TRON (United States, 1982)

December 08, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
TRON Poster

To say that TRON was ahead of its time is to understate the matter. '80s special effects aside (pioneering though they were), this movie is a tremendous predictor of things to come, not only in terms of virtual reality but with respect to the advancement and sophistication users have increasingly demanded from video games. TRON was made at a time when the likes of "Pac Man" and "Donkey Kong" were kings at the arcade. The undisputed home console champions were made by Atari - the venerable 2600 and the newly minted 5200. The industry was a vastly different landscape from what it was to become, but the seeds of the future fields had been planted and were beginning to germinate.

At its most basic, TRON was a clumsy attempt by Walt Disney Pictures to cash in on "the video game craze." The bean-counters reasoned that if only 10% of those who frequented arcades paid a few dollars to see a movie about their favorite pastime, TRON would be a hit. They didn't and it wasn't. In fact, TRON was deemed a failure and when sci-fi fans were asked to name their favorite movie of 1982, TRON came in a distant third, far behind E.T. and The Wrath of Khan. Its $33 million box office take was acceptable but hardly what was expected for a major summer release. However, TRON, like fellow "disappointment" Blade Runner, has aged well. It gained a measure of success on home video, generating a cult following that expanded into the mainstream as the years passed.

The reason for the film's initial limited appeal is simple: although Disney thought it was fashioning a disposable movie based on a current fad, the filmmakers had a more ambitious agenda. They wanted to say something. In the best tradition of science fiction, there was a message under the special effects. And there was also an eerie sense of prescience about the entire project. Ideas represented in TRON were foreign in 1982, but not so in succeeding years. By the time The Matrix arrived in 1999, dealing with some of the same ideas and concepts, audiences were primed. That wasn't the case 17 years earlier, long before terms like "cyberspace" and "the Internet" entered common lingo.

The story is simple, as befits a movie that's more about visual flash, technical bravura, and ideas than plot and character development. Flynn (Jeff Bridges), the owner of a video game arcade, is a hacker - and a very good one, at that. His obsession is cracking the security perimeter of the Master Control Program (MCP) of the software company ENCOM. There's a file buried deep within the MCP that validates Flynn's code authorship for several exceedingly popular games and discredits the current CEO, Ed Dillinger (David Warner). Dillinger, needing to protect himself and keep the file hidden, allows the MCP to tighten security. This deactivates access for Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), who has nearly completed his latest project, a security program called TRON that will act as a watchdog over the MCP. Bradley and his girlfriend and co-worker, Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan), join forces with Flynn to hack into the MCP with the dual aim of finding Flynn's file and activating TRON. However, the MCP fights back, utilizing an experimental matter transmutation process to digitize Flynn and drop him into the mainframe. There, within cyberspace, he must work alongside TRON (also played by Boxleitner) to overcome the MCP's designated enforcer, Sark (also David Warner), and de-activate the MCP.

There are some familiar science fiction themes at work in TRON, mostly dealing with a long-standing concern about runaway technology. It's an idea that TV series like Star Trek and Doctor Who have mined: what happens when computers are ceded too much control by human beings? The 1983 film, WarGames, asked this same question in a more concrete and less science fiction-oriented setting. Nevertheless, with the MCP learning and evolving and potentially representing an eventual danger to humankind, this idea lies at the heart of TRON, and it's probably more weighty than Disney anticipated from a summer release.

TRON pioneered the film/video game synergy that has grown to increasing prevalence in the three decades since its release. Although TRON is not based on a video game (quite the contrary, in fact - it spawned several), it was the first movie about gaming. It exploited the concept of virtual reality - human beings living within a pseudo-world created by computers - in a way no earlier motion picture had attempted.

The special effects are products of their time. Had the movie been made ten years later, as CGI was coming into its own, TRON would have looked considerably different. Nevertheless, there's something charming about the retro look of the film with its neon colors and geometrically rigid structures. It does indeed resemble what one might reasonably expect from an early-'80s video game come to life. With only limited, nascent CGI to rely upon, the film mixes and matches the best techniques of the day, including everything from matte painting to rotoscoping. There's a lot of animation in TRON - more than may initially be recognized. Almost every scene that mixes and/or matches a live actor with something "unreal" makes use of animation. There are times when the limitations of the special effects are cheesily evident; paradoxically, however, one could argue that TRON would not be as memorable with cleaner, less dated visuals. The primitive effects enhance the sense that one is accompanying Flynn on a bad acid trip.

The acting is almost irrelevant, although not quite. Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner (the only stars who will be returning in the sequel, TRON: Legacy) occupy the primary roles. The former was a rising movie star at the time, gradually emerging from the long shadow cast by his father, Lloyd. The latter was more a of TV figure whose career would take him from one lengthy series run to another. In TRON, neither man is required to do more than look good and act heroic. David Warner radiates quiet malevolence as Dillinger and occasionally slips over the top as Sark. Cindy Morgan is largely forgettable as the token female, although this is more the result of an underwritten role than it is a comment upon her talents. Director Steven Lisberger treats his actors like props, which is understandable when one considers how technically oriented the project is. No one expected any Oscar-caliber performances to emerge.

Once the setup has been established, TRON turns into an action-oriented endeavor, with characters attempting to make their way through the video game inspired landscape of the mainframe to the goal that will achieve victory. Along the way, they face dangers and obstacles of many kinds. Although the action starts out fresh and cartoony, it becomes a little monotonous. At times, it's a little like watching someone playing one of those '80s games. The repetition becomes numbing.

TRON contains numerous "in-jokes" for early '80s computer geeks and programmers, most of which will be lost on viewers experiencing the movie today since programming has advanced so far and so fast. (For example, "TRON" in BASIC was a debugging command, short for "TRace ON.") Those with long memories may find unexpected bursts of nostalgia throughout TRON. At the time, it was a window into a possible future. Today, it provides as fascinating a portal into the past.

TRON (United States, 1982)

Director: Steven Lisberger
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner, Cindy Morgan, Barnard Hughes, Dan Shor, Peter Jurasik
Screenplay: Steven Lisberger
Cinematography: Bruce Logan
Music: Wendy Carlos
U.S. Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Run Time: 1:36
U.S. Release Date: 1982-07-09
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1