Disney’s special effects-laden video game movie Tron is no masterpiece, but it does introduce several interesting, contemporary themes, a few ahead-of-its-time visuals (or at least the ideas behind the visuals) and a young Jeff Bridges battling his way through a complex cyber-adventure. The arcade game based on the movie made more money than Tron at the box office (leaving Tron and its live-action predecessor The Black Hole as failures that would delay Disney from venturing into further live action pieces), but the popularity of this 80’s feature has steadily grown, even leading to a sequel – 28 years later, representing the largest gap between any original and follow-up in movie history.The introduction to the world of Tron is so full of electronic mumbo jumbo that it isn’t unlikely to get lost in the brainy lexicon: Master Control is a highly advanced, artificial intelligence computer program that controls the computer systems at ENCOM, as designed by wealthy businessman Ed Dillinger (David Warner). It acts self-aware, is hungry for more power and delights in capturing military programs, represented in the virtual computer world as individual humans, to cannibalize information to grow more advanced, or to throw the useless ones into gladiatorial games for entertainment. Most programs are controlled by “users,” the humans that created them, visualized in the system to look nearly identical, save for the glowing, electronic circuitboard patterns that adorn their outfits.
Superior programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), once an ENCOM employee who now runs Flynn’s Arcade, is nosing around in the Master Control system, looking for a particular file that proves he designed several of ENCOM’s most successful video games before Ed stole them from him. He uses a custom program he created to hack into the system, called Clu. In another part of Dillinger’s company, Dr. Walter Gibbs (Barnard Hughes) and Lora (Cindy Morgan) are working on a laser that can dismantle the molecular structure of an object and digitize it into the computer world. This, of course, will come in handy when actual people need to be inserted into the system. Meanwhile, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) is finessing a security program called Tron that can eventually be used to watchdog all other programs, including Master Control – which might be able to help Flynn locate his missing file. When Flynn tries to hack into Dillinger’s computers from inside ENCOM, he’s targeted by the laser and digitized into the system, where he meets two other programs – Ram (Dan Shor) and Tron, Alan’s program that had successfully been placed in the system before Dillinger blocked all lower clearance level programmers from gaining access.
The first part of Tron makes very little sense, throwing jumbled gobs of jargon at the viewer in the hopes that they’ll just accept the overload of information. Once inside the computer system, the film attempts a simple parable for the power of computer technology and its impact on the world, especially in relation to the creation of electronics and their control over countless important decisions and the very people that designed them. At one point, Sark, an enemy program in charge of teaching prisoners how to fight, is morally torn between killing Flynn, knowing he’s an actual user like those that created all of them in the first place, and following orders from Master Control. Even the world of the computer programs is set up like a dictatorship, with the most powerful programs enslaving the weaker ones, with Tron trying to turn the computer world back into a “free” system. Most notably, however, it’s a series of Olympic games to the death, designed to showcase each program’s skills in a monitored arena. Some are simple, like a hyper-stylized form of jai alai, while others are deadly, such as high-speed races through unforgiving mazes with Light Cycles.
The special effects are certainly unique, with backgrounds and vehicles resembling very low resolution video game environments consisting of complex geometric shapes, and humans decked out in neon lights and pulsing energy suits. Skin tones are muted while flashing blues and bright reds wash out the majority of details. It’s unlike anything seen in movies before or since, but it doesn’t look modern by any means. While it may have been cutting edge at the time, the most impressive thing about Tron is comparing the outdated visuals to the theatrical trailer for Tron Legacy, which recreates all of the costumes, locations, weapons and machines with new, state-of-the-art enhancements. Hopefully the music will also get a boost; in Tron, the score resembles most of Disney’s light-hearted, happy adventure tunes, devoid of any stirring, darker science-fiction tones.- Mike Massie