Disney may or may not be attempting to hide the original “TRON” from potential consumers of its new sequel, “TRON: Legacy,” but you can re-watch or introduce yourself to the cult classic on YouTube if you’re willing to view it in sections (only 7 parts if you go with this one, while it lasts). Having revisited the film for the first time in at least 25 years this way, I am unconvinced that modern viewers can’t or shouldn’t find it accessible. Dated, maybe, but so are a number of sci-fi and fantasy works that get fairer treatment and respect. It is certainly no more laughable than “Star Wars” is at parts. And anyway, much to my disappointment, even a great masterpiece like “Metropolis” is met with loads of chuckles these days.
Released in 1982 and written and directed by Steven Lisberger (until then primarily an animator), “TRON” was conceived by Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird (wife of computer scientist Alan Kay, whose work is said to have inspired the story). It’s a pretty simple tale that mixes basic conventions of mythological and political science fiction, specifically employing very elementary concepts of creationist religion and totalitarian ideology, with the familiar structure of popular fantasy narratives — as in it is merely “Alice in Wonderland” or “The Wizard of Oz” set inside the world of a computer. In fact, it’s very easy to think of much of “TRON” similarly as just a dream. And like in “Oz,” major characters in the real world have counterparts in the fantasy world, so I was surprised the ending didn’t include a variation on the line, “and you and you and you and you were there!”
The Alice/Dorothy here is Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a software engineer whose best work, a portfolio of video games, was stolen by a fellow employee and passed off as his own. The thief (David Warner) became a senior executive — though apparently not the CEO, as he strangely appears to be – of their company, ENCOM, while Flynn was subsequently terminated. With the help of two current ENCOM employees (Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan), Flynn hacks into the system and finds proof that he authored the games, and they all live happily ever after with Flynn easily and illogically now in charge — or at least as high up as the villain he overthrows, if “senior executive” doesn’t mean CEO.
That’s about all you need to know of the plot. Around the point of the “hacks into the system” part Flynn is sucked into ENCOM’s computer mainframe by a laser reminiscent of the “Wonkavision” ray from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” While inside this world of basic solid colors and black and white faces, Flynn has to play a few games and then sets out with the programs Tron and Yuri (Boxleitner and Morgan) to overthrow a ruler called Master Control Program (Warner) and free the rest of the programs. Or something. I don’t mean to downplay the narrative occurring inside the computer world, and I’m sure some of it makes more allegorical sense to computer nerds, but really it’s all just a contrivance through which to present the innovative special effects.
As a contrivance, there’s nothing terribly unremarkable about it. Similar to so many other sci-fi narratives inspired by classical sagas, there’s the god-like hero (in this case, a “user” from the realm of the “creator”) and the evil emperor who makes his slave-like subjects play gladiatorial games. Maybe there could have been some other interesting (let’s say, since it’s appropriate, more colorful) characters who aren’t simply represented as good (blue) and bad (red). The script does seem to live in a pre-“Star Wars” world in which the simplicity of sci-fi films like “Rollerball” and “Logan’s Run” was still acceptable. One of the few slightly different characters, Barnard Hughes’ computer-world likeness, Dumont, even reminded me of the clunky robot Box from “Logan’s Run.”
By the way folks, it is insanely true that “Logan’s Run” won an Oscar for visual effects (and just a few months before “Star Wars” hit theaters — no wonder it blew people away) yet the groundbreaking “TRON” did not. This is allegedly because the Academy ruled it ineligible for “cheating” with computers (1978 Oscar winner “Star Wars” also featured some computer-generated effects, as did 1979 winner “Superman,” 1980 winner “Alien” and nominee “The Black Hole,” and “Blade Runner,” a nominee in 1983, the year “TRON” would have been recognized. I guess none of these utilized computers for quite as much integrated, plot-driven effects material as “TRON” did, though). The film kind of won a tech award from the Academy 14 years later when Ken Perlin was honored for Perlin noise, which he invented for “TRON.” But if anything the visionary effects should have received some recognition, akin maybe to the special award Darryl Zanuck got in 1928 for producing the pioneering, revolutionary sound film “The Jazz Singer” — which was otherwise likely deemed unfair as a competitor for one of the Best Picture equivalents of the time.
A regular trait of science fiction films has been for simple, familiar stories to be employed particularly for works involving groundbreaking special effects. There are exceptions, of course, but if we look at the relatively bare-bones and highly derivative base narratives of “The Matrix” movies and “Avatar,” for instance, both are similar in plot structure to “TRON.” There will always be those who criticize films like “Avatar” for lacking a great script, but often spectacle does come before the writing, and sometimes it actually deserves to be so. “TRON” did, and for historical purposes still does. Never mind those reviewers who are calling “TRON: Legacy” this year’s “Avatar.” This is disappointingly not the truth (more on the new film, which I do recommend seeing, later). But the original “TRON” was definitely the “Avatar” of 1982 — just not in box office terms.