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Tron   C+

Walt Disney Pictures

Year Released: 1982
MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Steven Lisberger
Writer: Steven Lisberger
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner, Cindy Morgan, Barnard Hughes, Dan Shor, Peter Jurasik.

Review by Eric Beltmann

"Sherman, set the way back machine for three years ago," says fired programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), before telling a story of how the corporation Encom pinched his best video game ideas. Flynn's hard luck resonates with two other Encom programmers, who fear that Encom's powerful "Master Control Program" has become corrupt. With their help, Flynn hacks into an Encom terminal to search for evidence, but a nearby laser sucks him into the computer system, where he battles bits and bytes to topple the evil corporation from within.

I never saw Tron as a child -- if I had, I'm sure I would have overlooked the clunky dialogue and awful plotting -- but watching it now, I'm struck by the way this sci-fi curio resembles that laser beam, working a similar warp trick on the audience. Now 20 years old, Tron serves as a way back machine permanently set for 1982, zapping right into that era's fascination with -- and fear of -- the implications of a wired world.

Remember when your "Asteroids" score was a badge of honor, and when Donkey Kong was bigger than King Kong? Arcades were happenin', and there's a great, glowing, blinking one in Tron, where Flynn drops a quarter, grabs a joystick, and lets the crowd cheer him on. This scene in particular whooshed me back; it captures that precise moment when gadget chic was appropriated by the mainstream. Young viewers might consider the arcade scene hyperbolic, but as a veteran of Shorty's, a local roller rink that met the reset button years ago, I can verify this scene's authenticity. (The only thing missing is a couple of dudes breakin' some backspins, to the beats of Soul Sonic Force.)

For most of the movie, though, Flynn is trapped inside the virtual world of Encom's computer, forced to combat other renegade "programs" on the Game Grid, a video game made real. These scenes are live-action, but enhanced with landmark computer-generated imagery that was once state-of-the-art. In terms of technical achievement, the effects in Tron must rank next to those found in later milestones like Jurassic Park and Toy Story. Despite appearing rather primitive now, the effects still supply Tron with its greatest creative asset -- the simple visuals have a striking, minimalist beauty to them. I've never experienced anything quite like it since, perhaps because the movie lost money, or perhaps because technology advanced so rapidly there was no reason to re-visit such a basic look. Nevertheless, the singular visual design is partially why Tron works as an artifact from the Atari 2600 age, frozen as if celluloid were ice. Watching it, you might as well be playing Megalomania.

As Hollywood's first big-budget experiment in CGI, Tron was a gamble for Disney. It flopped, but in the way Disney and director Steven Lisberger had faith in their computers to produce something completely new, Tron celebrates the potential of technology, especially as a tool used to expand our notions of art and the kinds of stories we can tell. I think it's fair to assume that Lisberger believed in his computers, but strangely his screenplay does not echo his optimism. Instead, it cynically envisions a future held hostage by its software, a future where computers have developed into an aggressive enemy of the people. The result is a bizarre inconsistency, a movie that glorifies computers only to express a fear of them. (This contradiction is represented by the color scheme, a canvas of dull gray and white that is splashed with neon blue and radiant orange.) In 1982, consumers were filled with a similar contradiction: We were enthralled by the idea of personal computers, but also made nervous by their ramifications. Could these little machines really alter the way we live our lives? Where will they lead? Do we want to go where they might take us?

Tron channels that fear in rather overt ways, predicting a future where our computers are verging on revolt. Once inside Encom's system, Flynn discovers that the "Master Control Program" is torturing "programs" that still profess belief in the "users," the human beings that created them. As a user who arrives in the form of a program, only to sacrifice himself to save the world before returning home, Flynn bears certain similarities to a well-known religious figure. I think it's worthwhile to point out the spiritual overtones (even if they are unintentional) because they help reveal just how deeply Tron encapsulates the anxious attitudes of its time. The ethics of progress have always had a religious dimension, and the issues surrounding artificial intelligence -- the key threat in Tron -- are no different.

I don't know if Lisberger intended his film as a cautionary tale, a warning about the misuse of technology, but it's impossible to miss the apprehensive dread behind every "nifty" special effect. Like The Incredible Shrinking Man, Tron is science fiction predicated on the breakthroughs and fears of its specific era -- which makes it a significant historical document, despite the goofy images of Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner in space helmets.

* * *

The new Disney DVD contains two discs, a generally excellent transfer, and plenty of riches, including a 90-minute making-of documentary that features new interviews with most of the primary cast and crew. At one point, Jeff Bridges confesses he still wears his helmet once a week, donning it for doubters. The DVD also announces that a sequel, tentatively titled Tron Killer App, is due for a 2003 theatrical release. Steven Lisberger himself is attached to the project as writer and director. Coolage.

Review published 02.08.2002.

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