When Disney’s “Tron” zoomed in theaters during the summer of 1982, audiences were whisked away on an unprecedented journey into the digital space of video games and computers. Its unique storytelling experience rests mainly on its groundbreaking special effects, which mix live action and computer animation. With a sequel “Tron: Legacy” arriving in theaters this week nearly 30 years later, it feels appropriate to examine the impact of the original on popular culture.
It was the writer and director Steven Lisberger’s exposure to the videogame Pong that got him fascinated with concept of a movie that takes place inside cyberspace. He saw video games and computers as a cliquey world that deserved to be open for all to appreciate. Lisberger spent several years developing the idea for “Tron,” before he caught the attention of Disney.
“Tron” opened to moderate success, but was largely overlooked by critics who panned its emphasis on special effects over human story. Even though it does not possess an overly complex plot or an accurate representation of computers, “Tron” is a significant film because the relevance of its ideas about technology today and its daring use of experimental shooting techniques.
For those unfamiliar, “Tron” tells the tale of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a proprietor of a local video arcade and former computer programmer for the software company Encom. Flynn, who was one of the company’s brightest minds, was tossed to the curb, after his colleague Ed Dillinger (David Warner), stole Flynn’s videogame ideas and claimed them as his own.
Dillinger, now a powerful executive for the company, operates under the bidding of the MCP (Master Control Program), a diabolically intelligent computer with dreams of world domination, which is the brain behind Encom’s operations.
Determined to find proof of Dillinger’s treachery, Flynn hacks into the Encom computer system with the help of his friends Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora (Cindy Morgan). When the MCP discovers the intruder though, he decides to shut Flynn up by pulling him into the digital world. Inside the computer, Flynn’s video game skills are put to the test when he must compete for his very survival.
Though it certainly was not the first film to broach the dark side of artificial intelligence, “Tron” does expand upon it. The MCP identifies humans as flawed and incapable of successfully governing themselves. This computer realizes that it can cheat, steal, and gobble up other programs in order to create what it deems as a world free of imperfection. As machines are entrusted to handle increasingly complex calculations and operations, movies like “Terminator” and “I Robot” have shown that we fear our creations turning on us once they deem us obsolete.
Even before the Internet became a popular place for people to hang out, “Tron” stumbled onto the concept of avatars. Live action characters in “Tron” have physically identical programs that represent their personas inside the computer: Flynn has CLU, Alan has Tron, Dillinger has Sark, and Lora has Yori. Since we now have digital projections of ourselves which can be rendered in 2-D or 3-D online, “Tron” unwittingly predicted the future of our own cyber communication as a society.
Through the complicated process of backlit animation, director Steven Lisberger truly creates an electronic world that is immersive and full of life. There are tons of bright colors and flashing circuitry that fill swooping aerial shots and pans across the digital landscape. Against this backdrop, the characters amazingly appear two dimensional for the majority of scenes, as they pop out in others from the scenery. The jai alai and lightcycle (motorcycle) racing of the electronic grid stimulate the imagination and lend legitimacy to this place.
Ironically even though “Tron” was meant to open the world of computers to all types of viewers, it has developed a cult following from those who are avid gamers and programmers. They appreciate the film’s bright aesthetic and grand idealism behind the universe it takes place in, despite its technical inaccuracies. Any self-respecting gamer or computer nerd who has not seen “Tron” should give it a much deserved viewing to experience the gaming grid for themselves.