Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tron Legacy: CLU

The first thing in the new Tron movie that I want to talk about is the bad guy. Yeah, I know it seems like I might be skipping around a bit, but it’s the thing that stuck with me most obvious in this first couple of hours after the movie.

To put it simply, the movie’s big villain, CLU (or as I like to call him, CLU2, since the story makes it clear that he’s NOT the Clu from the original story) is one of the better depictions of a “combatant atheist” character that I’ve ever seen.

Mind you, “combatant” atheist is my term, I’m not sure if there is such a distinction for anyone else and I think they’re fairly rare in the real world, at least outside the internet and/or once you’re past high school. These are the sorts who are very aggressive about their position as atheists, the sort who always seem looking to pick a fight with religious types, the kind who’d be happy to see all religion everywhere wiped clean off the face of the earth. Many of them, in my experience, were raised in and/or used to have some kind of faith, but suffered what they perceived as a betrayal of their social contract with their god – usually the loss of a loved one, or the sudden realization of how much suffering there was in the world – and turned to atheism almost as a form of revenge.

I don’t think you meet many of this sort of person in real life, because I like to think that most atheists have simply come to a logical conclusion about the non-existence of a deity and go about living their lives. However, they do crop up sometimes in fiction.

When written by someone trying to make the argument that religion is the ultimate good, they’re usually a Straw Atheist spouting vitriol and either take the role of primary antagonist or are minor characters humiliated by the protagonist early on to prove the glory of god. When the author makes him the protagonist, the story usually involves corrupt religions swindling stupid people into dying for the sake of a made-up god. In the most extreme speculative fiction, it often turns out that “god” himself is some kind of evil or stupid being with an over-inflated ego, so the protagonist either dethrones or kills him.

In Tron: Legacy, CLU(2) is an interesting twist on the character type because he is clearly the villain, yet his story is that of the protagonist combative atheist. He fulfills the ultimate angry, disgruntled, religion-is-the-root-of-all-evil empowerment fantasy: he stages a coupe against his own creator, his god, and dethrones him.

However, unlike the combative atheist protagonist stories mentioned above, that’s not where the story ends; it’s where it begins. Throughout the movie, CLU’s story reflects the inherent flaw in these extreme atheist portrayals and ideas. Namely: if your goal is to destroy god, you have to acknowledge the existence of god.

CLU is not subtle about his feelings on the Users and on their creator, Kevin Flynn, in particular. At one point, he even calls Flynn a “false deity” and defiantly shouts to the heavens, “WHERE ARE YOU NOW?!” Other characters mention that they, “believed in Users…once” and Kevin Flynn himself is portrayed as a spiritual figure. Some of the programs even pray to him.

CLU, who seeks the ultimate perfection, thinks that the elimination of the Users is the only way to get it. He even commits genocide in the name of his beliefs. Yet in the end, he stands before his creator – who has never wavered in that he wants to do good and tries to do what’s best for the world he has created – and demands to know why the exact promises he was made have not been met. Being only a program, he can’t understand his creator’s motivations, the bigger picture that Flynn saw, which made him angry; yet despite all his rejection of the “false deity” he can’t deny his existence.

I think that CLU is a great representation of what people who obsess about overthrowing or discrediting god are really going through, much more so than the combatant atheist protagonists they write about. Naturally, in the real world, we don’t have anything as secure as proof in god’s existence, but if you’re struggling so hard against something you probably don’t believe that you’re fighting nothing. When actually faced by his god, there’s still some part of CLU that wants acknowledgement that he hasn’t done anything wrong and desires reconciliation, a return to the way things were.

Maybe that’s not what the producers were going for, but it certainly stood out to me. Because of that, CLU is probably the strongest character in the whole movie. Of course, that also has something to do with a few of the subplots and characters arcs that kind of dropped the ball…but I’ll get into that in another post.

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