since apparently, he doesn’t notice faces. Wow, such a kind-hearted hero we have here. But Flynn catches himself on the side of the craft, preventing him from falling to his derezzing. And after all the other redsuits are taken care of, he calmly asks Tron for a hand. Tron helps him up, dusts him off, and Flynn’s glowy bits turn back to blue.

Flynn finally decides to tell them, for some reason, that he’s a user. Of course Tron and Yori are skeptical, and ask about his master plan… he says he doesn’t have one.

Here, we get a bit philosophical, as the movie asks if God really does have a plan, or is just playing everything by ear… Getting through each day. I kinda like this element. Of course, I’m an atheist, so I don’t believe god even exists. But if there was a god, it’d be an interesting question to ask.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s ever brought up again in the entire franchise.

So, on their way to the final encounter with Micky, some sort of power surge in the beam they’re riding causes the Sailer to start failing. They need to move to another beam, but they can’t. There’s one nearby, but it’s just out of reach. That is, until Flynn sticks his hand into the beam, like a moron, and redirects it to the other one, creating a junction.

Somehow, this doesn’t kill him, and it seems that’s a major feature of digitized users: They can’t die.

You see, throughout the film, Flynn has quite a few near-death encounters. The light cycle crash which killed Ram, this scene, then later when they’re taking on Micky.

It’s insane. But it’s never really confirmed. I kinda wish it was, but no one tries to directly kill him, so it’s possible he’s just lucky.

But it is established that Flynn still has quite a few superpowers in the computer. He can reconstruct damaged code (sorta), and… actually, that might be it.

So they arrive at Micky’s actual location, where it’s revealed he’s a giant glowy cylinder.

Yeah, I have no idea where they were going with this design, but it’s odd as hell.

Flynn and Yori get captured and brought onto Sark’s flagship, and my memory’s a bit shit at this point, but it doesn’t really matter, since the cruiser gets derezzed soon after, with them on it. But they escape just in time.

Meanwhile, Tron goes the direct route, and tries to go after Micky. But first, he has to get through Sark. Which he does, by throwing a disk that slices straight through Sark’s own disk, and then straight through his head. Wow, that’s pretty gory.

But hold on. It goes straight through Sark’s disk, yet earlier we establish that a disk can easily block another disk. So, how did that happen?

Micky brings Sark back as a zombie, and puts shields up to prevent Tron’s attempts at taking him down. Then, from Sark’s flagship, Flynn jumps right into the centre of Micky’s brain, and distracts him long enough for Tron to finish his work.

Now, how he did that, or how he survived, or how what happens next happens, is anyone’s guess.

Flynn gets de-digitized, and suddenly, the evidence of Dillinger’s plagiarism is printed out on a nearby printer. No, I don’t know why that happens either.

But it’s a happy ending, and Flynn’s redeemed. The ENCOM execs appear to have rehired, and promoted Flynn, and as for Dillinger, who the fuck knows or cares!

TRON is a great film, and a great demonstration of early CGI. Most of the film is in CG, and while it looks damn primitive when set beside modern films, it kinda works for the context. It reminds us that this takes place within the computer.

I really like the feel it generates, and the only thing I would improve, were this film to be redone, is the use of green screens. The compositing of human actors doesn’t really look that good, and could have been better.

Speaking of redos, TRON wasn’t the end of Tron. It took a few years… or… actually decades, but eventually we got a few sequels to this great film. The reason it took so long was because it initially flopped at the box office, but became a cult classic. So, as such, a sequel was inevitable.

But those are stories I’ll save for another time.

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