Deus EX Machina: The Matrix is really just Tron

One of the films that I’ve watched lately that’s become a real favorite of mine is 1982’s TRON, which told what I feel is one of the better stories about artificial intelligence and the future of computers. The movie is a dated one, given how much computers have changed in the past thirty years, but I feel that it holds up extremely well, even in the modern computing age. Given the craze in Hollywood over the past decade for sequels, it comes as no surprise that a sequel for TRON will be released later this year. What is surprising is just how long it’s taken (28 years!) to make a sequel. Except for one thing: the film has already been remade with another hit: The Matrix.

I saw The Matrix first, about a year or two after it was first released, and really enjoyed it. The combination of martial arts, cyberpunk and gothic themes blended together into a genuinely smart science fiction thriller worked extremely well, even extending into the sequels, which I thought were decent (although they certainly suffer from the ‘More is Better’ mentality that sequels are often saddled with), especially with some of the themes that were introduced in Reloaded and Revolutions.

When I watched TRON this past fall, I was astonished at some of the marked similarities between the two films. The Matrix is a film that plays homage to a number of films that influenced the Wachowski Brothers early on, and it’s easy to assume that much of what is consistent in The Matrix is influenced from TRON. Some of these similarities are in the form of the visual nature of the film – the opening title sequences are nearly identical, as are some camera angles and scenes. Moreover, the story idea of a person entering a completely digital world is a major similarity between the two, and is certainly not something that’s tied only to TRON. (William Gibson’s fantastic thriller Neuromancer comes to mind) But in the visual arts, it’s clear that there’s quite a bit of TRON in The Matrix.

What made Steven Lisberger’s film so interesting to me was the real depth to the story, and the religious connections that were placed there between the programs in the computer systems, and the mythical users who created them. Like any good story set in a speculative fiction universe, the story extrapolates from the fantastic and has several themes that are relatable to the audience watching the film. Here, there is a link between the cold and analytical electronics, with an element of the supernatural to the beliefs of the programs. Moreover, it changes the viewpoint of a program to something that’s highly relatable, as people with fairly specific purposes within the innards of a computer, while the user, a creator of programs, is akin to a god in the machine.

The Matrix incorporates some of these elements in TRON, where Neo proves to be an exceptional person within the programming of the Matrix, someone who can ultimately conceptualize and realize the full extent of his abilities within the Matrix – he’s able to alter the reality around him in order to accomplish extraordinary things. Neo is essentially superman within the computer, with a number of religious connotations surrounding him throughout the story.

With the coming Tron: Legacy film coming in December, the question has to be asked: is it necessary? In the follow-up Matrix films, we see that there’s an environment that is very similar to the world that TRON presents, with programs acting on their own in their own little world. This seems to be where the next TRON is exploring, with a new world with better graphics (literally in both cases), but in a way, the Matrix films acted as a reboot to the 1982 film in their own way. The hope with film producers is that this new TRON film will become the start to a new franchise of films, with a trilogy and television series planned (at least that’s the rumor). There’s a number of ways that this story can go, and it will be very interesting to see just which direction can be taken with the future films and productions.

When it comes down to it, however, The Matrix is really a highly stylized, slightly different version of TRON. The protagonists in each film are largely the same: challenge a malevolent computer program and overlord within ambitions to control humanity. There are some differences here between the two, but for all intents and purposes, the Matrix has a similar enough story and had the same impact as its predecessor.

Hopefully, the upcoming TRON film will fare better than its counterparts in the Matrix trilogy, providing an interesting and thought provoking sequel to a film that really sparked that in the first place. Both the Matrix and TRON were excellent films that arguably changed the genre of science fiction film.