Please note that the following contains extensive spoilers and is designed to be read by those who have already viewed TRON: Legacy.
Though TRON Legacy doesn’t hit theaters until this Friday, the film has been screened for press and select fans several times over the past month and has been met with a wide range of reactions that, if they have any overlap, seem to stem from an argument of "style over substance". I myself reviewed the film recently (which you can read here) and, though I had similar complaints at the time, a second viewing has supplied me with a very different interpretation, opening the film to an allegorical reading that makes me feel that writing off the story element was an oversight. TRON: Legacy isn’t just a series of pretty effects; it has something interesting to say and goes about it in an awfully unique way.
One of the recurring complaints of the film seems to fall to the role of the Isomorphic Algorithms and the condemnation thereof as a bit of MacGuffin-y technobabble. We are told by Kevin Flynn that the Isos can change the world, but we’re not exactly told how. I would argue that, to see this as the narrative’s failing is to take too much for granted.
We are informed, essentially, that Flynn has created artificial intelligence and, thanks to genre sensibilities that demand bigger and bigger, we don’t respond to the idea as scientists would in the real world. In much the same way that a science fiction audience would not be impressed by a spaceship that might travel faster than light, AI is one of the givens of the genre. It becomes especially hard for an audience to accept, for instance, that CLU operates within the dictates of an immensely complex program while Quorra transcends the same barriers. We live in a world where it’s easy enough to believe that a friendly talking paper clip on our desktop has a personality or that our television has learned what programs we enjoy. In this, we wind up taking for granted that true AI would be something magical. What’s more, that inability to pinpoint "fake" AI from "real" AI is essential to the soul-searching theme of the film– but more on that in a moment.
When Kevin Flynn tells his son that ISOs have the potential to cure disease and solve human problems, this isn’t a magical catch-all, but a real-world suggestion of what true AI could offer. Theoretically replicable and independently minded, AI could be put to the same tasks as the world’s brightest scientists and push on unburdened by fatigue or personal problems, even moving at (as is the case in the Grid) speed in incredible excess of human thinking. The fictional setup here would be that one might launch a thousand Quorras in more idealized computer setting and put them to work curing cancer, years of research happening in just a fraction of real world time.
More importantly to the broader story, though, the Isos serve to represent Sam Flynn’s own individuality and, like a lot of great science fiction, the allegory is hidden in a scientific concept. In this case, the reference belongs to the term "Isomorphism", an algebraic theory whereby two mathematical formulas can be structurally identical even though they contain specific differences. Granted, I had to, post screening, do some reading on this and, though it’s mathematically far more complex than I’m able to put it, what Quorra stands for in the narrative goes well beyond a mathematical pun to TRON Legacy‘s central thesis: Can something be different even though it’s the same?
At the heart of the story is Sam Flynn and the loss of his father. The "real world" that he’s living in is a paralleled by the Grid. ENCOM’s empire, like the computer world, is built by Kevin Flynn and Sam’s response to it is through actions and ideals that Sam isn’t sure are even his own. It’s the classic Hamlet setup and Sam is torn between avenging the ghost or suffering the slings and arrows of ENCOM. The added dimension is that — in his mind — his own father may ultimately be responsible for the betrayal, having run away to avoid dealing with his responsibilities and abandoning his son. That’s also a concept that tends to get explored in staged versions of Hamlet, with the Ghost and Claudius oftentimes played by the same actor.
"He’s either chilling on a beach in Costa Rica," Sam tells Alan Bradley at the start of the film, "or dead. Or Both." These are the two impressions that Sam has for his dad either a dead but loving spirit or living entity whose world was better off without young Sam in it.
Then it’s revealed, as the plot progress, that Kevin Flynn is, in fact, both. In the Grid, Sam finds both the ghost of his father and another version who would rather clear his world of imperfections like Sam. What are they battling for? Literary and metaphorically, the identity of Kevin Flynn.
Sure, we get the somewhat questionable setup in the narrative that, if CLU get his hands on the disc he can exit to the "real world" and that, a villainous figure, he will wreak havoc there, but that’s representative of Sam’s internal dilemma. The Grid becomes Sam’s soul-searching and, while he wants to escape with his father’s identity still belonging to the loving ghost, the threat is that the father that never cared for him will ultimately claim that association.
This is where the concept of Isomorphisms become a neat parallel because every character’s identity involves their direct relation to their father, literally in the case of Sam and figuratively in the case of CLU. When Sam mentions at dinner that he’s awed by his father’s computer world, Kevin Flynn angrily claims that it’s all a "house of mirrors". It’s a twisted version of himself and can never grow beyond that. CLU and his world are rigidly defined, matching Sam’s fear for his own life. He’ll never be able to exist outside his father’s shadow and doesn’t bother to try. Sam, Clu and Kevin are Isomorphisms to one another; structurally identical but specifically different.
Just as in Hamlet’s exalted soliloquy, Sam Flynn’s dilemma is a question of action versus inaction. He’s torn between the loving but ineffective ghost and the dangerous but powerful king.
Quorra (from an Italian word meaning "heart),s hould, in this be viewed less as a romantic interest (which she is never overtly played as) but as another side of Sam Flynn. She, like Sam, is a creation of Kevin Flynn but representative of an intangible magic of science. For all intents and purposes, she has a soul when the other programs do not. Sam’s interaction with her throughout the story is an exploration of his own potential, coming into the understanding that just because he was created by his father, he’s not limited to any sort of programming. What’s more, while Quorra can be hurt, she can also heal, something Sam hasn’t let happen for himself his entire life.
By the end of the film, Sam has found the version of his father he needs to keep and, through Quorra, a version of himself that can go forth and be his own person. Of course Kevin Flynn, in the metaphor, can’t leave the Grid. He’s dead and has been for two decades. The identity (disc) though, that this negative interpretation would seek to pervert, doesn’t stay behind. It’s passed on to Quorra and, she being the heart of Sam, means that Kevin Flynn’s identity doesn’t stay with the ghost either. The father lives on through the son.
Ultimately, how well this all lets TRON Legacy play as a big-screen blockbuster is debatable, but I think that deeper analyses of the text will play out in the long term, this being far from the only interpretation. Many of the parallels detailed here could also just as easily extended to the metanarrative. After all, TRON Legacy is going to have to pave its own way against a parent film with a relative absence from the mainstream. Like its central character, I suspect that time will allow TRON Legacy will find its full worth.