Tron (1982), a recap (part 1 of 6)

I’ve written articles about films where I’ve made a point to note other movies that were released in the same year. To me, this has been relevant because the 1980s was a pretty great decade when it came to science fiction, fantasy, and even horror movies.

Many critics have stated that the apex of that illustrious decade was 1982. That was the year that gave us E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, which became the year’s (and for a time, history’s) biggest moneymaker. But the year also produced equally classic works such as Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Thing, Poltergeist, The Dark Crystal, The Secret of NIMH, Beastmaster, Conan the Barbarian, and our current subject, Tron. Not all of these films made money at the box office, but all of them have become classics that have stood the test of time. I suppose one reason for this is that each of these films was interested in trying something different, either visually or dramatically (or in some cases, both). It could be said that these different approaches are sorely lacking in movies made in the decades since.

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The idea of Tron itself was unique: a man trapped inside a computer world. By the start of the ’80s, computers were becoming a bit more common. I say “a bit”, because the place one could most likely find one was in an office building, as most people couldn’t afford them for their homes at that point. At the same time, the popularity of video games was increasing. Atari was riding high with its 2600 and 7800 systems, and video arcades themselves were becoming more and more common. Keep in mind this was over a decade before the internet entered the vernacular, let alone blogs and email.

Indeed, it was a certain video game, Pong, which gave writer-director Steven Lisberger the idea for Tron in 1976. He would later say in an interview:

Everybody was doing backlit animation in the ’70s, you know. It was that disco look. And we thought, what if we had this character that was a neon line, and that was our Tron warrior – Tron for electronic. And what happened was, I saw Pong, and I said, well, that’s the arena for him. And at the same time I was interested in the early phases of computer generated animation, which I got into at MIT in Boston, and when I got into that I met a bunch of programmers who were into all that. And they really inspired me, by how much they believed in this new realm.

Lisberger’s initial intention was to make an animated movie out of the idea. To that end, he filmed a 30-second animated clip in order to promote not only Lisberger Studios, which he and producer Donald Kushner set up to make Tron, but also several rock radio stations. Later on, the duo decided to mix live action in with the animation.

After being rejected by other studios, Disney agreed to finance and distribute the film. However, they did have a hand in reworking the script, because while the studio liked the unique ideas Lisberger and Kushner were presenting, they weren’t quite enthusiastic about putting up the cash for a project helmed by a relatively new producer and director.

Anyone who’s seen the film knows that the title character and numerous others in the computer world are encased in blue colored armor while others are colored red. But the initial idea was for Tron to have a more yellowish color, and also a closer resemblance to the Centurions from Battlestar Galactica. The film would end up being shot in black and white (indeed, the costumes the actors wore during filming were black and white) with the colors added in post production.

Given the nature of the film, it’s no surprise that it begins with some cool animated graphics which come together to form a person encased in unique armor before the title pops up.

We next see the outside of a video arcade called Flynn’s. A customer puts a quarter into a game called Lightcycles. This game requires the player to outmaneuver another lightcycle driver without crashing into the walls that both cycles produce as they move.

The camera zooms into the game itself to reveal that the yellow-colored cycle is being driven by someone wearing similar armor to what we saw in the title sequence, and who looks scared shitless. We then see that there’s a good reason for that, as the blue-colored cycle is being driven by Sark, played by the always intimidating David Warner. We see a few moments of the cycles moving around before the anonymous yellow-cycle driver slams into a wall, disintegrating. As the arcade customer curses his bad luck, the blue cycle drives off and the movie cuts to Sark in some sort of control room entering what looks like a smaller version of Darth Vader’s meditation chamber from The Empire Strikes Back, only with lights encasing him rather than those heavy black metal doors.

We then hear the Master Control Program (voiced by Warner), praising Sark on his increasing ruthlessness. The MCP informs Sark that they now have military programs in custody, specifically those from the Strategic Air Command. Sark is asked if he’s interested in testing his mantle on them. As this is the same person who would, a decade later, mercilessly torture a certain Starfleet captain to within an inch of his sanity, Sark is all for the idea, as it would be a nice break from wiping the floor with “those accounting cream puffs you keep sending me.” Yeah, I can see how going into death matches against accountants may not exactly get the blood pumping. At least the one played by Charles Martin Smith in The Untouchables was a federal agent to begin with.

The next scene actually shows us what the MCP described as taking programs into custody. As Crom (Peter Jurasik) is taken by two staff-wielding guards to his cell, he protests that he’s just a “compound interest” program for a bank. He then says that if he’s imprisoned, his “User” will be angry. But the guards’s only reply is a forceful push into the cell. Inside is another program, Ram (Dan Shor), who asks Crom if he believes in the Users, who we soon learn are human beings, or rather those with the know-how to create computer programs. Crom says he does, because how else could he exist? In reply, Ram says that the MCP is snatching up programs who believe in the Users. If the MCP finds a program particularly useful, said program gets absorbed into the MCP to make it bigger. Programs that don’t meet the criteria, like Ram and Crom, are sent to what’s called the “game grid”, to play games until they die. When Ram asks how things are outside their cell, Crom informs him that the other sectors of their computer world have it as shitty as they do, thanks to the MCP.

Meanwhile in the real world (we know this, because there’s a caption that actually says as much), a programmer named Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is attempting to access his program Clu (also played by Bridges). Flynn reminds Clu that there’s a file they must find ASAP. Clu, who’s driving a cool looking computerized tank, takes a sip of whatever beverage is being rotated into reach as he scouts the area via Flynn’s instructions.

The tank stops as Clu sees what looks like several rays all shooting in one direction. Clu states this is a memory, and asks the small floating device he calls Bit (which can only say “yes” or “no”) if they can merge with it in order to get on with their task. Bit says yes, and they go through it with no problem. But Clu is soon detected and being chased by Recognizers, which are aircraft with long legs and heads that resemble the robot Maximilian from The Black Hole, which Disney put out three years before Tron.

Clu uses the tank’s weapons to blast the Recognizers, but the debris of one causes him to lose control of his tank and crash into a wall. Clu gets out and tells Bit to get the hell out of here, which it does. After the Bit heads off for parts unknown, more Recognizers show up, one of which combines its two legs and, for a moment, we wonder if it smashes Clu and the tank.

Flynn gets a message on his computer that Clu has been “detached” from the system. Cursing another failed attempt on his part, Flynn attempts to access Clu again. Alas, Clu has been taken directly to the MCP. A guard says that Clu was caught trying to raid the memory, and before Clu can say much, the MCP uses the Force (or something like that) to slam Clu into a nearby wall. Clu then cries out in extreme pain as the MCP tortures him. The MCP then asks Clu who his User is, but he just tells him to fuck off. Not surprisingly, this leads to the MCP torturing him to death. As Clu’s body disintegrates, the MCP says, “Get me Dillinger!”

Next up: Those who have yet to see this film may be asking, Who’s Dillinger? You’ll find out next time, but I’ll give you a hint: It’s not the infamous gangster.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is a western: The Search West is available now from Amazon.

Multi-Part Article: Tron, a recap

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  • Robert Lockard

    Sark is interested in testing his mettle, not his “mantle.” Great article, though. I can’t wait to read the rest!

  • Ooo, nifty! Like many movies that came out when I was a kid, I read the novelization of Tron well before I ever got to see the movie. It was always interesting to see how the movie actually looked versus the rather shoddy visualization my imagination would produce.

    the initial idea was for Tron to have a more yellowish color

    So like Clu did. They never really explained that in the movie.

  • Mort Brewster

    ‘Tron’ is the only movie I’ve seen in San Francisco.

    No real import to that fact, and it certainly didn’t need to be mentioned. But here we are.

  • El Skutto

    One of my all-time favourite movies, and years ahead of its time. Without Tron, there would have been no Reboot, and the whole Cyberpunk genre might not have been developed in quite the same way. Working on a Lego version of Flynn’s arcade that I will submit to the Lego Ideas website in a couple weeks.

  • I’m wondering whether or not to keep reading this one. On one hand, it’s great nostalgia. On the other…well..as much as I’m in love with the film, I know it has some pretty big flaws – both film-making flaws and seriously flawed notions of how computers work – and I’m not looking forward to seeing it raked over the coals ;)