Science of TRON

By Sean Carroll | December 20, 2010 10:01 am

I don’t know about any of you, but I was extremely excited about the release of TRON: Legacy. Partly because the light cycles are cool, but also for a personal reason: this was the first movie I helped consult on as part of the early days of the Science and Entertainment Exchange. And I’ll be honest; that extremely tenuous personal connection was enough to make me feel personally invested in the success of the movie. I am shallow. Haters gonna hate, but my mind is made up. More objective reviews have ranged across the spectrum, but for many of us it was a thrilling feast of eye candy that makes for a great holiday film.

But … Science? Well, yes, a little. Dan Vergano has some of the scoop. There was a huge amount of science and technology that went into making the film, of course, but also some underlying the story. The director, Joe Kosinski, and producers, Sean Bailey and Jeff Silver, were very enthusiastic about science from the start, and always wanted to learn more. At the same time, it’s essentially a fantasy movie, not a documentary or even hard SF, and nobody was tempted to over-explain what was going on. Our consult occurred after the initial script was already in place, so it wasn’t as if we exerted a noticeable influence on the direction of the plot. What we did was help fill in the backstory. If there is a sequel, some of the ideas we talked about could end up playing a more substantial role.

Early in the movie, the Alan Bradley character waxes enthusiastic about the advances of technology, and includes a bit of technobabble about “genetic algorithms” and “quantum teleportation.” But in fact, that bit of babble is very relevant. One of the most interesting aspects of the new grid world is the existence of “Isos” — programs that arose spontaneously, rather than being constructed by a programmer. And of course one of the main conceptual hurdles in the plot is how you teleport a physical human being into the grid. We talked a lot in the consult about conservation of mass. And in the final result, the laser that miraculously disassembles Sam Flynn and transports him into the grid is equipped with canisters of raw materials (oxygen, carbon, etc.) that can be used to re-assemble people back into reality. You won’t even notice them when you watch the movie, but they’re there, and I count that as a small victory.

Realistic science that you’d be happy to show your class? No. But a decent example of how a bit of science can help add depth to a story. Scientists can play a much more substantial if they consult right at the beginning, when a script is first coming together — and hopefully we’ll start seeing the fruits of some of those consultations before too long. But every little bit helps. A movie like TRON doesn’t force you to think against your will — you can perfectly well just sit back, turn off your brain, and enjoy the ride. But if you’re predisposed to thinking, there’s plenty of food for thought.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Entertainment, Top Posts

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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