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Tron (1982)

April 6th, 2008 · 7 Comments

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Synopsis
In an electronic world that exists within our own, a power hungry Master Control Program dominates other programs by kidnapping and matching them on a game grid against his sadistic emissary Sark (David Warner). The enslaved programs debate the existence of the Users, higher beings they believe are responsible for creating them. Back in our world, one of these users, hacker Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) dispatches his program Clu (also Bridges) to retrieve a stolen file from the MCP. Manning a tank, Clu is unable to evade security.

The MCP reports the incursion to Sark’s user, Ed Dillinger (also Warner), head of Encom Corporation. In response, Dillinger strips security access from his employees, including Alan (Bruce Boxleitner), who was close to finishing a security program called Tron that would have allowed users to exchange information freely, beyond the control of the MCP. Alan’s colleague and girlfriend Lora (Cindy Morgan) convinces him that her ex-boyfriend Flynn might be able to reinstate his access to the system.

Flynn operates a video arcade, but was once a programmer for Encom. Dillinger stole Flynn’s video game designs, fired him and rose to power. Flynn has been trying to hack into the system to find evidence of this. Alan reveals that his Tron program might be able to help, but when they sneak Flynn into Encom to break into the system, the MCP responds by using an experimental laser to blast Flynn into digital bits and reconstitute him in the electronic world.

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Sark is wary of facing off against one of the users, but the MCP instructs him to put Flynn on the game grid and destroy him. While manning a light cycle, Flynn escapes with the aid of Tron (also Boxleitner) and an actuarial program named Ram (Dan Shor). They head for an I/O tower that will enable Tron to communicate with Alan and receive instruction on how to destroy the MCP. With Sark and his agents in pursuit, Tron seeks help from Yori (also Morgan), who feels something familiar about Flynn.

Production history
Steven Lisberger had started from scratch and by 1978, built his own computer animation studio in Boston. He became interested in backlight compositing, a technique producing intense colors by using mattes with light shining directly into the camera. The process was used to make logos on TV glow, but Lisberger was interested in using backlighting to create animated characters. A figure his company designed for an FM rock station commercial was dubbed “Tron,” due to the fact that he was electronic.

Searching for a setting where electronic characters would exist, Lisberger came across the video game Pong, which reminded him of gladiatorial contests. He met computer programmers like Alan Kay, who was trying to develop a “personal computer” that would fit inside a briefcase. To Lisberger, Kay and his contemporaries were like warriors, seeking converts in their crusade to create a new reality. Lisberger wrote a screenplay with Bonnie MacBird (later polished by Charlie Haas) and spent a year storyboarding the film and developing production drawings.

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A theatrical producer Lisberger met in Boston named Donald Kushner made a presentation to Tom Wilhite, the young president of production for Walt Disney Studios. Wilhite felt Tron was in the spirit of Fantasia and the grand experiments Disney had mounted in the past. He brought in Harrison Ellenshaw, a matte painter who had worked on Star Wars, who reported back to the studio that Lisberger was capable of doing what he promised: using computers to produce special effects in a movie.

Conceptual artist Syd Mead was put on the payroll – designing the electronic tanks and light cycles – as was famed comics artist Moebius, who designed the costumes and the Solar Sailor. Casting proved more difficult. Few actors expressed interest in playing a video game character in a Disney movie. Lisberger had conceived Flynn as more of a geek, but Jeff Bridges became intrigued by the innovation of Tron and he accepted the part.

Scrambling to complete four minutes of footage Disney could screen for the North American Theater Owners in November 1981, the filmmakers realized that at their current pace, it might take them another 60 months to complete the film. Employing animators in Taiwan, as well as four pioneering computer animation firms in the U.S., Tron met its July 1982 release date. The film performed moderately well at the box office, but cost overruns earned it a reputation as a commercial failure at the time.

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Opinion
1982 proved to be a bellwether year in genre film. Blade Runner, The Thing and The Dark Crystal suffered harsh reviews and dismal box office, only to prove later how far ahead of the curve they were. Tron wasn’t just ahead of the curve, it was a vehicle nobody had seen before. Utilizing computers to create movie special effects was only one revolution. Tron foresaw a time when people would use personal computers in their homes, and asked who would control the flow of information, corporations or users.

While the film’s visual palette has faded into time, Tron remains as entertaining as ever. Never has the world inside a computer been utilized for the setting of a movie this creatively. The light cycle chases and tank battles are cool, but where the movie features exorbitant imagination is in its characters, intelligently drafted to represent various computer programs. The idea that a program would develop its own quasi-religious mythology around its user gives the movie a depth lost on most video game inspired movies.

The casting of Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, Cindy Morgan, David Warner (who also voices the Master Control Program) and Barnard Hughes brings a real verve and cunning to the film, which rarely functions purely on a technical level. Lisberger remains as committed to exploring the metaphysical possibilities of his world as he is in its visual design. Wendy Carlos – the innovative electronic composer who wrote the music for The Shining – provided a score of tremendous energy and whimsy.

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Mike Pinsky at DVD Verdict writes, “When Tron first came out, it was cool (or at least, it was for a small audience). For most of the intervening years, it seemed clunky and silly, more of an embarrassment to cyberpunks who thought they knew better. And now, it is cool again, offering a glorious and utopian vision of virtual agency that many of its successors can only hope to achieve, as a sort of Wizard of Oz for the information age.”

“Already a quaint, outdated narrative at the time of its release in spite of its ground-breaking use of computer-generated effects, this costly, somewhat embarassing box office failure soon developed a growing fan base of nostalgically-minded computer geeks who ended up bestowing a reputation upon it that it hardly deserves,” says Dan Hassler-Forest at DVD Breakdown.

Raphael Pour-Hashemi at DVD Times writes, “Twenty years later, the plot is still slightly incomprehensible in places (imagine what it was like in 1982!) and the acting is slightly stilted, but Tron is essentially a journey into the realms of computer machinations. Obviously, CGI effects have become the norm in Hollywood nowadays … but rarely has a film looked so fresh and innovative as Tron. You could argue that no film has blended animation and real-life together so expertly since Mary Poppins.”

“Greetings, Programs!” View the light cycle chase from Tron (to be played at highest possible volume.)

© Joe Valdez

Tags: Alternate universe · Cult favorite · Man vs. machine · No opening credits

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Craig Kennedy // Apr 6, 2008 at 11:09 pm

    One of the side benefits of never having been ‘cool’ myself is that Tron has always seemed cool to me. This thing is so wrapped up in my childhood, there is no way I can think about it objectively. I haven’t actually sat down to watch it in many many years, but so many of the images are stuck in my head…and the theme music.
    I also remember several of the Tron videogames on the Intellivision game system I had back then, plus a pretty cool arcade game. You know, back when videogames were based on movies and not the other way around.
    Thank you for reminding me of a movie I haven’t seen for a long time.
    I need to check it out soon.

  • 2 Piper // Apr 8, 2008 at 9:35 am

    Joe,

    This movie has stood the test of time. Like one of the reviews you quoted, it has become cool again. And I would argue that the effects are still timely. The problem with them is that they are so specific. Unlike bullet-time with The Matrix, you can’t really apply this technology to every movie on the horizon so it seems outdated, but to see the scenes today – they are still breathtaking.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Apr 8, 2008 at 1:10 pm

    Craig: Tron gets better every decade and I believe will continue to do so, particularly when we begin creating programs that think for themselves. But before I get into cautionary mode here, let me share your love for the Tron video game. Along with Galaga and Frogger, it remains one of a select few I can still play. You can also check out the end credits – featuring the masterful last shot and Wendy Carlos’ music – here.

    Pat: I agree completely. The argument that a movie has become outdated purely because of changes in technology is redundant and barely warrants consideration. By that standard, Buster Keaton films are no longer timely or Ray Harryhausen movies are no longer on the cutting edge. I believe that Tron is an ’80s representative of classic. Thanks for commenting!

  • 4 AR // Apr 14, 2008 at 12:11 pm

    I don’t think I’d rate it so highly, but the film still looked fantastic last time I saw it (been a few years) and yes, it was definitely ahead of its time. The main weak points are the story and quality of acting.

  • 5 CapnRob // Jun 4, 2008 at 6:32 pm

    I loved this film so much, I paid $100 for the laserdisc box set. I am a graphics person so maybe I didn’t commit the normal film review parameters but what a look!

    I saw this film when it came out in 70mm. Even if the story is predictable, the look was completely fresh. This whole film was shot on 70mm and the animation was made on 8×10 Kodaliths. Look at the cover of the Cinefax Tron issue and you’ll see what I mean.

    A film-look like this will probably not happen again for a long time.

  • 6 Legal // Dec 18, 2008 at 7:37 pm

    Esse filme marcou minha infancia!!!

  • 7 Roy Ellison // Jan 21, 2012 at 11:04 am

    Tron is one of those films that has as much nostalgia value as a sense of accomplishment — and a barometer — of what was to come. The things in cinema we consider commonplace now, began as far-reaching dreams back in the 70’s and 80’s.

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