I really need to rewatch more movies. Yet again, a film I once dismissed as cheesy and tedious proves much more entertaining on a second visit. First, Conan the Barbarian went from being a bloody drag to a damn good time in my eyes, and now Tron, which I once considered fairly dull and lacking in dramatic impact, proves to be something more. It isn’t a flawless film–not by any means–but it makes computers cooler, more exciting, more abstractly beautiful, than they’ve ever been before or since.
The plot is basic enough. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a former programmer at the ENCOM company, has seen Ed Dillinger (David Warner) rise to the top of the corporation on the basis of programs he took credit for–but which Flynn wrote. Flynn has been trying to access the files which would prove Dillinger’s theft using a program called Clu, but the Master Control Program, which Dillinger wrote and which appropriates other programs to increase its own power, detects Clu and destroys it, alerting Dillinger to Flynn’s attempts and prompting him to shut off computer access to a number of other ENCOM engineers–including Laura Baines (Cindy Morgan), Flynn’s ex, who’s just created a laser which can literally read, absorb, and digitize matter, and Laura’s current beau Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), who is trying to create a security program called Tron.
Laura and Alan go to Flynn’s arcade and warn him that Dillinger is onto him, but Flynn, determined to prove Dillinger’s malfeasance, urges them to help him break into the ENCOM computer. They go to the office and set a hack in motion, but the MCP immediately detects Flynn’s presence and, after warning him to stop, uses the matter-laser to pull Flynn into the computer world, where he finds himself one of many programs pitted against the MCP’s security system, depicted as a series of dangerous games (a kind of jai alai; the lightcycle arena). Flynn realizes that the programs regard their Users with reverence and awe, and learns that the MCP demands absolute obedience from the programs it absorbs; those who profess a belief in Users will be destroyed in the games.
Teaming up with the personification of Tron (also Boxleitner) and an actuarial program called Ram (Dan Shor), Flynn is able to succeed in the games and escape the game grid, ultimately teaming up with Yori (Morgan) to find and destroy the MCP itself, but the MCP uses Sark (Warner), a command program, and an army of other security programs, to seek out the rebels–and ultimately influence the course of world affairs (it suggests to Dillinger that it wishes to toy with both the Pentagon and the Kremlin). Shockingly enough, everything ends happily (at least if you don’t factor in the sequel).
While not the first use of CGI in cinema, Tron went far beyond what any other film had ever attempted, and even if the effects look quite primitive now (within a decade, Terminator 2 was giving us effects that still look good), I found myself quite happily drawn into the computer world, since everything operated on a more or less common level of reality (no uncanny valley here). The CGI, simple though it is, has its own elemental beauty, all bright colors and boldly abstract shapes. If anything, it transports one more fully than the effects in Tron: Legacy because, by being less “real”, it feels more genuinely unreal.
And, honestly, the images in Tron still move quite fluidly. The famous lightcycle sequence remains quite exciting, as the blue and yellow machines tear about, always in straight lines, trapping each other in mazes of their own light-trails. Compare it to the lightcycle sequence in Tron: Legacy, where everything is shiny and fluid, where the cycles can do pretty much anything a motorcycle can do, and destroyed cycles and their riders collapse into what looks like shards of glass rather than bits of data. The later sequence may be beautiful in its own right, but does it feel like the inside of a computer? For my money, it doesn’t.
The Academy refused to nominate Tron‘s special effects; as director/writer Steven Lisberger said, they considered its used of CGI to be “cheating”. And while E.T. was a worthy winner, it’s not the effects milestone that Tron was–and was certainly not as influential. That said, while I’d never deny the value of CGI or the degree to which it’s advanced science fiction and fantasy cinema, I do regret the near-extinction of practical effects such as E.T.‘s which the rise of CGI brought about. But apropos of Tron itself, the effects did precisely what effects should do: create a world the viewer can believe in.
Immersive effects, however, are little good if the film itself is a drag. But Tron most definitely is not. Yes, it’s got its faults: the writing and acting are uneven, the story is pretty basic and its resolution is a bit abrupt, and the film hints at a greater world within the computer that it doesn’t explore. And yet, I was constantly engaged. If the film drags just a tad at some points, at almost all others I was smiling at the colors, the heroics, the sheer fun of it all. Perhaps I once found it boring because the last time I tried to watch I was nursing the headache I got from the sequel’s use of 3D. This time, I was all in. And I wasn’t disappointed.
Steven Lisberger, an animator making his live-action debut (of sorts), didn’t go on to do much after Tron proved a modest success at best; he directed only two more features and since 1989 has only a producer’s credit on Tron: Legacy and a couple of legacy writing credits¹ to his name. And that’s a shame. Because as a director, he displays a great deal of imagination and invention, from the opening shot of a computer’s interior that looks almost like a city to the final shot of a city that looks almost like the inside of a computer. In between he creates genuinely exciting set pieces, a simple but engaging tale of good and evil in a novel paradigm, and a sense of innocent wonder.
As a writer, he’s less consistently successful, especially in the real-world sequences, where the dialogue is often stilted and awkward; the “here goes nothing” exchange in particular is a good bit of wordplay hampered by over-writing. When the film moves into the computer, the writing feels more in tune with the stylized reality of the computer (plus the real-world scenes contain most of the exposition), but the dialogue is definitely the weak point of the film. For the most part, it gets the job done just fine, but it’s not terribly quotable.
This is mitigated in part by the actors, most notably Bridges and Warner. Bridges is at his most enjoyably flippant here, managing to stay just on the right side of the line between flippant and obnoxious. It’s not in the top rank of his performances, but his spirit and energy give the film a heart. And Warner is wonderfully unscrupulous in a triple role: the scheming, yet paranoid Dillinger, the cruel Sark, and the megalomaniacal MCP². He gives Lisberger’s lines the smooth, cold-blooded delivery they need to sound good, and coming from him, they do. If I ever do my film awards for years past, when I touch on 1982, I may try and fit Warner into the Best Supporting Actor category. He really is a marvelously entertaining villain.
The rest of the cast is only adequate. Cindy Morgan, either as Laura or as Yori, has little to do, though she does it passably. Bruce Boxleitner, however, is outright clunky in the real-world sequences, and while he doesn’t have the best dialogue to work with, his often stilted delivery really doesn’t help. As Tron, he’s better, but he’s still very much second fiddle to Bridges. I don’t want to be too harsh on Boxleitner, but his work here really isn’t very good. Barnard Hughes, as the avuncular Dr. Gibbs and the I/O guardian program Dumont, is the requisite “wise old man”, but he too doesn’t do all that much. Dan Shor as the cheerful Ram is fine, but really, it’s Bridges and Warner’s show, and thankfully, they’re quite up to the ask.
Of course the film is technically superb. Bruce Logan’s cinematography (good God, what colors), the production design (credited to Dean Edward Mitzner, but with conceptual help from Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Syd Mead, and others), and the Oscar-nominated costumes (Elois Jenssen and Rosanna Norton) are all extraordinary. It’s a great, great-looking film.
And a great sounding one, as well. Wendy Carlos’ electronic score (with a few orchestral embellishments) is simply wonderful, adding not only to the film’s vintage charm, but also to its alien feel. And the Oscar-nominated sound mixing (and the sound effects, which weren’t nominated) is nothing short of marvelous, enhancing further the digital world we have entered.
As many issues as Tron has, its many virtues (and its place in film history) push it into greatness. Some may dismiss it as a relic, but give it a chance (or another chance), and you may be as delighted as I was. After all–wouldn’t you like to know what’s going on inside your computer?
¹This is my invented term (invented as of just now) for someone who has a credit for creating the characters or world that a later entity utilizes.
²Reputedly, Charlton Heston suggested he voice God in The Ten Commandments because “it seems to me that any man hears the voice of God from inside himself.” (Source) Though Lisberger was likely not privy to this information, the idea that programs and their Users (the belief in whom is considered religious) have the same voice (and face, in the film’s allegorical depiction) is an interesting, if probably unintended, spin on this concept.