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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews the original TRON (1982)

December 20th, 2010
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Before seeing the new, big-budgeted sequel Tron: Legacy, being released this week by the Walt Disney Company, I decided that I really needed to go back and watch the 1982 original.

That proved a little more difficult than I had anticipated!  I’d assumed that Disney would cash in on the building excitement by releasing a snazzy new DVD/blu-ray edition of the film in advance of Tron: Legacy‘s release, but that didn’t happen.  (There’s speculation that Disney was afraid that people would watch the dated 1982 Tron and get turned off on the idea of seeing the new film.)  Either way, the decade-old previous DVD edition is out-of-print and apparently fiendishly hard to get a hold of.  Thank heaven for my phenomenal local video store, the Video Underground.  They had a copy of Tron, and though it took me a few visits until it was finally in, I was ultimately able to rent the film.

I’ve seen Tron a few times before, but it had been quite a while since my last viewing, so I was excited to give it a whirl.

Jeff Bridges (yes, that Jeff Bridges) stars as Flynn, a brilliant but sort of slackerish computer programmer who has recently been fired from Encom, a large computer company.  Flynn has been trying to hack into Encom’s computer systems, in an attempt to prove that the new head of the company, Ed Dillinger (David Warner), stole his work as part of his rise to power.  Unbeknownst to Flynn and the rest of the world (but, as Mel Brooks would say, knownst to us), in taking over the company, Dillinger has allowed an emergingly-sentient computer program, the Master Control Program, to take control of all of the company’s systems and begin a process of taking over other powerful computer systems across the globe.  Meanwhile, Flynn’s ex-girlfriend Lora (Cindy Morgan), and her new boyfriend Alan (Bruce Boxleitner), both of whom still work for Encom, learn that Dillinger has discovered Flynn’s hacking attempts, and they try to warn Flynn to stop what he’s doing.  But Flynn convinces them that Dillinger needs to be stopped, so the three of them break into Encom in an attempt to find the evidence Flynn needs to bring Dillinger down.

All of that is really just set-up for when the Master Control Program zaps Flynn with a laser and digitizes him, sending his conscience into the mainframe of the system itself.  There Flynn learns that, inside the world of the computers he has spent his days and nights programming, exists an entire universe of life.  Programs that he and others have written as lines of data exist here as individuals, trying their best to live their lives by carrying out their assigned (programmed) functions.  As the Master Control Program has been taking over computers in our world, so too have its avatars in the digital world been enslaving other programs and ruling this cyberspace (though that term is never used in this 1982 film) world with an iron fist.  Flynn, assisted by Tron (a sort of “police” program written by Alan, designed to protect the integrity of computers’ systems, whom Flynn meets soon after being digitized) must find a way to overthrow the MCP and its minions in the digital realm before they can stop Dillinger in the “real” world.

Heh.  I had a bit of a hard time typing out that synopsis — Tron is a rather hard film to summarize!!  The central hook of the film — the idea that what we think of as data and numbers is actually a world filled with “people” (programs) existing in the digital realm — is at once very clever and also pretty silly.  But that’s part of the charm of Tron.  It’s a very forward-looking film — both in terms of the film’s story and the ideas it contains about computers and how they’ll come to play a central role in our society — and also in terms of the film’s execution, in terms of the extraordinarily groundbreaking-for-the-time use of CGI effects throughout the film.  And yet, despite its complexities, Tron is also a very simplistic, almost childish film.  There aren’t any shades of gray — characters are good or bad, and the lines are very clearly drawn.  There isn’t really any complexity in terms of the emotional character-arcs of any of the characters, for example Flynn and his relationship with his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend.  Everything is presented in a pretty chaste, we’re-really-all-friends sort of way.  Those aspects make Tron a bit more of a kids’ movie than I, as an adult viewer who enjoys sci-fi, might have hoped.

The cast is surprisingly great, and I think that — far more than the film’s visual effects — is what has given Tron its longevity (despite the weaknesses just mentioned).  Jeff Bridges is just wonderful as Flynn.  Despite the film’s title being Tron, it’s Flynn who is without question the central character.  Mr. Bridges really invests in the film — his sincerity gives weight and believability to everything that goes on in the story, much of which could very easily have been laughable in slightly less-skilled hands.  He also has a lightness that keeps the film fun and alive throughout, rather than getting bogged down in discussions of users and programs and other techy stuff.

Bruce Boxleitner (well-known to sci-fi fans these days for his role as Captain Sheridan from Babylon 5) is equally terrific as Alan in the real world and Tron in the computer world.  Alan and Tron are both pretty flat roles on paper, but Mr. Boxleitner’s charisma and — I’ll use this word again — sincerity shapes Tron into an intriguing character.  Mr. Boxleitner is able to portray Tron’s innocence and heroic nature without his ever becoming boring.  Cindy Morgan has a more difficult role as Lora in the real world and Yori in the computer world.  She really doesn’t have much character on paper other than being nice, but Ms. Morgan is able to keep Lora/Yori fun and sweet without falling into damsel-in-distress empty-headedness.  She also sells Lora’s intelligence, as someone at home in this world of computers and computer-programmers.  And the subtext she adds to the computer program Yori’s attraction to Flynn, who she (Yori) has never met, adds an interesting twist to the latter portions of the film.  (I wish that idea had been explored a little more thoroughly.)

On the villain-side, of course, is the magnificent David Warner as Ed Dillinger.  He also voices the Master Control Program, AND plays the MCP’s chief enforcer in the digital world, Sark.  No one conveys icy menace quite like Mr. Warner.  He’s a terrific heavy, able to sell “evil” through his quiet line delivery far more effectively than the histrionics of other actors.  He is also able to chew the scenery with the best of ’em, when needed.  I’ve been praising Mr. Warner’s work quite a lot on this site recently (in my review of Time After Time and my review of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country) and Tron is, of course, another fine performance to his credit.

Where Tron has aged the least well, of course, is in the area of its visual effects.  What was once ground-breaking is now very, very dated.  But one must take a moment to step back into 1982 to recognize what an astounding achievement the look of Tron was.  The film was achieved through a truly clever combination of traditional visual effects (animation, rotoscoping, matte-painting) and the most newfangled on-the-edge computer animation possible.  No one in 1982 could have ever dreamed what CGI is able to accomplish for films today.  I’d wager to say that none of that would ever have been possible without Tron.  That’s an enormous feat that must be acknowledged, and great credit must be given to director Steven Lisberger and his team.

It’s unfortunate, now, that in the last few decades visual effects technology has eclipsed what is seen in Tron by leaps and bounds.  To a first-time viewer of Tron, I could imagine some of those sequences throwing one right out of the viewing experience — and, indeed, I remember myself dismissing the film when I first saw it as something hopelessly dated and archaic.  Having seen Tron a few times, though, and now having a better sense of just what an accomplishment the inside-the-computer sequences really were, my judgment of Tron is much less harsh.  I view the dated visuals as rather endearing, actually, all part of the movie’s innocence and charm.

I’m happy to have had a chance to re-watch Tron.  I don’t view the film as an embarrassment — and if that’s really the reason why Disney is keeping it hard-to find now in advance of the release of Tron: Legacy, then I think they’re making a big mistake.  It also isn’t a film that I would consider great by any stretch of the imagination.  There are plenty of other sci-fi films from the 80’s that I DO think are great, and that have avoided becoming dated by the passage of years — films like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which came out the same year as Tron (1982), or Back to the Future (1985) or The Terminator (1984)… Tron isn’t anywhere NEAR the enduring greatness of those films.  But it’s not a complete joke either.  If you’re a fan, then you know where you stand in terms of your thoughts about the film.  If you’re a curious newbie, the original Tron is definitely worth a look-see, just be sure to go in with your expectations at an appropriate level.

Doe the new sequel build on the world established by Tron, enhanced by today’s state-of-the-art visual effects and with a more sophisticated, mature story-line?  I’ll be back soon to give you my thoughts! For now…

…End of Line.

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