In 1982, the film Tron took us into a virtual world and carried us into the era of computer animation. (I use the term “us” loosely – I actually wasn’t born at the time…) Although the film flopped (mostly because the plot makes little sense), it gained a devoted cult following for being “ahead of its time.”
In fact, John Lasseter, the chief creative officer at Disney and Pixar, claims that Tron showed him the potential for computer-generated imagery, and that “without Tron there would be no Toy Story.”
Fast-forward 28 years, and we see the release of the sequel, Tron: Legacy, in 2010. This time around, writers and developers of the film consulted with scientists to be sure that the science and technology portrayed in the movie was accurate and (at least somewhat) realistic. Researchers such as Malcolm Maclver, a professor in biomedical and mechanical engineering at Northwestern University, provided their expertise through the new Science & Entertainment Exchange program, which aims to bring cutting-edge science into the entertainment industry and make it accessible to general audiences. A noble cause indeed.
So did it work?
The film probably succeeded at appeasing physicists, neuroscientists, and roboticists who are in the know about quantum computing, genetic algorithms, teleportation, and artificial intelligence. It’s great to see filmmakers striving to design plots based on actual scientific principles instead of making up gobbledygook about extracting dinosaur DNA from mosquitos preserved in amber.
But does “accurate” mean “more accessible”? Certainly not. I still have very little understanding of the science that was referenced in Tron: Legacy, and I doubt that I’m alone. I also can’t imagine that the scientific accuracy of the plot went very far in rousing anyone’s curiosity about the scientific themes presented in the film – in comparison, how many people tried to find out whether it was actually possible to bring back dinosaurs after seeing Jurassic Park?
I really do think that what the Science & Entertainment Exchange program is doing is a wonderful thing, in terms of striving to break down barriers between the “nerdy” science community and the entertainment industry. For science to be accessible, it is absolutely necessary that we work to weaken the “lab coat and safety glasses” image of modern science – let’s make science more mainstream, let the world see the real labs full of regular clothes and iPods. (Of course there are lab coats and safety glasses, but that’s not all there is, all the time.)
So while it’s a colossal step in the right direction for Tron: Legacy to involve scientists in the creative process, I’d also like to emphasize that the burden in making science more accessible really goes to the scientists. In an interview with ScriptPhD.com, Malcom Maclver (mentioned above as one of the scientists on the Tron project) had a great insight about this:
“An anecdote I like along those lines is about how the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson complained to James Cameron that when Kate Winslet looked up from the deck of the Titanic, the stars in the sky were in the wrong position. I liked Cameron’s response, which was ‘Last I checked the film’s made a billion dollars.’ People love the story, not the positions of the stars above the Titanic. We all tend to overemphasize the importance of the thing we are closest to, and it’s a problem that scientists need to be especially attuned to in these contexts.”
I know that I haven’t mentioned anything about the scientists/engineers who are involved in designing the special effects… that will have to be a topic for another day. I personally saw Tron: Legacy in 3D on the IMAX – now that’s entertainment!
– Minna Krejci