Back in 1982 this movie must have seemed like a long shot. But Disney's animation had fallen on hard times, and the company was trying all kinds of unique stuff to get their name back in the theaters. Not all of it worked (Watcher in the Woods I'm looking at you). For some folks the animation and films from this period in the company’s era are a dark mark. But in so many ways Tron was ahead of its time, and yet it was timeless.
Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) has a score to setting with SVP of Encom corporation Ed Dililnger (David Warner). Dilinger stole some of Flynn’s innovative video games and passed them off as his own. Flynn left the company in a rage, but has been trying to hack into Encom’s system to find proof of the theft ever since. Unfortunately, Dillinger’s new Master Control Program (MCP) is blocking him at every turn. So Flynn enlists the help of fellow programmers Lora (Cindy Morgan) and Alan (Bruse Boxleitner). But before you think this is going to be about corporate espionage, things get wild.
The MCP isn’t going to take any of Flynn’s shenanigans and uses a laser to suck Flynn into the computer (it was the 1980s and lasers could do anything). Now Flynn finds himself in a digital world where programs live their lives to serve their users. In this world the MCP is a tyrannical despot that rules with an iron fist. His minion Sark (also David Warner) captures trouble-making programs and makes them play in video games, until they are destroyed. Flynn teams up with two programs Tron (Boxleitner again) and Ram (Dan Shor) to escape from the game grid and contact “Alan 1”. With a program upgrade Tron may be able to shut down the MCP once and for all.
- An amazing visual look for the virtual world
- Uses the standard hero’s quest to make the concept more accessible
- An innovative and fitting score by Wendy Carlos
- Takes forever and a day to really get rolling
- Over-explains the premise (for the less computer savvy folks of 1982)
- May be too silly in concept for some viewers.
For me Tron is an amazing feat of creativity. It is a visual wonder, especially considering it was made in 1982. It commits to its premise (no matter how goofy it may see) and sells it completely with a complete world created in visuals, sounds and music. The basic story is a hero quest, and yet there is an overlay of spirituality at it’s core that adds another layer to the film. It’s slow start with heavy exposition can be a chore to get through, and the final stakes (stolen video game ideas?) may seem a bit petty, but all in all it’s an impressive film that was way ahead of it’s time and is still entertaining.
Scores (out of 5)
In Depth Review
|A image that could only come from the 1980s.|
Watching it now, I’m simultaneously blown away by how ahead of its time it was, and how quaint it seems. This movie predated all the hacker, virtual reality and “cyber” films of the late 1990s and early 2000s. It’s the first movie that I know of where the heroes are nerdy cubicle drones. No other movie at the time embraced the Atari video game revolution in quite the same way. So in that way it predates all those video game films that flooded cinemas in the 1990s. And as entrenched in technology as the film is, it deals with spirituality and freedom: including freedom from technology.
|Revenge of the nerds, indeed!|
So I believe part of the reason the film didn’t resonate with people is that it just didn’t seem to be part of their lives. By the time The Matrix rolled around, nearly everyone had a personal computer or video game system of some kind, and the internet was becoming a fixture in public consciousness. People were comfortable with idea of programs, hackers, discs and system upgrades.
|Atari meets Star Wars with a heavy dash of 80s neon|
The other issue with the film is that the basic story that occurs inside the computer is your typical hero myth, the same on we’d seen done in Star Wars, and that made the huge impact on genre storytelling. The band of heroes fighting against a tyrannical rule was already a staple, and was feeling a bit stale to some viewers. Added to this is the fact that Tron is a pretty straight arrow character. He wants to do what is right, always chooses the best path and is frankly a bit bland. He’s certainly a hero of the 1950s mold, square jawed, and honest.
|The deadly Recognizers swoop in for the kill.|
In that aspect Tron feels old fashioned, a criticism thrown at the other sci-fi epic Disney attempted in the same era The Black Hole. But I think this was done to directly counter the bizarre and unique world being created. It was an attempt to give the audience something relatable beneath all the visual pop. This same approach is what George Lucas achieved with Star Wars.
|In the 1980s, if evil had a name it had to be|
On top of this, Flynn is a user transported to a computer world. Essentially, he’s a god among mortals. At first he keeps this fact to himself, but begins to use his powers to manipulate the world around him. It’s these powers that set him apart from his fellow travelers. While Flynn doesn’t have a huge personal change in the film, we do see him develop feelings for the programs. He tries to save and help them, not just because it will help him in the long run, but because he sees them as real people. He tries to give some comfort to a dying Ram midway through the film. He accepts his role as a god like avatar and makes a sacred promise (of sorts) to help Tron defeat the MCP.
|Tron prepares to contact his "user" using a floppy...|
sorry identity disc.
Flynn’s powers are the only thing that set him apart from the other programs. His personality also makes him unique. Tron, Yori and Ram are all single note characters, but that is because they are programs with one function. They maybe put in different circumstances and deal with those circumstances as best they can, but unlike their human counterparts, we don’t see much variation in their responses to events. In fact some of the looks they give Flynn reflect how odd they see him.
|Flynn faces a difficult choice in the climax|
of the film.
As a whole the acting in Tron works well. Bridges gets the juiciest part, and seems to be having a blast In the role. Playing counter to him is David Warner, the go to actor for villainous roles in the 1980s. Here he provides three performances. He’s calculating and cold as Ed Dillinger. He’s brutal and ruthless as Sark, the physical villain in the computer world who does his best to kill Tron and his cohorts. Warner’s voice was also digitized and used as the MCP. The phrase “End of Line” in the deep digital baritone became an Internet meme nearly two decades later.
|The light cycle race has become an iconic moment|
in 1980s film scenes.
The costumes are creative, but sometimes seem a bit silly. I love the glowing circuitry on the bodies, and the guard characters look really cool in their faceless approach. But Sark’s headdress seems a bit elaborate, and Dumont’s (Barnard Hughes) bishop inspired hat is more phallic looking than anything else. His appearance always makes me chuckle, even though I know that’s not what was intended. Then there’s the odd ball programs Flynn runs into later in the film: very creative looking, but incredibly silly all at the same time.
|The Las Vegas of the Grid, Flynn is a stranger in a|
To match this are all the sound effects for the world. This wasn’t just creating a digitized voice for the MCP. It was creating and altering sounds for everything we see on the screen. The only real guide was that this had to sound like it occurred in an arcade game of the period. They nailed it, with the light cycles, tanks and recognizers each making unique and creative sound effects. Sark’s massive ship gets the appropriate rumble of course. But other things like the sounds of the discs and even characters derezzing lends to the feel that this is it’s own world, with it’s own rules. Even the characters footsteps sound different in this world.
|Traveling by Solar Sailer always looked cool!|
For me the only real downsides are the direction and script. I know part of the difficulty in making this film was ensuring the audience of 1982 would be able to follow it. The results were mixed, some folks were still confused by the film, other found it too slow going in the first third. These days it comes across a bit quaint and clunky in places. But I think that all in all it works fairly well but could be polished a bit more, made a bit tighter and it might be remembered fondly by more folks.
I know nostalgia plays a big part of why I love watching Tron. I hadn’t seen it in many years, but when Tron: Legacy came out on DVD they had a nice package with the original film. So I watched it and was surprised by how well it held up and how distinctive and complete the world they created for this film was. Many elements of visual effects were pioneered in the late 70s and early 80s, and some of them didn’t survive the computer graphics revolution of the 1990s. But Tron provides a glimpse of a fusion of both types of effects work and how they can be used together to provide an amazing whole. This is something Peter Jackson used to great effect in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, and obviously films like The Matrix and Ghost in the Shell were influenced more directly by Tron. So if you haven’t seen this film in a few years, I recommend you give it another chance. I think you’ll be surprised by how good it actually is.