Mar 15, 2021
Tron (1982), a recap (part 6 of 6)
Before I get into the impact Tron has had on pop culture in the decades since its release, let’s discuss how the movie itself stands up.
Video game-based movies are usually received with not much enthusiasm by most audiences. The recent Rampage, while not exactly a bomb, has reinforced the notion that movies based on video games are almost uniformly awful. The poster child for this perception is perhaps the 2003 film House of the Dead, based on the awesome zombie shoot-’em-up series of the same name. That movie is rightfully regarded as one of the worst ever made and pretty much established Uwe Boll’s reputation as a sucky director.
Hence, it pleases me to say that Tron is on the other end of that spectrum. The beautiful irony of this statement is that the film wasn’t based on a specific video game or series of games. It simply latched onto what was becoming a popular pastime and remains so to this day. This allowed director Steven Lisberger and company to let their creative juices flow free when crafting the story.
Because Jeff Bridges’s Flynn is the main character in the story, some may think that the film’s title is misleading. Since it takes a bit of time before we meet the title character, I can understand that stance, but I can’t exactly say that the film lies to us à la Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This is because we learn early in the film that once Flynn, Alan, and Lora are catching onto what Dillinger and the MCP are doing, Tron is essential to helping rectify things. After all, Flynn hacking into Encom, which leads to the MCP zapping him with the laser, was for the purpose of getting access to Tron. It’s also Tron’s disc that shuts down both the MCP and Sark in the end. So while Flynn is the main hero, you can’t necessarily say Tron himself is shortchanged either. Looking back now, I find this dynamic a bit like Han giving Luke a hand when it came to blowing up Tarkin and his Death Star, with Star Wars told more through Han’s point of view.
Despite the hiccups I mentioned earlier, Tron is exciting from beginning to end. Like the aforementioned Blade Runner, the film’s production values are eye-poppingly unique and immediately give it a classic look. The discs are every bit as awesome as lightsabers and the lightcycles are as cool as the speeder bikes in the following year’s Return of the Jedi. The fact that everything looks computerized makes the viewer feel like they’re in another world just like Flynn. Ironically, a number of movies made in the years since would actually be criticized for looking like they were whipped up on a computer.
The cast is another plus, with pretty much every actor playing two roles (even the movie itself acknowledges this). Heck, I just figured out not too long ago that Ram and the nebbish who asks Alan for popcorn are played by the same guy.
Bridges was already an established star by 1982, so it’s not surprising that he carries the film with his effortless charisma. But Boxleitner matches him by delivering the goods as Alan and Tron, and the actor would go on to dazzle audiences with his awesomeness in TV shows like Scarecrow and Mrs. King and Babylon 5 (which co-starred Peter Jurasik, who played Crom). Barnard Hughes is appropriately fatherly as both Walter and Dumont, and likewise, Cindy Morgan proves both her characters aren’t just the token love interests (her idea to chat with Flynn ends up setting the trio’s plan into motion). I’d say it’s the coolness that Bridges, Boxleitner, and Morgan bring to the film that’s almost certainly the reason why the Flynn-Lora/Yori-Alan/Tron triangle is surprisingly painless, which definitely can’t be said for other such love triangles in movies.
David Warner’s villainous turn here, along with his earlier ones in Time After Time and Time Bandits, pretty much made him synonymous with movie-moustache twirling villains, even overshadowing the fact that he also memorably played nicer guys in The Omen and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
Like a number of its 1982 brethren, Tron was greeted with confusion by some upon its initial release. While computers and video games were both becoming more and more common by this point, they had yet to become second nature to many as they are in this day and age. As a result, the intricacies of the story and what the main characters do in it could have been seen by some as just so much tech talk (I won’t say technobabble, because Star Trek: Voyager is responsible for the headache-inducing overuse of that).
However, computer science itself would advance greatly in the years since Tron. Many computer experts today have said that Tron influenced them to make their mark in the field. I’d say if the movie were to be released today, the characters would actually be viewed as amateurs in regards to their computer expertise.
Likewise, while the only video arcades around today are basically ones with a restaurant attached (like Dave & Buster’s), video games themselves are more prominent than ever. Within just a few short years of Tron‘s release, Nintendo would dethrone Atari as the go-to video game system for the home. Nintendo itself is still going strong thanks to its Wii system, while Sony and Microsoft are still making money with their PlayStation and X-Box systems, respectively.
Even the film’s production would go on to be viewed as the beginning of great strides in Disney’s animation department. While some of the effects were done in the more traditional manner (for instance, the glow on the characters’ armor was added in post-production in a lab in South Korea), the computerized animation methods used would continue to be developed by Disney in some of its later features such as The Rescuers Down Under and Beauty and the Beast. This work, in many ways, would culminate 13 years after Tron‘s release when Disney in collaboration with Pixar put out its classic movie Toy Story. Not surprisingly, Disney would end up purchasing Pixar 11 years later. Also, nearly every animated film since Toy Story has been animated in the same computerized manner.
Ironically, Tron wasn’t even nominated for the Visual Effects Oscar for 1982, although it did receive nominations for both Sound Design and Costume Design. Lisberger would later state that the Academy felt the movie was cheating, as its effects were done with computers rather than the old-fashioned way. This is another irony, in that we have this movie to thank for how special effects in movies are basically done now.
Appropriately, while the movie didn’t initially rake in the cash, it quickly gained a following thanks in large part to the arcade games that were adapted from the movie. The first, simply called Tron, has four stages. One of these, not surprisingly, is one in which the player must drive a lightcycle while avoiding the walls that opponent cycles generate. Interestingly, the player’s cycle is blue, while the bad guys have yellow ones. In another stage, the player is piloting a tank and must shoot adversaries three times each in order to win (although only one shot from them kills you, which is a bit unfair). A third stage requires shooting at the MCP in order to make an opening to enter the cone on top of it. The fourth stage involves shooting at grid bugs in order to enter a flashing circle (and, yes, you are timed).
The second video game, Discs of Tron, was seen in arcades a year later. In that game, the idea is to beat Sark by reenacting the disc match between him and Tron. Here, though, the player is given three discs to use.
Tron had other merchandising too, including action figures and naturally, video games for Atari. One of my favorite Tron toys was the lightcycle, made by Tomy, which could go pretty fast by inserting and then pulling out a cord from its rear wheel.
Add to this the growing video market, which saw most homes having at least one VCR by the end of the 1980s, and its not surprising that Tron would be embraced as a classic movie. This, in turn, would eventually lead to a sequel Tron: Legacy, released in 2010.
While it was a treat seeing Bridges and Boxleitner playing their roles again, the movie itself, like many sequels, didn’t provoke the awe of its predecessor. I also disliked that we didn’t see Lora/Yori in the film.
When Disney put out its classic movie Fantasia in 1940, it was hailed for the unique way in which it combined animation and music. When its sequel, Fantasia 2000, came out six decades later, that originality was lost because such a combination had basically become the norm. I’d say there’s a similar flaw to Tron: Legacy: the computer artistry that defined its predecessor’s place in film history had become so commonplace that a followup just seemed like it was repeating things and nothing more.
Despite this, the sequel made money, although there are currently no plans for a third Tron movie.
But Tron itself is seen today as a film that in many ways predicted the world we live in now. Not only do most people (including yours truly) use computers on a daily basis, but the internet itself can be seen as a virtual reality of sorts that people place themselves into (for good and for bad). I doubt even Lisberger could’ve predicted how prophetic his work would turn out to be. As a result, greenlighting Tron turned out to be one of the most important decisions in Disney’s long history.