Glow-strip suits, glowing Frisbees, cool motorbikes that created neon waves in their slipstream – that’s about all I remembered about Tron. Having been too young to even know what cinemas were, back when the film was released, the whole Tron phenomena largely escaped me, with only the above motifs lingering on in my memory thanks to a fractured recollection of snapshots, no doubt from some half-attentive Saturday afternoon TV showing. And by that time I was onto bigger and better things; animation having advanced in leaps and bounds, to the point where – now – it is almost impossible to discern from ‘the real thing’. It’s since become something of a cult classic, an eighties time portal; massively dated but still lauded for being then-pioneering, but I had no driving imperative to revisit the movie until I heard about a sequel being commissioned, some 28 years after the original. Interestingly enough, returning to the 1982 classic, Tron, with the full knowledge that I have probably never even seen the movie in its entirety, I realised that I could offer an interesting perspective on this landmark production. After all, it may well be regarded highly with rose-tinted hindsight, but what would it be like for new generations to watch Tron for the first time now, in 2011? Is it really anything more than a classic of its time, irrelevant in terms of modern requirements, and long since superseded by movies with better stories, better characters and – most importantly for a then-cutting edge film – far better visuals? Like the technology it depicts – in the best part of three decades things are simply light-years ahead; people may have fond memories of playing Pong in the 80s, but would they really return to it today, with the wealth of other, far superior gaming offerings on the market?
I don’t think that even ardent fans would claim that Tron has ever had a solid narrative, but the story goes like this: Kevin Flynn is a disgruntled computer programmer who used to work for a huge corporation called Enron, but whose work was stolen by another programmer, Dillinger, who went on to use said work to catapult him into the senior exec’s chair. Now running the company, together with his advanced Artificial Intelligence system – the Master Control Program – Dillinger will do anything to prevent Flynn from getting into the system to find the evidence required to prove ownership of the original program. Meanwhile, Enron employee Alan Bradley has set up his own program on the inside – Tron – designed to monitor the Master Control Program for aberrant behaviour. Enlisting the help of Bradley, Flynn infiltrates the company headquarters, hoping to gain access to the mainframe, and find the relevant evidence he requires, but he finds something far greater – the Master Control Program treating his invasion as an attack, digitising him and trapping him in the MCP’s own dangerous universe; a universe where computer programs take the form of their users (i.e. creators), and where those that refuse to obey are forced to participate in gladiatorial combat games. To the death.
Being a Disney movie, Tron was originally intended to be an animated movie, bookended by live-action chapters which set the scene, but where the main events – the Tron ‘universe’ – was depicted using computer animation. Its title came from an abbreviation of the word ‘electron’, and its inspiration was the classic computer game Pong (you know, that ping pong game where the ball floated across the screen and you had to bat it back and forth), and when it was finally greenlit by Disney, it was as a result of a pitch that the production would combine live-action elements and CG settings in a way that had never been done before.
And there’s no denying that, back in 1982, Tron was indeed groundbreaking. It was one of the first movies to make extensive use of any form of computer animation, and whilst it was still not yet possible to actually combine CG with live-action, the CG scenes were competently integrated into the proceedings, and worked well interspersed with a blend of live action and backlit animation. The live action itself was shot in black and white, with a heavy layer of grain intended to give the characters a more ‘digitised’ look, and then combined with the animation. Nobody had ever tried such an elaborate project.
The director/producer Simon Lisberger, was an animator himself, and helped bring together many talents to create the various effects sequences in Tron (even if many of the individual parties refused to actually work with one another, and instead made standalone contributions – not least the insular Disney animators themselves), and several of the vehicle designs were by Syd Mead, the same guy who brought you the Tokyo-esque future of Blade Runner. Tron was such a milestone in terms of animation that they often say that Toy Story would not exist if it weren’t for the advances they made on this project.
Now, whilst the narrative was flimsy at best, it did boast nods towards technology which had not even been invented yet – the internet, disc storage, the proliferation of computers across the globe. It also, at least for me, struck a very familiar chord when making comparisons with The Matrix. Both looked at universes created using computers, where entities were brought to life within the computer world as representations of their physical self. They also both introduced characters into that environment who had ‘super’ powers – for The Matrix it was Neo, but in Tron it’s Flynn, a user, who is capable of interacting with the Tron universe in a way that no simple ‘program’ can. He is, quite simply, ‘the one’.
And sure, Tron was never intended to be an acting showcase, but it must have been tough for those involved to perform under these conditions – nobody had previously worked with CG and animation in such a way, so if you imagine the cast working on an empty set, acting out the gestures of falling off objects that don’t exist, or jumping gaps that aren’t even there – it’s actually quite surprising that they pulled it off. You have to remember that, not only had nobody ever worked on such an elaborate effects-driven project before, but nobody had seen what one would look like either. If you think about the extensive green-screen work done on Sin City (the release even boasts an option to watch the entire movie in its green-screen pre-effects form) – it was done over 20 years earlier, on Tron, albeit in a more simplistic form.
Yes, I can see why Tron is regarded as something of a classic. In 1982 it not only appealed to all the budding computer geeks out there, in their then-small minority, but it introduced a much wider public audience to the world of computers in an imaginative, visually enticing fashion.
However, looking at it in 2011, with relatively fresh eyes, gives you a very different perspective. It may well be something of a cult classic, but it’s also just about as far away from a timeless classic as you can get. The production is dated to the extreme. Aside from the visuals, which really are pretty simple, the synth-heavy score, apparently from the same composer who did great work on The Shining and A Clockwork Orange, has some really terrible 80s moments. It doesn’t help that they also included some song tracks by The Journey, which are also pure 80s cheese. The story itself feels like it isn’t even try to be coherent – the whole malevolent ‘HAL’ computer thing is so passé; and just why would computer programs be playing gladiatorial games? Hell, I’m not even going to start in on the plot issues, it’s not worth it. Suffice to say that if you start to ask questions about what’s going on, you won’t stop – and you’ll get very few answers. Top that off with a truly terrible script, which has the actors deliver some wonderously awful lines, desperately straight-faced despite the ridiculousness of their dialogue. The performances are uneven – I understand that few people were keen on working on this kind of project – and only Jeff Bridges really survives the experience. David Warner scowls and growls in a dual role as both the treacherous senior exec Dillinger, and the evil Master Control Program’s lead henchman, Sark (as well as voicing the MCP as well). Bruce Boxleiter, best known for his work on Babylon 5, doesn’t even look like he wants to be there when he’s geeked-up as a stereotypical bespectacled computer nerd with a terrible haircut, let alone when he dons the Tron outfit and starts throwing around a Frisbee (apparently Peter ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ O’Toole wanted the part, which certainly would have made this a very different production). And the Frisbee thing? It’s a glowing Frisbee, need I say more?
No, in 2011 there is little place for Tron: The Original Movie...but, strangely enough, it does have a certain nostalgic aura – kind of like those neon blues it boasts – offering up a snapshot directly into the 80s; 80s products, style and mentality, especially in relation to technology. It may be dated as hell, and have a plot full of holes and a distinct lack of coherence, but there’s something warm and fun about the proceedings, which does a reasonable job at just about holding your attention. The effects sequences may have long since been surpassed, but the gladiatorial games are actually quite imaginative, and the vehicles are undeniably cool. Jeff Bridges is watchable in pretty-much everything he does – even Tron – and, for a Disney production, this is a surprisingly dark effort. Watching it again may sometimes make you feel like you’ve just slapped on the TV on a Saturday afternoon, and can’t be bothered to switch channels, but it still has its moments, and there is something to be said for rose-tinted reflection. I know that Tron is not a good movie in any quantifiable way, and I know that not everybody is going to watch it for the first time and think ‘this is the kind of animation that led, eventually, to Toy Story’; or ‘the concept feels like a forerunner to The Matrix’, but you may well watch it and forgive its prevalent shortcomings in favour of enjoying a defining 80s effects-driven spectacle.