Tron and the Jewish Question
Why the sci-fi movie is one of the most important Holocaust films in recent memory
Forget about the rerelease of Shoah; for a Holocaust film geared towards the digital generation, go see Tron: Legacy.
Much like the 1982 original—one of the great, unheralded masterpieces of contemporary American cinema—the sequel is, in large part, a tale of religious persecution. The movie’s villain is Clu, a computer program run amok; much like anyone who’d ever been exposed to Windows 7, Clu is enraged by the existence of glitches and errors, and dreams of a perfect world. His first step en route to world domination is capturing his programmer, Kevin Flynn. His second step is genocide, directed against the ISOs, sophisticated and self-generating programs that are human, all too human, and therefore imperfect, all too imperfect. Flynn and his son, aided by the last of the ISOs, battle Clu and his minions against a backdrop of Wagnerian religious imagery that includes an Olympus-like mountain abode, a character named Zeus, and Jeff Bridges in white clothes and a white beard, looking a lot like what we, in our happier moments, imagine God to look like.
What makes the religious theme more than a mere flourish, however, is the complex relationship between Clu and Flynn, the former played by a digitally rejuvenated Bridges, looking just as he did in the 1980s, and the latter by the man himself, three decades older and infinitely wiser. Flynn created Clu to improve the world; young and impatient, he had unbound faith in software and its ability to redeem mankind. And Clu isn’t evil: like any creature made of code, he aspires to nothing but the elimination of chance. The humans and the ISOs, whimsical and irrational and driven by emotion, scare and disgust him.
The original movie’s creator, Steven Lisberger, spoke about this duality in a recent interview. “My father was a German Jew,” he said. “And my mother’s side of the family put him in a concentration camp.” The intricate bonds between good and evil were never lost on Lisberger.
As we become increasingly dependent on software to navigate each and every element of our lives, we may want to take a long look at Clu and realize that while rogue machines are probably not a clear and present danger, our increasing propensity to think like machines is. The more we allow programs to mediate our interactions with each other, the more we leave our calculations to computers, the more we trust algorithms to help us find a job and a home and a soul mate—the more we do all that, the less human we become.
The loss of humanity is Lanzmann’s great theme, and it is Tron’s, too. For all of its virtual flashes, the film deserves to be taken seriously.