Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tron (1982)

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.

Good Points:
  • 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 
Bad Points:
  • 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)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 3
Script: 3
Music: 4
Direction: 3
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4

In Depth Review
A image that could only come from the 1980s.
When I saw Tron in the theaters in 1982,  was a kid, still in elementary school. I thought it was the coolest damn thing I’d ever seen. And that means it even surpassed The Empire Strikes Back as my favorite movie for a while. I’m sure Return of the Jedi a year later supplanted it, but I never forgot Tron and the movie has been a favorite ever since.

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!
While computers had been around for decades before this film, they hadn’t taken over a story in a major film before. And not only computers themselves, but the corporate culture that surrounded them.  In some ways, Tron and The Matrix share the same basic DNA. Both are about rogue corporate cube drones that find a virtual world where they are believed to be something more powerful than the oppressive (and mechanical) beings in control of the world. With two decades of computers, video games and anime to work with the audience of 1999 was willing and able to keep up with The Matrix and the additional layers it added to the theme. But in 1982, these concepts were cutting edge. Even novels like William Gibson’s Neuromancer, wouldn’t come out till 1984. And Gibson’s novel is often considered the birth of cyberpunk, which Tron could easily fall into.

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
and fluorescents.
But beyond that Tron does have some issues that keep people from enjoying it. The biggest is that it takes a long time for Flynn to get into the computer world, and for the action and visual wizardry to really kick in. We get a couple of teasers showing the computer world, but they happen quickly and probably confused folks when they first saw the film. After these glimpses, we get a long series of scenes discussing corporate politics, scientific lasers, and a visit to Flynn’s arcade in all its early 1980s glory. All this exposition moves at a snails pace in an attempt to hold the hands of viewers were probably novice computer users. The side effect is that the pacing in the first third really drags.

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.
Contrast this to popular heroes of the early 1980s. Luke Skywalker was also a good guy, but in Empire Strikes Back we saw his impatience, his over confidence and self doubt make him more human and relatable. Then there were Harrison Ford’s two characters, Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Both were characters with shades of grey to their occupations, rough and ready, but also capable of making mistakes. Tron has no shades of grey, and doesn’t make mistakes. He’s just too perfect to be interesting.

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
David Warner.
Here’s the thing, even though the film is named after Tron, he isn’t our protagonist. He’s a supporting character to Flynn. Flynn is much more in the mold of the 1980s hero. His laid back attitude masks an intensity about his work. Bridges does a good job playing the part, really lighting up when he describes his past work, or when he’s hacking into Encom. Otherwise, Flynn tries to play it cool, even when he’s in the game world. But his amazement and enjoyment of the world around him comes through. Flynns goal becomes surviving and escaping the computer world. But he also sees the dangers of the MCP and how it’s tyrannical hold over the “free programs” is wrong.

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.
Tron is filled with spiritual dialogue and imagry. The input/output towers are like churches, where programs can communicate with their users. The entire scene where Tron contacts “Alan 1” is filmed and musically scored as a moment of a being touching his creator. The more we and Flynn see of this, the more we understand how important his placement into this world is. The MCP could not have made a worse enemy than to bring a living god among an oppressed people. The film even ends with Flynn sacrificing himself to destroy the MCP.

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.
In this aspect I have to give props to Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan, who give their human roles and program roles very different approaches. I like how Boxleitner gives Alan a bit of nerdy anger, first at being shut out from his pet project and then that he has to interact with his girlfriends ex-boyfriend. It contrast well with Tron’s no-nonsense heroic attitude.

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.
Perhaps the element of Tron that I appreciate the most is the complete world they created for the film. Inspired by arcade games from the early 1980s, neon colors and the futuristic design of Syd Mead and Jean ”Moebius” Giraund, you have a movie that looked like nothing before and nothing really afterward (and I’m including Tron: Legacy in that statement). The innovative set and vehicle design is really something else.  Everyone remembers the light cycles from the film, but the tanks and recognizer vehicles are just as impressive. I also like Sarks huge airship that ranks right up there with Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer in intimidation value.

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
strange land.
But the digital artists that created the computer world did some amazing things with Tron. The whole thing has a scope to it that feels enormous and real. Vistas seem to stretch into infinity with moving lights and various landscapes. The entire solar sailor sequence is an amazing example of early computer animation used to create a whole world. We constantly see things that hint at further adventures around a corner, or another story taking place down another energy beam. This ranks right up there with the worlds created for Star Wars and Blade Runner in completeness and visual interest.

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!
The final element was the musical score. Innovative electronic music artist Wendy Carlos was brought on board. She had worked on films before, notably on Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. But this may be her most innovative and impressive score. She took the sounds and “music” of the arcade and Atari games of the time, and fused those electronic sounds with a full orchestra. She creates a theme for Tron, an action motif and a wide array of minor themes that pop up during the film. The music becomes a very real part of the world, crossing the line into sound effect and then back. Her piece for the end credits integrates a full organ for the added tie to the spiritual aspect of the story. All told, her score to Tron is one of the most unique of the 1980s and a perfect fit for the film (as are the two songs provided by the rock group Journey).

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.


  1. I liked this too, and still do. The Virtual Reality theme in scifi has surprisingly deep roots. Try the 1935 story "Pygmalion's Spectacles" by Stanley Weinbaum in which characters don VR goggles and then interact with virtual people in virtual worlds that are more real than they expect. The B (maybe C- or D+) movie "Blood City" (1977) also has characters gaming in a computer-generated virtual world, though they don't know that's what they are doing. But "Tron" is definitely the first movie really to to do the job right. The effects were clever and still hold up -- and the story is good fun. The pacing of movies made before 1990 tends to be leisurely, true enough, but that's not such a bad thing -- and fewer of them lasted 3 hours.

    1. I've never heard of either the story "Pybmalion's Spectacles" or the movie "Blood City". I'll have to check those out. I was doing some research on VR movies and the concept does go back further than I expected. I remembered all those movies of the 1990s, but obviously "Tron" is considered the grand-daddy of them all.

      You know, as a kid the pacing never bothered me. It was just all part of the story. It wasn't until I revisited the film in the late 1990s that it really seemed like a slog. But my wife said she tried to watch it when she was younger and found it very slow in the first 20 minutes or so. I think she was surprised she enjoyed it when we both revisted it a few years ago.

  2. An always great write-up Roman.
    Believe it or not I have been resistent to the Tron franchise.
    I played the game like crazy back in the day but never saw the film.
    I suppose I need to rectify that.
    It does look interesting.

    1. Certainly worth checking out. You'll see some visuals that certainly had an impact on anime series that came afterwards. And the visual effects are very impressive when you realize that most of this stuff was probably shot and created as far back as 1981.

  3. One ought to note that Neuromancer was not intended to be literal, according to Gibson. It was intended to be impressionistic. Gibson has said that in his mind, it was always guys with keyboards and suchlike hardware. The sharks, etc, were intended to be metaphors for what was happening in the computer so that it would be understandable to the reader. Of course, his readers were computer nerds, took it literally, and here we are.

    Similarly, I can absoultely attest that early 80's computer nerds did see their programs as some variety of actual personalities inhabiting the world of the computer, but with less interaction than in Tron.

    There was also an early 70's story in which everyone played MMOs. The main character was a girl who meets one of her fellow players, a homeless boy. She ends up giving him the item he needs to win enough money to be set for life. There's an awful lot of sci-fi out there that dealt with computers before they were practical, or even exists. Such as the story of the personal secretary that acts an awful lot like a cell phone. In that one, the secretaries get their own agenda, and no one notices, ebcause they all use their secretaries to send messages to each other, instead of actually interacting. Sound familiar?

    1. Yeah it's amazing how far back virtual reality stories go. I always thought that the early 80s would be the limit, but I'm finding more and more television shows, short stories and novels that involve VR and computer worlds.