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1982, Best Summer Ever: “Tron”

July 30, 2012

Yeah, this is basically a repost of my “Tron Reconsidered” review that I wrote in anticipation of Tron: Legacy in 2010. I know, I know, I’m lazy, but c’mon–it’s Tron for fuck’s sake. The movie doesn’t exactly have layers…

Okay, so 1982’s Tron is deeply silly—I think we can all agree on that. I mean, c’mon…we have a movie in which the world of computers is envisioned as a hyper-colored landscape peopled by dudes in glowey costumes with the faces of their programmers and/or users. I mean, how much fucking acid to you have to drop to take this premise seriously?

Do I have to recap this movie? Really? Why would you read this if you haven’t seen it yet? Oh well… Okay, so you got Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn, a hotshot videogame programmer who got screwed out of his best videogame programs by a rival programmer named Dillinger (David Warner—awesome as ever), who has since made heaps o’money off them for their company Encom. Flynn’s since quit Encom and has been hacking the company system trying to get those files back. Flynn is aided by a buddies Alan and Lori (Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan), and one night when they break into Encom’s lab to use their computer system, things go all Pete Tong and Flynn finds himself transported inside the computer system.

There Flynn finds an Alice in Wonderland type world seemingly ripped from a Journey album cover and populated by the aforementioned glowey people. Times are tough in album-cover-land, though, as a massive dictatorial program called the Master Control Program (MCP) is basically swallowing everything up to increase his power and rule both album-cover-land and the real world. Programs that aren’t particularly useful are forced to play gladiatorial games on the “game grid.” MCP’s main henchmen is a program called Sark (also Warner), who enforced the MCP’s will. Flynn finds himself on the grid, but escapes with the help of Alan’s program, Tron, and some other dude named RAM. Together they escape the game grid and hook up with Morgan’s program. Yori, and set out to take down MCP and get Flynn the hell back to the real world, so he can play The Dude in a better, more iconic movie 15 years later.

Embedded in Tron is also a fairly clunky Christian allegory. The programs regard Users as gods and Flynn is a User made program. As the MCP wolfs down more and more of album-cover-land, it forces the subject programs to denounce their belief in the Users (even referring to them as a “hysterical belief.”) See where this is going? If not, we get plenty of religious iconography. The MCP eats programs by pinning them to a glowing wall in a crucifix-position. And the climax even features Flynn sacrificing himself to destroy the MCP (no, it’s not a spoiler if the damn movie is 28 years old). None of this has any great depth, and I sure as hell don’t regard checking my e-mail as a deeply theological experience, but it gives the story some shape.

So, yeah, Tron is pretty hilarious in concept. In execution, too, it should be said, but it didn’t last three decades out of sheer force of will. Tron was—and still is—notable for being the first film to truly and heavily utilize CGI environments. Pretty much all of album-cover-land is a mix of CGI and animation, and it looks it. Still, primitive CGI aside, it shows a great deal of imagination and playfulness. Some of it is familiar, but never derivative. The people, vehicles, and landscapes are all pretty inventive. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to simply ape the battles of Star Wars but Tron never goes that route. The Light Cycles, tanks, and especially Recognizers simply have no basis in the pop-sci-fi that came before. If anything, Tron owes a debt to wildly-imaginative arcade games of the time (with good reason, since the most success Tron enjoyed at the time was its own tie-in arcade game). Tron even boasts some quietly beautiful visuals with the solar-sailor flight. Writer/Director Steve Lisberger (who didn’t really go on to much after this) throws in a few sly visual cues comparing the real world to the digital world with overhead shots of the LA nighttime cityscape and the running lights of passing trucks. Say what you will about the story’s inherent dippiness, but it looks like nothing else made before or since.

For its part, Tron’s script also has a sense of fun and frivolity that’s largely absent from movies these days. Yes, the story is fairly simple and possessed of a lot of muddled Judeo-Christian themes, but they don’t get in the way of Jeff Bridges showing off his considerable acting chops by playing Flynn as a wise-ass renegade who’s a lot of fun to follow around this world (first theory when he’s transported to album-cover-land: his unpaid parking tickets finally caught up with him). He’s never too cool for the material, but he has a ball playing with it. The script plays along with him (best line: RAM’s introduction as an actuarial program: ”If you look at the payments as an annuity over the years, the cost is really quite minimal.”) Even the names are shorthand for their characters: Flynn (roguish, charming, “in like…” and yes I know that’s not what that phrase was referring to, but hey, it is a Disney movie after all), Alan Bradley (a company not really known for their tech prowess, but solid and reliable nonetheless), and Dillinger (bad guy…he even wears red, but doesn’t get shot coming out of the movies).

What’s most interesting about Tron, however, is its look at a world on the cusp of a digital revolution. In some ways it was prescient (what is the “system” but, essentially, the Internet with a lot less porn?), hell Alan, with his bat-wing lapels, bad haircut, and dorky glasses looks like a proto-Steve Jobs. It was also one of the first (if not the first) movie about hacking (“Wargames” wouldn’t be on the scene for another year). In other ways it’s hopelessly dated—just envisioning computer games as being the big-ticket concept for computer companies shows a quaint myopia. Still, it was clear that filmmakers knew that these machines would change the world, even if they didn’t yet know how.

And Tron did change the world. It ushered in Buzz Lightyear, Middle Earth, Avatar, and pretty much everything George Lucas has done since 1995 (don’t hold that against it). Movies have opened up in a way that was unimaginable at the time. If that gift has been squandered or misused, well, that’s on us.

And what the hell, the movie’s just fun. I loved it when I was ten, watching it at Spring Mall Triplex, and I enjoyed it just as much today, watching it on my iPad. And now you’re reading about it on blog. Let’s just pretend for a minute, there’s a little glowey guy with my face posting these words before he goes back to his cyber-gun collection. Maybe if he’s lucky he’ll run into Kelly Hu’s accounting program or something…


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