DIRECTED BY: Steven Lisberger
WRITTEN BY: Steven Lisberger (screenplay); Steven Lisberger & Bonnie MacBird (story)
PEW PEW: Battles are fought through games, and there are a few chase scenes, but Tron is fairly adventure-based instead of action-oriented.
CAT FOOD: There are some light religious allegories regarding programs and users, but it’s nothing terribly taxing on the noggin.
Long before Mr. Anderson became Neo and led an entire people out of the clutches of a computer program controlled by a mechanical menace, the original and definitive digital saviour graced the silver screen and took a generation’s technological curiosity to a whole new level.
His name was Tron. He fought for the users.
Contrary to its title, this utterly unique story follows software engineer Kevin Flynn as he attempts to hack into his former employer’s massive system to uncover proof that his video games were stolen and passed off as the property of Dillinger, who used the success of the games to earn himself a seat at the head of his company. Dillinger uses a powerful program called Master Control Program (MCP) to absorb and destroy other programs that pose a threat to its master.
Flynn’s co-worker, Alan, and ex-girlfriend, Lora, learn that Dillinger is on to Flynn and the three come up with a plan to use Alan’s program Tron to override MCP’s authority. During the execution of the plan, Flynn himself is unexpectedly digitised and imported into the computer system, where MCP and his goon Sark hope to eliminate him once and for all through the use of deadly gladiatorial video games. We also find out that MCP has megalomaniacal plans of its own that go above and beyond simply serving Dillinger. Once in the system, Flynn must fight to survive and find Tron, the only hope of defeating MCP.
With its pioneering use of CGI (although for only a handful of scenes), its distinct visual style (the product of three great artists: Syd Mead, Moebius, and Peter Lloyd), and its fun and engaging ‘cyberpunk lite’ story, the film is an instant classic of the era.
Basically, the look is what draws you in. On the surface, it’s not really all that deep: Flynn’s stuck running a video arcade and he teams up with friends to take down the evil corporate exec. It’s when Flynn is pulled into the computer universe that things light up. And it’s funny, because it’s actually a fairly minimalist world. Most of the time there are only the characters and a few things relative to the scene on hand. Everything else is black or dark blue. It’s this that keeps your focus on the things that matter.
The characters. Everything in the computer world is made up of a combination of live action, CGI, and traditional animation. While we have a bare bones cast that are all represented in the real world as well as with programs in the computer world, the colourful backlit rotoscoping and monochromatic faces give the programs a surreal look.
The games. The games are really neat. The light cycle has pretty much become instantly recognisable for most people of the era. The designs are well thought out with functional ideas that really do add a sense of instant peril within the film’s narrative. They aren’t just time-wasters (Pod race anyone?).
The subtle beauties. Things like how beautiful the programs’ energy source looks when they go to take a drink. One can tell that the actors are on a modified set, but it is seamless with the computer world and the sight of the well is refreshing as the first natural thing we see in the film. Also, when power is restored to the system at the end, the landscape lights up with a glorious magic that really sells the triumph over evil.
The Master Control Program. When we finally see the thing, it’s beyond bad ass. That’s not to say it’s the rancor by any means. MCP is an inverted orange cone with a very basic face that remains static while the cone spins. It doesn’t sound too menacing, but when snapped into its minimalist surroundings, MCP towers oppressively over everything. When the face does move, it’s in a sharp, jerky fashion that subtly suggests an erratic mindset that you know can lead to heads coming off for little to no reason. MCP is the biggest and brightest thing in the entire computer world, it would be hard for a program not to look at something like this as a titan overlord. As something to be feared and obeyed.
And has Jeff Bridges really not been completely fucking awesome in anything?!
Tron is a solid ‘team up with a scrappy band of heroes and defeat the evil overlord’ adventure story with a few laughs and some serious stakes, that also benefits from a stark visual style. While I’ll admit the film is not quite as fun and tightly paced as I would have liked or expected from a Disney production, and the characters are sometimes a little hard to distinguish from one another, the film more than makes up for this with a real sense of immersion.