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Tron
Tonight's Feature Presentation

TRON (1982)

Starring: Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner, Cindy Morgan, Barnard Hughes

Written By: Steven Lisberger (also story), Bonnie MacBird (story) Directed By: Steven Lisberger

The Short Version

The first real cinematic attempt to journey inside the computer is a landmark classic.

That classic was not fully appreciated in its day, but it sure is now.

Tron is a triumph of speculative imagination.

The visual style here is a stunning combination of the new and old worlds, and the results are both unique and breathtaking.

If technology touches your life at all, Tron is one of your truly definitive movie experiences.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

NACHO CHEESE DORITOS.

The official snack of computer geeks around the world.


Pairs Well With...

BITBURGER PREMIUM BEER.

You either get the joke, or you don’t.

“On the other side of the screen, it all looks so easy.”


Greetings, programs!

Many of you don’t remember a (developed) world without a computer in every home, or at least ready access to one for all who so desired it.  Many of you can’t even imagine a time wherein the very medium you’re partaking of now wasn’t a part of everyday life instead of being either a novelty or just plain crazy talk.  But not so long ago, that was the world, not just out in the bush, but everywhere.

And in that world, many people couldn’t imagine what was going on inside those magical machines called computers, or in that even stranger twilight zone that connected them together.  Steven Lisberger, though, had some ideas, and the result was one of the landmark films in science fiction history.  The result was Tron.

Our story takes place in two realms.  In the world we know (circa 1982), Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, Iron Man) is a brilliant programmer who was fired from the company he worked for, Encom, as part of an effort to cover up the fact that the company’s Senior Executive Vice President, Ed Dillinger (David Warner, The Omen), stole credit for creating its most successful software: a game called Space Paranoids.  Flynn is doing his best to hack into Encom’s system to find the proof he needs to expose Dillinger’s theft, but his efforts are being thwarted by the company’s Master Control Program (or MCP).  His only hope is to access the system from the inside, and sidestep the MCP’s security with a program written by his old coworker Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, Kuffs).  That program is called Tron…

Meanwhile, in the world that is the system, the MCP is a tyrannical despot that torments other programs, which are themselves living individuals.  To these programs, Users are like gods, though belief in the Users is considered heresy by the MCP and his chief enforcer, Sark (David Warner).  The MCP, of course, knows the truth, and is in fact making a play at taking over the real world with assistance from his own original programmer, Dillinger.  Flynn’s attempts to hack the MCP’s system are threat, so the MCP brings Flynn out of the real world and into the system.  Now Flynn must survive the gladiatorial arena that is the video gaming grid, and from there, try to find Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) so that he can break the MCP’s hold over the system once and for all…

1982 was a big year for describing the world’s newest frontier: a frontier that has since become the most populous real estate in history, and you, User, are there right now.  It was the year in which William Gibson’s story “Burning Chrome” was published, giving us a new word to ponder: cyberspace.  It was also the year in which Tron was released, providing us with our first real glimpse of what it might be like inside of that particular universe.

Looking back, it’s astounding to think that even though it did gross just under twice its production budget, Tron was considered such an enormous failure at the time of its initial release that Disney wouldn’t make another live action movie for five years.  Though it is in fact one of the definitive movies of its era, it would take some time for much of the world to recognize that.  (Ironically enough, the first surge of second wave support came from fans of the spinoff video game, which makes Tron the first movie to be substantially bolstered by that particular medium.)

Now, of course, it’s looked upon as a classic, as it should be.  Indeed, for many people whose lives have since been shaped by technology, Tron can be considered almost formative. 

Tron is a triumph of speculative imagination.  It takes what could be considered eldritch concepts of computing and turns them into adventure.  (If ever there was a film where Disney’s creative types truly earned the title “Imagineers,” this is it.)  Attempting to hack through a computer network’s security in the real world becomes navigating a maze patrolled by tanks on the grid.  What to us are fun video games are on the grid a gladiatorial arena used as a means to entertainingly dispose of miscreant or otherwise “undesirable” programs.  Programs are sentient, and Users are gods; as one program points out, “If I didn’t have a User, then who wrote me?”  That is amazing, mind-blowing stuff.  It’s not just creative; it’s thoughtful.

But the flip side of imagination is fun, and Tron has that in spades, as well.  Even people who can’t remember a thing about the rest of the movie remember the light cycles.  (I can’t think of a single person, male or female, who I know that grew up in the 80s that didn’t want a light cycle at one time or another.)  The cycle sequences actually take up very little of the overall screen time, but the time they do take is awesome to behold.  (It also, interestingly enough, got Tron disqualified from consideration for a visual effects Oscar, because the cycle sequences – and some others – were created using computers, and that was considered cheating at the time.  Oh, how the world has changed!  But we’ll get back to that shortly.)  This is a movie made by people who “got it” at a time when computers were strange to the public at large, people who could see the giant grins lighting the faces of those who were drawn to these odd machines and who in turn captured the wonder they saw there and turned it into concepts on the screen.  These are people who understood the geek interpretation of “cool” and ran with it… or perhaps took off with it on colorfully rendered motorcycles, whichever.

Beyond the light cycles, the disc game sequences are also a lot of fun, and the solar sail ship is just plain gorgeous.  But along with these computer-driven wonders are some techniques with a decidedly Old World flair that really serves to take Tron to the next level.  You may notice that any human actors filmed within the universe of the computer system look to be black and white; that’s because they were filmed that way, and whether this was done consciously or not, they also seem to express themselves facially in a manner reminiscent of actors of the 1920s and 1930s.  In some ways, it’s though part of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was moved forward in time, and the resulting visual style is not only completely unique but also absolutely perfect.  These black and white actors are then rotoscoped into a world of color (check out the cameo made by Pac Man in Sark’s war room), and that world is itself a triumph of illusion.  Computer effects were used extensively here; however, a computer effect and a human actor could not be part of the same shot, and so some of what one automatically assumes to be computer generated lines are actually something as simple as colored tape.  This is a world where all things are possible and techniques from every era are combined to create one of the most signatory and immediately identifiable stylistic visions in motion picture history.

And then, of course, there is the human element.  Jeff Bridges is so spot-on perfect as the geek programming genius Flynn that one could swear that he was picked up out of an IT cubicle instead of an acting dynasty if one didn’t know better.  Bruce Boxleitner is similarly the perfect choice to play the squeaky clean, heroic Tron; indeed, his portrayal is very much in line with the straightforward heroes of the black and white era.  Cindy Morgan (Caddyshack) fits a similar role as Flynn’s ex and Bardley/Tron’s current, throwing back nicely to the days of old while stepping in perfectly to the world of tomorrow today.  And the day that David Warner isn’t perfect for the role of the intelligent villain won’t come until whatever sad moment arrives for us to mourn his passing; he’s simply a no-brainer to peg as dead on for the role of Sark.  Put simply, if you’re trying to find a casting mistake, go watch another rmovie, because you won’t find any in Tron.

Indeed, it’s hard to find any flaws of any kind in this movie.  This is where computer technology meets human wonderment.  This is where magic comes from circuitry, and where the silver screen takes those first speculative steps into the great frontier that would very soon become the center of modern civilization.  This is where it all starts, and even after almost three decades, it very much stands the test of time.

And yes, this is where the nerds of the world finally get the coolest motorcycles ever devised.  Just sayin’.

Bottom line, if technology touches your life in any way – and given the medium through which you’re reading this, I’d say that you qualify – then Tron is one of your truly definitive motion picture experiences.  Whether you remember the world as it was before the ubiquity of computers or not, this first real foray into the magical frontier that is the world of computers is very much a classic, and is absolutely worth your time to watch again.

End of line.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2011


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