So finally enough trailers for the new Tron sequel got to me, and I had to go back and watch the original again. I was SUPER juiced to see this back in 1982, when it came out, and I was 14 years old. Then I did see it, and I specifically recall a moment during the solar sail sequence where I thought "This is just a total bust." At that time the only CGI anyone had seen was that thing NASA had showing the Voyager satellite flying out through the solar system, and I was expecting a whole movie of that. What I got was a dramatcally dead movie that actually looked kind of stupid. However, time has been kind to this film, and the story, while still lame, is revealed to hinge on elements the mainstream public hadn't dealt with yet, and in retrospect, the whole thing LOOKS AMAZING.
So we have a tiny bit in the computer world at the beginning, which I think is here for the sole purpose of giving the public a bit of what it came for, since we're going to be stuck with relatively dull human characters for a while. In this prologue we see computer programs presented as people ["I'm just an accounting program!"] that walk down hallways and, in this case, get thrown in prison. It would seem that the dictatorial Master Control Program [MCP] is snapping up and absorbing smaller little programs, and not taking any sass about it. The MCP's main minion is this guy Sark, who oversees the prisoners and sends them out to battle. You see, this movie posits that every time you play a video game, a person of a sort goes out into a gladitorial arena and really fights, and really dies there out on the board game. Go with it.
"Meanwhile in the real world..." an onscreen title tells us [which is a big mistake, as the whole point of the movie is that this world is REALLY going on just below our screens] Jeff Bridges as Flynn is performing a search. You see, Encom Corporation, which he used to work for, stole his program for Space Paranoids, which is now making millions for them, while Flynn doesn't see a dime. The way this movie posits it, however, is that when you do a search, you send a tank into a maze, with a little replica of you inside. If the directory doesn't want to be searched, as in this case with the MCP, it will send out these cool red floating things that pursue you, but that you can shoot with your turret. Did you ever imagine all this is going on while you perform a search on your desktop PC? So you mean that cute cartoon dog is just a diversion from the battle to the death happening within? Actually I'd like to see a 30-minute Tron spin-off about that animated paper clip Microsoft used to have, the one who thinks you're too stupid to write a letter on your own. I'd like to see a special in which he is tortured and dismembered. By the way, this sequence should be paired with a similar sequence from Disclosure, in which a massive virtual reality program is created for the purpose of merely searching files.
Anyway, Bridges' little program is caught by the MCP and TORTURED! Yeah, there's a lot more toture in this movie than you might expect. Then we meet Encom CEO Dillinger, who takes orders from the MCP. Dillinger meets with Alan, played by Bruce Boxlietner, who has created Tron, which is a security program independent of the MCP--and which would, in fact, police the MCP. But we cannot tolerate dissent! Meanwhile, downstairs, the lovely Laura is working on this laser thing that digitizes real objects. We see it dissolve an orange, and then an orange appears on the computer screen!
This, we are to understand, has brought the orange INTO the computer, and could conceivably bring it OUT again at some point in the future. This is one of the film’s biggest leaps [we’re essentially talking about the same thing as Star Trek’s beaming or The Fly’s teleportation], and I think they would have done themselves a huge favor if they had shown the orange coming OUT again, but no. The film is also notably tight-lipped as to what they’re going to DO with this technology, since really its only purpose is as a narrative device to get Flynn into the computer.
Anyway, Alan is now going out with Laura, who used to be with Flynn. She wants to go warn him that Dillinger is onto him, so they go to his arcade, where Flynn is just in the process of winning the world’s record at Space Paranoids—which shouldn’t be too hard, for apparently at the record-breaking level it is ten times slower than the first levels of Tetris. Blah, blah, they decide they’re going to break in and use the terminal in Encom to see if Flynn can find his file, which they do. This terminal just HAPPENS to be directly opposite the laser scanner thingy. Well WHAT do you know about that? Ain’t that a coinikidink? The MCP starts talking to Flynn directly, and escalates quickly to threats of torture. By the way, I forgot to mention that the MCP is “in talks,” or something, with the Pentagon and the Kremlin, so there supposedly ARE some actual stakes here, it’s not just whether Flynn gets paid for his game or not. The very fate of the world hangs in the balance! Although it’s easy to forget, since the movie never brings it up again.
Anyway, it’s time for the coolness to commence! The laser comes on, divides Flynn into cubes, then starts pulling the cubes one by one into the computer. Sorry, it’s cool. Then we have this rather fun animation—it definitely helps if you’re old enough to find early CGI charmingly dated, not unforgivably dated—then this fun animation, totally Magic Eye stuff, where we’re lying over a landscape with flat square-block clouds. Fun! Then Flynn appears in his digitized version, and is soon thrown in prison. Now, looking back, I understand that the live-action portions of this movie are not computer-animated, but now, years later, freed of expectations that this is going to be super-advanced and blow our mind, the live-action sections inside the computer LOOK SO AMAZING. First, the people are in these white costumes with lines of circuitry that glow in different colors, then their faces are in this grainy black and white that contrasts with the smooth surfaces around them. Then the backgrounds are all in cool glowing lines, except some of them sort of look like hand-drawn animation, except some of the surfaces seem to have real reflected light. So it doesn’t look entirely computer and doesn’t look entirely real, but, from our perspective looking back, with our sense of 80s nostalgia and how 80s design was super-fabulous in its way, the look here is 100% FANTASTIC, and really kind of the best thing about the movie.
So Flynn is a user among programs, who regard users as mythical beings who they pray will one day wrest control from the MCP and free them. The MCP, when torturing programs, wants them to renounce belief in the users. The MCP tells Sark [his minion, remember?] to make Flynn play the video games until he dies. By the way, in one scene when Sark is looking at his board, there is a small Pac-Man visible, thrown in by the animators. One other trivia bit is that apparently Jeff Bridges’ bulge was, ahem, “distractingly large,” so they forced him to wear a dancer’s belt that would squish those meat and potatoes out of sight. You’ll also notice that he’s the only one of our main heroes who gets this kind of sash [the costumes are clearly inspired by gladiatorial garb] which covers up the offending basket. One other fun bit of trivia, while we’re at it, is that because of the process they used, they would sometimes get these sudden exposure flashes. So what they ingeniously did is simply but a sound effect over it, making it seem like it’s a little power surge or something. Smart cookies!
First we have this kind of jai-lai-type where Flynn… well, it’s too much to go into. The point is that it is definitely not the coolest game, and that Flynn refuses to kill his opponent, so the MCP does it for him. Previously we have see Tron, played by Boxleitner, play this kind of death-Frisbee game, okay, but also not the coolest. Then we get TO the coolest, which is the lightcycle sequence! This is the one where they drive these motorcycles that leave a trail behind them, and turn at right angles. As they all drive along they start creating a maze, which gets more and more complex until one of them crashes into the walls of the maze. This blew multiple minds of my age when this movie was out, and made the TRON video game—which actually made more money than the movie at the time—such a smash. This is also why you see the lightcycles such a major part of trailers for the new movie, which is awesome, but… frankly I like my lightcycles turning at right angles. But that’s me, I’m out of step. Anyway, there is a crack in the wall of the gameboard and this allows Flynn, Tron and a minor character/victim to escape.
Now none of this makes any sense or follows a very strong plot, so let’s just hit the highlights. The first cool thing is when Flynn creates his own version of the cool red security doohickeys, and flies it haphazardly around. The whole thing is super fun, and there are good little moments like when it gets hit and all the pieces fly out, flip around and slowly float back into place. Then it’s fun when the thing finally crashes and comes apart a layer at a time. Then Tron makes contact with his user, Alan, who was just sitting up top there waiting for his message? I don’t get it. Blah, blah, escape, escape, until they get to the solar sailor! This is this big ol’ butterfly-shaped ship they take on the long trip out to the MCP, and although by this time one has kind of lost the plot of why any of this is happening or what they’re trying to do, it’s still cool and memorable. Then Flynn creates a diversion so Tron can throw his data-loaded Frisbee into the MCP, whereupon it is destroyed and information can flow FREE! We see the digital world string to life with new colors and all, and Flynn is returned to the real world, and the report proving that Encom stole his game is printed out. And presumably the US and Russia are safe? I guess.
So this is one movie I would say has gotten better with time and was definitely ahead of its time [which is still not to say it’s a great movie]. The biggest reason is that when this movie came out, relatively few people played video games, and no one had a computer in their house, or even used a computer at work. So you have this whole movie that hinges on a conceptual understanding of how computers work, but the public did not have that understanding—at all. So you have a story that is pretty thin anyway, filled with characters trying to accomplish goals that will have NO RELEVANCE to the viewer of the time. Nowadays it all looks a little bit simplistic, but at least we can follow it, because we can understand programs and electronic security and large organizing programs, etc. The other thing is that I think it’s only looking back through a lens of 80s nostalgia that we can see HOW AMAZING this all looks. At the time its weird blend of realistic with stuff that looked like animation and airbrushing just looked like something had gone wrong… now it looks like a unique vision that has never been duplicated.
So I usually never watch DVD extras, because for the most part I don’t care, and too much explanation can kill a film, so imagine my surprise to make it to the end of the “Making Of” special here with rapt attention, even though it is as long as the film itself. And ultimately I came to admire the film much more afterward. So this film turns out to be a precursor to things like 300, as it was perhaps the first to be almost totally shot on virtually blank soundstages and have all the backgrounds animated in later. The other surprise was that only about 20 minutes of the film were actually computer animated [still a huge amount at the time], and the rest of it was shot in black and white on these black soundstages with white lines and circuits and stuff drawn on. Then EVERY SINGLE FRAME was blown up into acetate gels of about 11” x 17”, some positive, some negative, and these were used to add the glows in their suits and draw in the backgrounds around them. Another gel was hand-cut to just frame the face, and another hand-cut to just emphasize the eyes, and then all of these were re-composited back into one frame, and they repeated this for every single FRAME of every shot inside the computer. Wow! That actually makes me respect the movie much more than I had.
So, ultimately not a great, compelling story, and definitely not going to impress anyone who has grown up with CGI all around them, but the more distance we get from this movie, the more important and unique [in the true sense of nothing else like it] it is. Definitely a good thing to watch before the sequel [and how are they going to wow us now that we’re totally familiar with CGI?], and the making of special is fascinating as well. Even if you’ve seen this before, I would bet that it’ll be much more impressive this time, with a little time and distance in between. There’s not too much in this world you can truly say, without bullshit, was ahead of its time.
YES! Especially if you’re over 30 and have seen it before—you’ll be amazed by how well it has aged.
TRON LEGACY is the sequel, 28 years after this one, and it obviously loves this little film very much.