Christian Allegory in Tron

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been surprised many times to discover the hidden messages of faith in my favorite childhood movies. Don’t be deceived by the lack of overt themes of Christianity. As Ralph Wood explains in The Gospel According to Tolkien, his treatise on Tolkien’s deeply Christian fantasy world, the subtle infusion of theology is the most effective way to convey the message:

Tolkien’s work is all the more deeply Christian for not being overtly Christian. He would have violated the integrity of his art — and thus the faithfulness of his witness — if he had written a 1,200-page novel to illustrate a set of ideas that he could have expressed apart from the story itself. This is a principle not only of good art but also of good theology.

Look for the hidden messages of faith in movies. So strong is the influence of Christianity in the West that these messages often find their way into popular entertainment almost subconsciously. Although, sometimes, the message is so allegorical that there can be little doubt of the filmmakers’ intentions.

One such movie is Tron (1982). I knew almost nothing about religion when I was a kid seeing this movie for the first time, but I was still intrigued by the idea of the quasi-supernatural Users and the Master Control Program’s campaign to stamp out any “superstitious” belief in them. Watching this movie again many years later, the message became clear:

Flynn may be a sort a Christ-figure, but so is Tron, the program who teams up with him to defeat the Master Control Program. In addition to his miracles, Flynn sacrifices himself in a way that evokes both the descent of Christ into hell as well as his ascension, while in another scene, Tron communicates with his user in a way that resembles the opening of the heavens at the baptism of Christ. And all of this takes place in an environment in which programs who believe in their users are persecuted for being ‘religious fanatics,’ and are sent to their deaths in video-game battles that resemble ancient Roman gladiatorial fights. (From a now-defunct link at Canadian Christianity)

And of course the villain—whose name, “Sark,” is the Greek word for “flesh”—is the allegorical Satan figure of the movie.

Tron is not a perfect allegory, but its basis in the Christian faith is unmistakable.

Computer-generated images are now so de rigueur in movies that we take them for granted. It must be remembered that Tron was made at a time when computers were a decade away from becoming household items, and constituted both a source of fascinated hope and a cause for concern (cf. War Games, released a year after Tron). Disney was ahead of the curve in creating the computer graphics, which were astonishing at the time, and captured perfectly the cold, electronic quality of a computer world. An intriguing counterpoint to the message of the gospel.

Opening scene from Contact

The opening scene for Contact is quite possibly the best opening scene in a movie, ever. (When you watch this clip, it’s recommended that you change the resolution to 720p HD and turn up the volume.)

This is a wonderful illustration of the principle that distance (and motion) is equivalent to time. The speed of any signal, whether light or sound or carrier pigeon, is always finite. It takes time for a signal to travel the distance between the source and the receiver, so this means the signal is always telling us something about the past. Back in the days when people communicated with each other using letters, it took a week or two to receive them, depending on how far they had to travel; when the recipients read those letters, they were always reading about something that was recent to the sender, but already one or two weeks in the past for the recipient. Similarly, when we look at the star Betelgeuse, the light that we see has taken time to travel the distance between Betelgeuse and the Earth, and so we are seeing it as it was in the past (at a distance of 400 trillion miles and with light traveling at a speed of 186,000 miles per hour, we are seeing Betelgeuse as it was 640 years in the past). Conveniently, such vast distances are often expressed in units of light-years (the distance light travels in a year), which also tell us at what point in cosmic history we are observing something.

In the opening scene of Contact, the further away we travel from Earth, the older the radio transmissions become. We first hear contemporary (for 1997) music, then the soundtrack gradually shifts to music and news from further and further in our past. Once we get beyond a certain point we hear static, then silence.

But sounds don’t travel through space, I hear some of you saying. True. However, radio signals are light waves, not sound waves. The radio waves, which carry information, are transmitted in all directions and are picked up by a receiver with an antenna (say, an AM/FM radio) that converts the radio signal into the sound you hear. So, in principle, anyone who might be not too far out in space could pick up our terrestrial radio and television signals and learn all kinds of interesting things about the inhabitants of Earth.

Perhaps you are wondering from how far out in space someone could receive intelligent signals from Earth. The scale of the Contact sequence isn’t quite right—it was fudged a bit for creative/dramatic purposes. The truth is, if aliens are zipping past Pluto at this moment, they would receive transmissions from Earth that are from only five and a half hours in the past. Little Green Men near our closest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri, would receive transmissions from the year 2009. Civilizations on a planet orbiting the star Alpha Mensae (33 light-years away), however, might catch old episodes of Dallas. Someone passing close to the star 51 Pegasi (50 light-years away) might be aware that someone named John F. Kennedy has been assassinated in a place called Dallas. An alien near the star Regulus (77 light-years away) could be watching images of Hitler opening the Olympic Games in Berlin. Further still, near the star Eta Herculis (112 light-years away), curious beings might just now be detecting Marconi’s radio transmissions. Beyond this distance, the Earth is silent. Considering that our Milky Way galaxy is more than 100,000 light-years across, we’ve barely announced our existence to the neighbors down the street. Not that this is entirely lamentable. Personally, I find it comforting that so little of the universe is aware of the Kardashians.

Physics-inspired sci-fi movie in the works

Good news for hard sci-fi fans: Christopher Nolan, the critically-acclaimed director of the Dark Knight movies, is looking to direct and produce a science fiction movie based on the theoretical work of renowned CalTech physicist, Kip Thorne. The script for the movie, titled Interstellar, was co-authored by Nolan’s brother, Jonathan, and features “time travel and alternate dimensions and sees a group of explorers travel through a wormhole.” The movie is tentatively slated for a 2014 release.

Thorne, one of the world’s foremost experts on general relativity, has been a mainstay of gravitational physics for decades. He co-authored the seminal textbook on the subject, Gravitation, with two other giants in the field, Charles Misner and John Wheeler, and also wrote the outstanding popular-level science book, Black Holes and Time Warps. For nearly two decades Thorne held the position of Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at CalTech, named after the legendary physicist Richard Feynman, who, like Thorne, had a particular interest in making physics concepts accessible to a wider audience. Thorne retired from the position in 2009 to focus on other projects, including penning a classical physics textbook and co-authoring the script for Interstellar.

This is not Thorne’s first foray into science fiction, however. When another well-known popularizer of science, Carl Sagan, approached him for help with Sagan’s novel, Contact, it was Thorne who suggested the use of wormholes to transport people over vast distances through space. Thorne subsequently developed the idea theoretically, which has since seen even more popularization in science fiction, most notably three of the later Star Trek television series.

A Star Wars legend passes away

Legendary graphic artist, Ralph McQuarrie, passed away on Saturday at the age of 82. McQuarrie is best known for the artistic visions he created for the Star Wars movies — from the iconic design for Darth Vader’s helmet to the sweeping vistas of Cloud City, he was responsible for much of the look and feel of the Star Wars universe.

I was introduced to that universe as a very young child, when my parents took me and my brother to see Star Wars during the summer of 1977. But it wasn’t until I saw its stunning sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, that this fictional universe had any significant impact on me. By the summer of 1980 I was old enough to cogitate on the visions before me, and I remember being completely blown away by Empire, particularly the scenes that took place on Cloud City. I saw the movie many times that summer, and I simply could not get those visions out of my head. Not that I wanted to.

It was years later, when I became a collector of Star Wars memorabilia, that I came across several prints of McQuarrie’s concept paintings and realized from whose imagination those stunning visions emerged. So complete were McQuarrie’s concepts for the Star Wars universe, that George Lucas and the other directors didn’t merely use them as guides, but recreated them on the screen with astonishing faithfulness.

The adventures of three young people in a galaxy far, far away had almost nothing to do with astronomy or space science, but I was so swept away by what I had seen that for the first time in my life it got me thinking about outer space in a meaningful way. It was a very short journey from the fictional Star Wars universe to the real universe, and it eventually led to a career as a professional astrophysicist. In a way, I owe my passion for outer space to McQuarrie and his astonishing vision. May the Force be with him.

Fourth moon discovered around Pluto

Ultraviolet images taken with the Hubble show the location of P4.

Astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have discovered another moon orbiting Pluto, joining the ranks of Pluto’s three other known moons. The largest, Charon, was discovered in 1978 at the U.S. Naval Observatory in Flagstaff. The existence of two other moons — Hydra and Nix — was confirmed using the Hubble telescope in 2005. The newly-discovered moon has been given the tentative name P4. (Presumably the discoverers or the IAU will come up with something more interesting once a little more is known about it. I offer ‘Zaphod’ as a candidate. It’s about time we started introducing ephemeral pop culture to outer space.)

Incidentally, Pluto is the only member of the original nine-planet system that has not been explored by an Earth probe; but that will change in 2015 when the New Horizons probe, launched in 2006, flies by to study the dwarf planet and its four (known) moons.

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Science fiction becoming science reality

Physicist Michio Kaku, who has penned several popular books about science, has written a new book called Physics of the Future in which he describes the sorts of innovations we can expect in the 21st century. Among the technological breakthroughs-in-the-making:

Any science fiction junkie will tell you that all of these ideas have been around for decades in television shows, movies, novels, and short stories. My two favorite TV shows when I was a kid were Star Trek and The Jetsons, and it occurred to me recently that an awful lot of what was imagined in those shows has become reality, or is about to according to Kaku.

I’m not sure which is more impressive — the prescience of the writers who seemingly foretold the future or the genius of the scientists and engineers who are making it all happen — but one thing seems certain: anything we can imagine we can eventually make reality.