Tron Legacy: A Postmodern Reinterpretation

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Br. TJ and I went to see Tron Legacy, a sequel 27 years in the making. As a child Tron was of one of my all time favorite movies (and still is to this day). While Br. TJ’s review focuses on the typology of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges’ central character), my review covers more the postmodern turn in the sequel.

Warning: Spoilers Abounding Ahead


Plot Summary

[Note: If you’ve already seen the film, skip to Postmodern Ideas below].

Tron Legacy takes place twenty years (in the movie timeline) since the first Tron.


The plot of the original Tron (1982) centered on the character of Kevin Flynn (played brilliantly by the great Jeff Bridges). Kevin Flynn is a genius, eccentric, rule-breaking ex-software programmer at Encom (a fictional computer company). Flynn has designed a game in off-hours at work. A work colleague steals Flynn’s code and uses it to rise high in the company. Flynn attempts to hack into the system to prove his proprietary creation only to be sent into the game itself.

The game however is no game but a real world of danger and intrigue. The “grid” as it is known is a hyper-world, (predating and in some ways predicting the internet by more than a decade) controlled by an artificial intelligence program at Encom. The program has enslaved large sections of the population (called ‘programs’) in a 1984-style dystopia. Flynn, along with the character Tron, seeks to overthrow the totalitarian hyperworld regime. They succeed in doing so.

As Tron Legacy begins, Flynn has risen to head of Encom. Flynn has become the cult hero of the computer world, spouting ideas of an open-source world of freedom and human evolution to come on the gridworld.

Flynn, along with Tron and his grid clone Clu, sets about creating a new grid world, one of freedom and enlightenment. He seeks to create “the perfect world.” (I put that in “ “ marks because this concept plays such an important role in the film).

Back in the “real world”, we see Flynn with his young son Kevin. Kevin Flynn tells his son magical tales of another world as bedtime stories, promising to take his young son with him to the gird when he is old enough. Flynn the Elder tells his son that something amazing (“a miracle” Flynn calls it) has taken place in the world of the gird. Flynn leaves young Sam to return to the grid and we never see him again.

Flash forward 20 years to a now young man Sam Flynn, living the life of a lay about. Sam is eventually drawn into the grid.

sam flynn

Once in the grid, Sam through the help of Quorra (played by Olivia Wilde) reunites with his father. We learn that Clu has taken Master Flynn’s admonition to create a “perfect world” to heart. He believes perfection requires the destruction of the “users” (Flynn and Tron). Clu, in a manner perfectly opposite to Flynn earlier in the film, believes the future of the programs lies in overtaking the human world. Perfection requires the destruction (transcendence) of one’s environment only to conquer another. Sam, Flynn, and Quorra seek to escape the grid world and bring Clu down in the process.

Symbolically the son from a new age and generation (a postmodern one) is the figure who forces a change in his father, in the Designer himself. This theme of the son causing a change in the father is at the core of the film and I believe sheds light on the way in which the film is a postmodern re-telling of the Tron story. I will examine this claim via a number of different themes and ideas raised in the film. I am not assuming all of these postmodern themes in the film were conscious on the part of the writers and filmmakers. Rather they are more likely simply absorbed via the postmodern atmosphere. But either way I believe it’s legitimate to read these symbols in the movie.

Postmodern Ideas

The Dark Side of Modernity

Kevin Flynn’s utopian vision of creating a perfect world infuses the grid world. The grid and Clu in particular are manifestations of Flynn’s desire for perfection. While there are positives (the movie seems to want us to believe) to Flynn’s utopianism—e.g. his early and full-throated support of an open-source world—there is a deep dark side to Flynn’s light. Clu is the very incarnation of this demonic underside to Flynn.

Flynn’s desire for perfection leads to the eradication of the novel, for those who pursue perfection believe they already know what it is to be perfect and therefore will crush and destroy anything that threatens their vision.

Flynn’s vision of perfection leads to a totalitarian nightmare and a brutal act of genocide. Flynn’s “miracle” that he spoke to Sam about before his disappearance turns out to be the spontaneous emergence of a novel race of beings: ISO (isomorphic algorithms). Clu leads a campaign to eradicate the ISOs (Quorra is the lone survivor of the ISOs).

In all this I’m reminded of the great 20th century philosophers Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno (of the famed Frankfurt School) who wrote an influential text entitled The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944). The authors argue that contrary to popular belief, the horrors of WWI and WWII, genocide and colonialism that had wracked Europe were not a force opposed to the European Enlightenment, but rather were the Enlightenment’s own inverse, dark underbelly come to life. The Dialectic of Enlightenment (what Adorno called a Negative Dialectic) is one that leads to its own annihilation.

Kevin Flynn realizes in Tron Legacy that his own desire for perfection and Enlightenment has led inexorably to Clu’s genocide and totalitarian rampage.


Clu in many regards represents the continued presence of the modern world in the era of postmodernity. This film visually depicts this continuation via a remarkable special effect that implants the younger Jeff Bridges (from the original Tron) into the film as Clu. Literally modernity (in the face of younger Jeff Bridges/Kevin Flynn as Clu) haunts the entire movie and grid.

Clu embodies many of the totalitarian trends of modern revolutionary movements. In one scene we see Clu giving a rousing speech to a throng of adoring fans in tight formation, clearly invoking the public rallies of the Nazis and Hitler’s speeches. Clu invokes the theme of overturning the “users” and granting liberation the programs in a way very reminiscent of Mao Tse Tung. Clu initiates a kind of peasant-led, Cultural Revolution in the grid. This revolution is not to a communist end but reflects the ever-expanding tendencies of globalization capitalism.


A second postmodern turn in the film revolves around Olivia Wilde’s character of Quorra. Quorra’s name in the film is pronounced Khora (Core-ah). Khora in ancient Greek is the place outside the polis. It is off grid. The Khora for the ancient Greeks (in opposition to the civilized polis) represents the threat of barbarity, wildness, and untamed nature. In short the uncivilized world. It is no surprise that Quorra’s first act in rescuing Sam Flynn is to take him “off grid.” She is the Khora Incarnate.

A number of postmodern theorists discuss the Khora (Jacques Derrida being perhaps the most famous). They describe how contrary to popular notion, the Khora may be thought to be place of sanity and true civility, while the urbanized desire for grids and control and hyperspeed are the true insanity.

Olivia Wilde represents the female, the unknown, and the wild.   All of which come to upset the apple cart of modernity and its desire for perfection. Rather than the perfection of a pre-conceived truth that is then enforced upon all via downward, unilateral power, Quorra comes from the spontaneous emergence of the ISOs. She is nature’s perfection rather than man’s.

Quorra, as I mentioned, is the last survivor of the ISOs. Flynn describes the ISOs as remarkable and yet innocently naïve. The relationship of Flynn to the ISOs hearkens (it could be argued) to the tendency towards romanticism or adoration of aboriginals (as the ISOs are in relation to the gridworld). Like the Nav’i in Avatar, the ISOs are seen to be purer, living a life that those of us who have lived through modernity can no longer return to. And like the aboriginal peoples, the ISOs are exterminated and colonized.



Flynn lives with the sadness of his failed dreams. He has turned to meditation (Zen-like) and solitude, showing the influence of Eastern philosophies in the West since the postmodern 1960s. After the failure of modernity, after the failure of the overhyped promises of the 1980’s (e.g. electronic capitalist utopia), we live in the ambiguous, unsettled 21st century.

Flynn has a sense of genuine sorrow and irony. He lives in the hangover of the failure of modernity. But he is not sure how to respond. He does not know how to struggle against the increasing merger of political and technological power. He is like many of us in this postmodern age.

In Tron Legacy Kevin Flynn is now an old man, a quasi-monk living off the grid, invoking principles of “non-action” in response to the machinations of Clu. It could be argued that much postmodernity has properly recognized the failures of modernity but nevertheless has not been able to built an effective counter-movement. Postmodernists are often isolated, with only their small band of fellow initiates, unable to stop the onslaught of globalization.

Sam Flynn, a younger man bringing more energy, inserts himself into the chess match between Kevin Flynn and Clu, throwing the game into confusion, leading eventually to the crisis and resolution of the plot. He forces his father to make a choice and to re-enter the fray.

The entrance of his son causes him to finally act and make a decisive choice (to engage). Here we see a beginning thread of post-postmodernism but it is never really brought into deeper reflection.

The Grid


The Grid itself can be thought of in postmodern terms. The great postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard spoke of the hyper-real. As the world becomes faster and faster technologically, more transparent to itself across the nodes of information transfer, things becomes less and less real—they become exaggerated, they become no longer sur-real (as in modernity) but rather hyperreal (postmodernity).

The Gridworld is just such a hyperreality. It is (in Baudrillard’s terms) a simulacrum, a simulation. The danger and the paradox of course is that the hyperreal world of the internet comes to dominate the ways in which we think and feel into the “real” world (e.g. Facebook). By so doing, the “real” world itself becomes more and more hyperreal.

The Final Scene: Deconstruction

Midway through the film Sam Flynn asks Quorra why his father has not fought back against Clu. Quorra replies that Clu feeds off Kevin Flynn’s attacks only making him (Clu) stronger. Furthermore, if Kevin Flynn were to reabsorb Clu into his being, it would destroy Flynn and Flynn knows this fact. Postmodernism struggles to gain a foothold of real power in this world because it must first deal with the failures of modernity before it can achieve its own ends. Postmodernism is in a Catch 22 double-bind. If postmodernism attacks (like Flynn at first), modernity (Clu) tends to grow stronger; if postmodernism does not act (like Flynn now does), then modernity (e.g. globalization) continues its onslaught.

In the final scene, as Clu attempts to seize his son Sam, Kevin Flynn makes the ultimate sacrifice—he pulls Clu back into himself and both are mutually annihilated. Sam and Quorra escape back to the real world.

This act deconstructs the grid world and is the final consummation of Flynn’s trajectory from utopian idealist to over the hill boomer Zen hippie. There is a liberation from the perils of modernity, as the imperialist project is now over. But there is no real integration of the grid world and the human world (arguably this was the central attempt of Matrix Revolution).

The movie ends with Sam taking Quorra on a motorcycle ride to see the sunrise (something she says she has always dreamed of seeing). The movie ends with a dose of reality and hope (The Sun and The Son merging in one Light). The Son Sam resolves to finally grow up as a man and take on the responsibility of leading his father’s company.

But that is pretty much it. There are hints of a way out of the postmodern into a post-postmodern world but they are pretty minimal and superficial.

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  • Comment Link Scott Payne Tuesday, 04 January 2011 00:02 posted by Scott Payne

    Before we launch into a discussion about the messages themselves, to what degree to you think the symbology of modernity and postmodernity to which you've pointed here was intentionally/consciously placed into the movie (a la Star Wars' Campbellian imagery or The Matrix's philosophy 101 imagery)? Or did it seem to you that most of this stuff crept in via culture's own process of evolutionary osmosis?

  • Comment Link Bergen Vermette Tuesday, 04 January 2011 03:47 posted by Bergen Vermette

    Cool analysis man, makes me want to go check out the movie.

    One thought while reading: I've often thought of postmodernism as something that arose in the 20th century as a response to the failures of modernity. In reading Polanyi's, The Great Transformation, however, I wonder if what we call postmodernism is less of an antithesis to modernity and more of a second-side-to-the-same-coin.

    Polanyi reports on what he calls the 'Double Movement', a "natural" response to the failures of modernity present since the Enlightenment. I'll pull out an old essay I wrote on it and post it in a few days.

  • Comment Link Casey Capshaw Wednesday, 05 January 2011 16:01 posted by Casey Capshaw

    Nice. Totally opened my eyes to this film in a whole new way. I echo Scott's inquiry of which-came-first.

    I'd also be curious to hear your analysis of the current political landscape through this lens. While most on the left are frustrated or impatient with the current administration, I see Obama as a transcendental mover, efforting something of an integration of competing forces on the political power stage.

    I don't think he is at all understood by the mainstream reporting media, much like this message in Tron: Legacy (if intentional) was lost on me.

    Then again, maybe I see what I want to see.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Wednesday, 05 January 2011 16:57 posted by Chris Dierkes

    @Scott and Casey.

    I dunno really. My guess is that mostly it falls on the side of just stuff that's in the ether.

    Clearly the proto-fascist imagery was intended. And it was clearly and consciously done as the dark flip side to Flynn's 1980s utopianism. The 1980s utopianism was a really Reagan-esque kinda feel (again I think on purpose). So there was definitely a very counter-cultural model (anti-Reaganite plus Flynn as the Boomer Buddhist).

    The stuff about Khora, Derrida, Baudrillard, that I don't think would have been intentional.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Wednesday, 05 January 2011 17:00 posted by Chris Dierkes


    Good point. The Marxist philosopher Frederic Jameson wrote a fantastic text that referred to Postmodernism as the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. de Zengot.'s Mediated makes the same point without having the Marxist critique in it.

    Someone like Alisdair MacIntyre (from a whole other range of thought) has always said that the Nietzschean will to power and postmodern deconstruction is the inevitable trajectory of modernity. Pomo is then the (il)logical playing out of modernity.

    I find a lot of value in that pov.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Thursday, 06 January 2011 01:31 posted by Chris Dierkes


    In terms of US politics. I'd say Obama (culturally) is the first postmodern president. He's more like a Gen X-er than a Boomer. But he does (I think) have some thoughts (particularly when it comes to global politics) that harken to something a little more post-postmodern. Meanwhile he's stuck in the most modernist of roles (US President), battling with factions of modernists: centrists, conservatives (really pro-business/corporate power) and liberals (Welfare Statists).

    Then's got other policies that I think are just wrong.

    But anyway he's got a problem on his hands. A problem, the depth of which, he's severely underestimated up to this point, I think. Though I'm not as harsh on him as others are.

    What he does with that I'm not entirely sure. I think at this point (from a purely electoral point of view), he's in pretty good shape to get re-elected.

    But in terms of the bigger political transformation he ran on, I'm not really sure how he makes that happen. Particularly when systematically the US federal system in such disarray.

  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Thursday, 13 January 2011 21:03 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    I want to briefly jump on this thread about postmodernity and the "double-movement" that Bergen brought up via Polyani. This is very true, from my research.

    One of the best resources for this has been Isaiah Berlin's texts. He's a historian of ideas, and has shown in many books how the reaction against the Enlightenment/emergent-modern-principles was immediate. Here's the first line from his essay 'The Counter-Enlightenment':

    "Opposition to the central ideas of the French Enlightenment, and of its allies and disciples in other European countries, is as old as the movement itself". (Against the Current, p.1)

    Much of the seeds of what's come to be known as postmodern philosophy are found in the thinkers that rose in immediate opposition to Enlightenment principles, thinkers such as JG Hamann, Herder, Rousseau, Vico and several other minor lights. Berlin does a great job of retrieving and describing the work and thought of these figures.

    Here's some key passages from Charles Taylor's book on Hegel that describes the immediate climate of opposition to Enlightenment principles:

    "There was a passionate demand for unity and wholeness. The expressivist view [Taylor's term, includes the Romantics, Idealists and other thinkers] bitterly reproached the Enlightenment thinkers for having dissected man and hence distorted the true image of human life in objectifying human nature; they divided soul from body, reason from feeling, reason from imagination, thought from senses, desire from calculation and so on. All of these dichotomies distorted the true nature of man...Hegel's work is strongly anti-dualistic, it strives to overcome the body-soul dichotomy, or the spirit-nature dichotomy, which is the legacy of Descartes. It turns more toward categories of life that straddle this division...One of the central aspirations of the expressivist view was that man be united in communion with nature. What is sought for is interchange with a larger life, not a rational vision of order" (Hegel, 23-25)

    So I would say that new emergent levels of consciousness, or value structures, often run along side the one that's currently dominating the organization (what Habermas called the 'life-world') of society. As I show in my essay 'What is Modernity?', the values and intelligences that would eventually be foundational to modernity, existed and grew within (sometimes barely) traditional societies for almost 1600 years before they found a way, via the bourgeoisie/scientific revolution et al., to emerge into dominant social power as the foundational organizational principles of the modern world.

    I'm not familiar with Alisdair McIntyre's argument that postmodernity is a logical outcome of modernity, and would have to see it at length to truly comment, but at first pass I don't agree with this general view. I see it much more in terms of dialectic and antithesis, than as an outcome or extension.

    Oh, and great article Chris- you single-handedly made me want to see Tron-Legacy!!

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