6/20/11

Tron (1982)


I do not fear computers. I fear lack of them.
--Isaac Asimov

Over the years, Disney and I have had sort of a...love-hate relationship.

I don't care for their whole "family values" image that comes out in every show and movie they put out. And yet, I cannot deny that I did grow up with a lot of Disney shows and movies back when I was too young to know better.

I, like others, have grown up with many of the animated films they've made over the last several decades, and I have particular soft spots for Peter Pan, 101 Dalmatians, The Jungle Book, The Sword in the Stone, their all-animal adaptation of Robin Hood, and the grossly underrated Great Mouse Detective. Despite this, I haven't seen one of their animated movies in theaters since Mulan was released. Not counting Pixar, of course.

Also, Fantasia? Boring. The Little Mermaid? Didn't like it. And don't get me started on the liberties they took with Hercules and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

The Disney Channel was one of a few channels I watched all the time as a kid. And this was back in the day when it was a premium channel that actually showed good movies, not just some clone factory for Hannah McGuires and Lizzie Montanas.

I have mixed feelings on the fact that they now own the Muppets. I'm glad to see they're coming out with another movie this fall, but I can't help but think they're part of the reason why THIS will never see the light of day again.

And lastly, I have NEVER LIKED Mickey Mouse. I always leaned more towards Goofy or Donald Duck, but otherwise I'm more of a Bugs Bunny kinda guy.


Tron came out during a time in the late 70s-early 80s when Disney were willing to be more experimental, about three years after the release of The Black Hole, their very first PG-rated film. Director Stephen Lisberger was so fascinated by the world of video games (this was during the era of Pong and Atari) that he was inspired to make a movie about them. After shopping the idea around at several studios, he finally approached Disney, and after making a test reel of a man throwing a prototype of one of the Frisbees in the movie that combined backlit animation and computer visuals with live action, they were persuaded to fund it. The studio's in-house animation department wouldn't touch it for fear that they were being replaced by computers--fears that came true briefly in 2004 with the boom of CG animation--so teams from four leading computer firms, including MAGI, whose work was a major influence on Lisberger, were brought in to do the animation and visual effects.

The movie managed to make back its production budget at the box office despite the fact that it was outgrossed by the tie-in video game. It was also disqualified for a nomination for the 1983 Best Visual Effects Oscar because according to Lisberger--get this--the Academy thought their use of computer imaging was "cheating." (I know, right?) Fifteen years later, though, Ken Perlin picked up a Technical Achievement Award for his invention of "Perlin noise", a computer texturing technique that was adapted for the movie.

"I am Spartacus for Windows 95!"

The movie stars Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn, a vengeful ex-programmer from the ENCOM Corporation who now runs a video arcade where many of his games, including the very popular Space Paranoids, are played. He has a personal vendetta against one Ed Dillinger (David Warner), ENCOM's senior executive who rose to the top of the board after he swiped the code to Flynn's money-making games, slapped his name on it and had Flynn fired to cover his tracks. Every night Flynn attempts to hack into ENCOM's mainframe to find evidence of this misdeed but is repeatedly stopped by Dillinger's Master Control Program, a megalomaniacal piece of artificial intelligence who has also been usurping software from other companies and even has eyes for the Pentagon and the Kremlin, feeling he can run the world much more efficiently than humans. When Flynn's friends and ex-coworkers Alan and Lora (Bruce Boxleitner and Candy Morgan) help him break into ENCOM headquarters to bypass tightened network security and access the file directly, Master Control gets its own back by hijacking an experimental teleportation laser and zapping Flynn into the digital realm.

I bet Dillinger stole THIS idea from Rick Moranis.

Welcome to the inside of your computer, circa 1982, where everyone is a Program in a neon-lit full-body jumpsuit bearing the face of their programmers to save the producers hiring any other actors in a world of similarly neon-lit geometric landscapes. Here we learn that Master Control is also a fanatical atheist, as it rules this realm of primitive cyberspace with an abject denial of philosophies regarding belief in these programmers, or "Users", as well as an iron fist. Any new Program it absorbs is ordered to renounce its original User and join the MCP's "Warrior Elite" or else be forced into a regime of basic training led by MCP's number two program Sark (Warner again) where they compete in several gladiatorial competitions until it is "de-rezzed", which I assume is a euphemism for death. Among these games are sudden-death Ultimate Frisbee, light particle jai alai, and in the film's most famous sequence, a game similar to that one where you snake around the grid while your body grows really long and you lose if you run into yourself...only played with motorcycles.


Flynn is forced to play these games at the MCP's leisure, but during the Light Cycle segment, he meets Alan's security program Tron (Boxleitner again) and the two of them escape the...arena and then get split up while the MCP's guards chase them around in neon-lit tanks. (Seriously though, what kind of prison gives the inmates motorcycles? That they could ride? Through the prison gates to escape? Or maybe crash through a wall as fragile as those of a Light Cycle arena? Wanna throw in some weapons and the keys to their cells while you're at it?)

Tron makes his way to an input/output tower where Programs communicate with their Users (or did before MCP took charge) and reunites with Lora's program and possible love interest Yori (Morgan again). With her help he slips past some guards and enlists the aid of the tower's guardian program Dumont (Barnard Hughes, who also appears as ENCOM founder Dr. Walter Gibbs, whom Dillinger insults in an earlier scene) to contact Alan and receive instructions on how to destroy the MCP. Meanwhile, Flynn discovers that, being a User, he can defy the physical laws of cyberspace by crafting a Space Paranoid out of rubble and piloting it to the I/O tower, where he reunites with Flynn and they all fly towards the MCP tower in an impressively animated flying machine until Sark flies his giant space cruiser into their path and captured Flynn and Yori, leaving Tron presumed de-rezzed.

Just because they're Paranoids doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

The final battle takes place at the MCP core, a giant amusement park ride where Sark has brought several programs to be assimilated into the MCP. He leaves Flynn and Yori on board his ship and sets it to self-destruct. As the two of them keep Sark's ship intact long enough to arrive at the core, Tron reappears to play a sudden death Ultimate Frisbee match with Sark, while the MCP attempts to cheat by turning Sark into a giant. Finally, Flynn leaps off the remnants of Sark's ship into the center of the MCP carousel and exposes a weak spot for Tron to throw his Frisbee into the core and destroy the MCP and Sark, which re-opens the I/O towers and freeing the denizens of the mainframe.

After that, the film kinda ends rather quickly. Flynn is teleported back into the real world, a nearby printer conveniently prints out a document proving that Dillinger stole Space Paranoids which reappears on Dillinger's sit-down arcade game screen the next morning, and in the final scene it is assumed that Flynn is now the new chairman of the board as we see him fly into ENCOM HQ by helicopter and greet his friends waiting for him at the helipad. Then the credits roll.

"Nobody gets in to see the Wizard! Not nobody, not no how!"

Tron is deservedly a cult classic for its groundbreaking use of computer animation during a time when we had only just gotten bored with two oblongs hitting a square back and forth. Obviously it also has a nerd following for the exact same reason. The story and characters are pretty basic, as they were written to take a back seat to the film's more technical aspects. And even though it could be seen as a glimpse in the future where every movie whether animated or not will be 85% CGI, the visuals in this film are very impressive to look at when taken in the context of the time it was made, and the bits with the live-action actors are meshed in almost seamlessly. Considering how much memory computers back then used to have, it's certainly an advancement in cinematic technology, even though by today's standards it's at least two or three tiers above the Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing" video.

And anyway, at least it hasn't been whored out to death like most every other Disney property. Despite the number of video games that have been made since its release and that sequel that came out last year, Tron has settled for a more niche presence in the public consciousness. You don't see Johnny Depp or anyone else carrying this franchise into four movies or Robert Zemeckis threatening to make this all in mo-cap, and there wasn't even a Happy Meal or a spinoff Saturday morning cartoon for it. Plus the sequel was released in theaters instead of direct-to-DVD. This movie has become a Disney classic without tons of merchandise or an in-your-face marketing ploy. That's more than you can say of anything from the Mouse House.

Unlike a certain someone who just HAS to have his picture on everything.

1 comment:

Tucsoncoyote said...

Ah Tron, If this is trash. Then I hate to say it, you're sadly acting like it doesn't compute..

Now Tron I have to say is a great escape flick, Don't get me wrong. If you ever wanted to be inside a video game, and try and survive. then this little tidbit is in fact the escapism you're looking for.

Sure we're dealing with 1982 graphics.. but remember, Computers back in 1982, were at best the equivalent of a calculator..

Tron could have been a lot more if it had been like the sequel (Tron:LEgaxy) but let's be honest for the budget and the lack of CGI, this one could have been way better if they just redid it but kept is more sane..

Oh and the villain in this one isn't Good Ol Master Control Program.. It's US.. That's right.. we programmed the damn thing.. and we probably programmed JOSHUA and Skynet as well..

But hey with humanity.. that does compute!