In 1982 a brilliant vision debuted in theatres, cashing in on the video game craze and the mystique of computers that, at the time, was as ubiquitous as the golden arches (but much less easy to obtain). It was called TRON and it was amazing.
But then again... I was born in 1974, so at 8 years old, I was just as fascinated by computers as anyone, I thought digital watches were a really neat idea and I still couldn't believe that modern technology allowed me to play PAC MAN on my mom's home TV!!!
True, as we work backward from almost three decades into the future, Disney's TRON looks quite dated with some obvious special effects and a somewhat thin plot. However, in 1982 most everyone was completely BLOWN AWAY! We couldn't believe our eyes. Cycles of Light. Frisbees used as weapons, way cool Electronic Gladiators doing battle in ways we'd never seen before... and best of all, our main character is literally ZAPPED INSIDE A COMPUTER as data.
That alone was fascinating, but considering that the special effects were realized primarily using Computer Generated Imagery is what really amazed us. Computers can do THIS? It was incredible! At least for people my age, it was! Critics were mostly kind and audiences helped to make this one a minor hit... but still a box office disappointment for Disney.
True, as the years went on it was seen for what it was, a ground-breaking and entertaining saga with great heroes and doppelgangers, evil villains and amazing tricks and weapons. It's become profitable and legendary enough to spawn a huge-budget sequel in 2010's TRON Legacy!
Setting aside any preconceived notions and looking back at TRON as one of those crazy kids who watched, and loved, it during its initial theatrical run, but taking a good look at it now with a more critical eye, how is TRON? It's still great. The Special Effects are dated, but for the time they were absolutely cutting edge, original and incredible with a sleek design and an amazing method of movement. How do these hold up today? Elementary, my dear ENIAC, the story takes place in a super powered Computer from 1982... and the effects, in turn, were made by a super powered computer in 1982... Accept this as a sci-fi period piece, stop asking me "Where's the Beef?', have a Coke and a Smile and SHUT UP!!!
Let's take a look at that story, now, kids and bits in Cyberland! Somewhere deep within the ENCOM Corporation's system of mainframes, a deadly series of brutal games are carried out under the cruel tutelage of a mean, tough program named Sark (David Warner), pitting humanoid represented program against humanoid represented program. When a Program loses they suffer immediate "Deresolution" (or a "DeRez"), which means "Death" or deletion, depending on your Electronic point of view! However, Sark is only the right-hand weapon of the real BBMFIC, known as the Master Control Program (or MCP, also voiced by David Warner). The Master Control Program, in turn, was created by a ruthless programmer and businessman named Ed Dillinger (played by, surprise, David... Warner). I wonder if they had to pay him three times or not!
Dillinger has risen to a posh, ivory-tower executive spot at ENCOM, partially because of the MCP and partially because of his introduction of several popular video games, including Space Paranoids, Matrix Blaster, Vice Squad and many, many more.
The main problem with THAT is the fact that Eddie-Boy didn't write any of these games. They were written and almost presented by one Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) who was promptly let go for his hard work. But he's no bum! He's now the owner and operator of "Flynn's Arcade", which is very profitable. Though, to add insult to injury, salt to wounds and yogurt to Cornish game hens, the best performing coin-operated arcade game in the place just happens to be Space Paranoids! Well damn!
Flynn's solution is to hack into the system looking for proof of who wrote the games. To this end, he sends in his searching program CLU (played in the cyber realm by Jeff Bridges). But when Clu becomes a gulager under the interrogative eye of the MCP, Dillinger revokes all access until the now-revealed Flynn is permanently shut out.
This, of course, urks some of the builders of ENCOM like Barnard Hughes' Walter Gibbs and his laser specialist Dr. Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan)! Her Laser can actually digitize organic objects and make them into Data... only to reintegrate them into the real world later on. Of course there is one more guy who is decidedly put-out about being shut-out, that being the amazing programmer Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), creator of a new security program called Tron (who lights up the box in cyberspace as portrayed by Bruce Boxleitner)!
When these divergent teams join forces to figure out what Dillinger has up his polyester sleve, the Master Control Program sets his trap and digitizes Flynn into the Cyber World intent on giving him hope, then humiliating and derezzing him.
And, folks, this is only the beginning of the plot. In the Computer World, which is now cut-off from its users, the Master Control Program is assimilating those programs it deems useful into itself and pitting the others against each other in the gladiatorial games. Programs like RAM (Dan Shor) and Crom (Peter Jurasik) are pitted against each other in Disc Wars (where powerful thrown laser-frisbees both contain data and can destroy an opponent), light cycle races (where super-fast chariots of light even leave trails that can kill) and other killer life-sized representations of video games. The champion of all of this? Why TRON, of course! And you wonder why the film isn't called "Kevin"?
From this point on we're faced with an amazing digital world with an exciting story packed with escapes, intrigue, action, battles and, for Flynn, the quest to get home. Most fascinating, most everyone we see in the real world has their own program that looks just like them inside the computer. One question in this spectacular array is whether all of these things actually are structured this way or if what we see is simply the way the all-too-human Flynn can process what his digitized eyes are taking in.
Regardless of what might be real in either world, TRON is indeed a treat for the human eyes! As with The Black Hole before it, Disney pulled out all the stops to make TRON not only a hit but a really spectacular, beautiful film worth watching over and over again. Unfortunately, like The Black Hole, TRON wasn't an initial hit and Disney stopped such experiments as these for quite some time.
Director Steven Lisberger, who wrote the story with Bonnie MacBird conceived of this story while watching Video Games like PONG. Thus most of the computer world has a dark, monochromatic look throughout the wasteland with sleek, bright colors and constructs accenting the world without overtaking it. The live-action within the computer was shot in stark black-and white with the CGI and the color-coded light glow on each costume added using Rotoscoping in post-production. Because of this grayscale photography and the classical look of the actors, TRON often gives the feel of one of the ground-breaking, silent science fiction films of the past. For film-buffs this is an added feature that adds a tally-mark in the TRON column.
The story is a lot of fun and can be complex, though once we get into the Electronic grid, the linear tale serves the special effects rather than the other way around. Still, Bridges is fantastic as the hipster non-geek programmer who finds himself assuredly "down the rabbit hole" in a cyber wonderland. At times he's frightened by the scope of this, at others he's mockingly asserts the fact that he must be dreaming. Boxleitner, who is very underrated as an actor, gives a solid Alan Bradley, all business and programming, coupled with an ironically more passionate and engaged TRON, the Program. Meanwhile Cindy Morgan is believable as Lora and as her Program Yori, while Warner is merely greedy and Machiavellian as Dillinger, sadistic and proud as Sark and absolutely evil as MCP.
What makes TRON a classic in its own right has something to do with its status as a watershed in the use of CGI, a lot to do with its familiar action-oriented quest and a lot to do with the human characters who anchored the whole tale. True, the film has its flaws and there are a few moments that still raise both question marks and eyebrows. Regardless, taken for all with all, this is much more than just a benchmark in cinema. It's a lot of fun for the nostalgia aspect, the cutting edge aspect and especially the brilliant story!
Because of these things and a whole lot more, TRON, manages to program Three Point Five Stars out of Five! It's more than the sum of its parts. Sure some will still look back and say this wasn't such a great film, but ENCOM-ON, man, take a closer look at what TRON is. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go throw my Frisbee at my Laptop because this website is controling my life, man. See you in the next computerized reel anyway, man!
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