Tron: A Vision of the Present
While my first review was a new movie, most of my reviews will be older films, familiar or not. I like variety. For this review, I decided to write about something both film lovers, like myself, and gamers, like you, have in common. Lists of gamer-friendly films permeate the internet and most just list Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. Of course they do, that movie rules. Maybe we’ll chat about it sometime. But I thought maybe I’d go with something that people actually debate about in terms of how awesome it is. And that was when I remembered Tron.
It is July 1982. The arcade craze has been in full swing for years. In one month, CalecoVision would be released, with Atari 5200 closely on its heels. Disney has been pumping out low-budget live-action films with zeal. Most of them are fondly remembered but rarely seen or heard from outside of their places in our memories (let’s ignore The Rock in Race to Witch Mountain). Except for Tron, Disney’s attempt to cash in on the video game craze, which developed a serious cult following and a belated franchise within the last decade. Unlike similar films of its ilk (The Wizard or War Games, for example), this movie does not feature some hapless kid getting his video games mixed up with real life. This movie is about adult software designers getting their video games mixed up with real life. It’s totally different, I swear.
The plot is simple: Master Control Program (MCP from here on out) was a chess program that got too big for its digital britches and decided to take over the world one program at a time. It enslaves programs and either absorbs their abilities or forces them to play games until they are deleted (de-rezzed, they call it). Meanwhile, some corporate schmuck stole video game designs from a coworker but did a crappy job covering his tracks…Oh heck, no one cares. We forget all of this about 30 seconds after it happens. Let’s get to the point: how crazy this movie looks!
The movie immediately gives us exactly what we want from a 1982 vision of a digital world: men in tights! But wait, they also wear pillows and are covered in neon-lined hockey pads! Wow, I cannot wait for humanity to transcend into digital entities! The villains are led by the scene-chewing psycho Sark (David Warner) whose one delight in life is hurting others. Someone went through a lot of Giga-Pets as a kid. We witness some enslavement of other computer programs (for that is what these people are actually supposed to be) as they are forced to play with Frisbees. That’s just mean. Okay, let’s get to the humans now.
Meet Flynn (Jeff Bridges): software genius, game designer extraordinaire, and all-around miscreant. He is a genius (and knows it), doesn’t play by corporate rules, and owns an arcade. We love him immediately. Flynn interacts with a digital microcosm, called The Grid, and is able to “project” himself into it via a program called Clu (short for Codified Likeness Utility, and also played by Bridges). Clu is part avatar, part AI, part VR…frankly we have no clue what Clu is in this film. It makes Flynn look really smart, though. This is our first hint that we audience members will be doing a lot of suspending of disbelief to get through this movie. Later, this is confirmed as MCP sucks Flynn into the Grid by shooting with a laser. Why Flynn didn’t end up with a hole in his back, we’ll never know.
The movie attempts to give us some human drama in the form of a love triangle between Flynn, his ex-girlfriend Lora (Cindy Morgan) and his best friend Alan (Bruce Boxleitner). One has to wonder if Disney was throwing this in to help hapless 80’s nerds build self-esteem (You can get girls too!) because it is not a compelling or well-developed subplot. In fact, it ends with Flynn making moves on the digital version of Lora behind digital-Alan’s back. Awkward! We also get an evil corporate mogul, Dillinger (David Warner again), who is in cahoots with the malignant MCP. There is a quick scene of these characters waxing and twirling their proverbial mustaches, but we quickly get back to the stuff we really want to see: humans in ill-fitting spandex!
What isn’t simple: the plot’s development. There is no logical progression here. Rather, bits of information are randomly thrown to us through some fairly inane dialogue and we are left to put it all together. Miss one line and you are stuck in a confusion-loop for 90 minutes. To compound this problem, the overall framework of the film is that of religious faith. The programs view “Users” (the people who created them) as gods and have mythologized them. The idea here is what might happen if people met their gods. Would God turn out to be an omnipotent and benevolent creator? According to Flynn’s comment to the movie’s hero, Tron: nope, not even close. The programs are thus split into two groups: true believers (blue, good guy programs) and theocratic blasphemers (red, bad guy programs) who believe that MCP has had an apotheosis (feel free to Google that word…I’ll wait) and is now a bigger god than the Users. The true-blues see Tron as a leader of a rebellion against a dictatorial theocracy…okay I’ll stop being academic now, I promise. The point is that it can get pretty deep if you think about it. And don’t get me started on the Marxist overtones!
My description sounds like I’m leading up to a bad review, but I’m not! Surprise! Despite all the dated special effects, the dreadful costumes, and hammy acting (mostly from Bridges), Tron is digital gold in film form for anyone who grew up in an age where computers were still rare commodities. When you boil it down, this movie was seriously ahead of its time, which is probably why it didn’t develop a serious fan base until after the year 2000. MCP is an AI that expands its abilities every time it interacts with someone or some program. This is an exaggerated version of our current help-bots like Siri or Alexa. And while most AI-related sci-fi embodies the program in a robot, Tron envisions human-AI interactions as voice-based, just like today. AND director Steven Lisberger believed that humans would live entirely separate lives in a digital universe. How many of you play Second Life, or World or Warcraft, or have social media accounts? AAAANNNNDDDD what about the language it uses? Programs? Memory? Interface? Digital? These words are part of everyday speech today but in 1982 the average person had no clue what those words meant. So perhaps the reason that Tron is a cult success now is that we needed 30 years of perspective to make us see the brilliance behind this movie. And if you ever get a chance to see the concept art…WOW! Honestly, the only thing holding this movie back was our digital progress. We simply hadn’t created the technology necessary to realize such a spot-on vision of the future. Ironically, we finally got where this movie needed us to be and Tron: Legacy, its sequel, couldn’t be more forgettable in the cultural mind’s eye (to hell with them…I liked it).
Finally, to prove my point, I made my 8-year-old daughter watch this movie with me. She adores Legacy and was super-excited to see where the story began. All of my adult cynicism made me forget what it was like to watch this movie through a child’s eyes. My daughter was visibly shocked when Flynn was shot by the laser (“Whoa! He got disintegrated!” she exclaimed). She also didn’t see the costumes as pillows and hockey pads; she saw “robot uniforms” and wild color schemes. She was entertained by the eccentric soundtrack, laughed at Flynn’s goofy nature, and was perturbed by the death of a good guy. However, she was ultimately bored by the film and didn’t understand why I marveled at the language. “Everyone knows those words” was her comment and she was correct. But she is growing up in a world where everyone knows about computers and I didn’t. So I marvel at it all and she sighs and asks if she can do something else.
Final analysis: This is a very niche movie. For those of us who remember a time when a 486 processor (offering a maximum 8kb cache) was hot stuff, this movie will remind us that the last 30 years has taken us into a digitally-enhanced world of Wonderlandian proportions, with all of us being Alice. Tron is a look back at the rabbit hole. However, younger generations may not have the same appreciation, if any, for this film. Maybe this is their version of those 60’s film strips we had to watch in elementary school history classes. It’s a time capsule depicting a life they can barely comprehend for all its lack of sophistication. Whatever. I love this movie.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Tron, directed by Steven Lisberger, Starring Jeff Bridges, David Warner, Bruce Boxleitner, Cindy Morgan, and Barnard Hughes. Released July 9, 1982.