TRON is either the first brilliant cinematic exploration of the digital world … or the silliest. Released by Disney in 1982 – over a year before the Apple Macintosh brought the graphical user interface home to consumers – TRON fascinated some, but confused most. You could argue that, alongside works like Neuromancer and Snow Crash, it ingeniously predicted a whole interconnected world behind the computer screen. You could also argue that – by portraying that world as a pseudo-Oz where people wear neon skintight bodysuits and say like “Who do you calculate you are?” – TRON got everything completely wrong. But you can’t argue with one thing: TRON is one of the strangest movies ever made. As the long-awaited sequel TRON: Legacy is released in lavish IMAX 3-D, we look back to the film that started a digital effects revolution.
Keith Staskiewicz: I’m pretty sure we both enjoyed this movie a lot more than we were expecting, seeing as it pretty much perfectly fits the mold of a movie that you wouldn’t think would age well, i.e. special effects-driven, about technology, made in the Eighties. Yet somehow the special effects and set design are still so distinct even today that it feels fresher than some movies made 10-15 years later, which helps to make up for the fact that the story is basically nonexistent and the filmmakers appear to have about as much knowledge of computers as my 86-year-old grandmother who thinks she needs a stamp for an e-mail.
Darren Franich: I think when we look at the history of digital effects in the last 30 years, there is a tendency to assume that they’ve been consistently getting better, and that thinking usually comes from the fact that most things that once looked incredible now look silly. But honestly, even though the effects in TRON are much less “realistic” than, say, Gollum in Lord of the Rings, they’re still remarkably effective. Yes, there are chase scenes where the evil flying blocks are chasing the brave bike-blocks, and the effects’ quality is roughly the equivalent of a 12-year-old’s computer-animation YouTube project. But they work: I felt totally invested in every brave blue block, and totally despised every evil red block.
KS: The whole movie is essentially an abstraction. The fact that they go for the blue-and-neon color scheme helps it from feeling hopelessly Eighties. They smartly avoided the deadly temptation of pastels.
DF: I can’t off-hand think of any major blockbuster movie made in the last 30 years that has such a completely distinctive, and dangerously monochromatic, visual style. I guess maybe Sin City? But that’s basically just a high-contrast black-and-white movie with color. There are shots here – I’m thinking of when the bad guy is in his control room – where there are bright lights, and whirring lights, and digital floors, and then all the digital people walking around with monochrome skin. Since Steven Lisberger has practically spent a lifetime working on this project in one way or another, I wonder if TRON isn’t an example of that really interesting strain of film: the utterly silly but nevertheless vividly realized passion project. Sort of like The Fifth Element, which is the ultimate Luc Besson film even though it’s definitely not his best one, or The Life Aquatic, which is the same for Wes Anderson.
KS: Wait, you mean that Animalympics wasn’t a passion of his? It’s not surprising that it took an animator to make this movie, though, since it is essentially a completely visual movie. You almost wish that they just went the whole way and tossed the gesture of a story and turned it into a completely abstract film with even crazier shapes and with Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner talking in muted trombone sounds.
DF: And Cindy Morgan speaking in a tinny flute voice!
KS: Even as it stands now, it’s already difficult to really understand what exactly is going on and why. I mean the climax is Flynn jumping into Master Control Program (who’s rapping moniker is clearly MC ‘Gram, by the way) who then opens up his floating shields so that TRON can throw a digitized frisbee into him and make him explode for some reason. It works because you get swept up along with it and it has its own visual logic, but once you start trying to parse how their vision of technology works, you find yourself hesitant to open Word just in case you accidentally murder a few dozen compu-people. I saw TRON many moons ago and for some reason I remember there being more scenes set in the real world, but essentially it’s just a couple of bookends about videogame copyright litigation.
DF: If TRON has a truly awful portion, it’s the real-world stuff. So evil CEO David Warner stole dashing videogame designer Jeff Bridges’ work.
KS: To make some combination of Tanks and Space Invaders.
DF: Right! What an idea! So Bridges left the company in a huff, founded the Studio 54 version of a video arcade, and spends his days playing videogames to the delight of his patrons.
KS: And paying for things with enormous sacks of quarters.
DF: But Noble Computer Guy Bruce Boxleitner is still at the company, and doesn’t like how the evil CEO’s computer program, Master Control, is … I dunno, taking over the system, or something. So Bruce and his girlfriend go talk to Flynn, and they decide to break into the computer and sabotage it. Meanwhile, there is one single scene between the CEO and Master Control that raises the stakes completely, where Master Control says it’s going to take over the Pentagon, and then the Kremlin, and indicates that it is advancing at such a rapid pace that it is becoming some kind of god. And this whole plot point is NEVER REFERRED TO AGAIN, and the real-world climax of the movie is Flynn getting proof that he invented the videogames, so he becomes CEO, because apparently that’s how corporations work.
KS: And the proof is just a sheet of paper that reads “Flynn actually invented the games.” Somehow, I’m not sure that would hold up in court. Is it ever established what kind of company it is? I mean, is it a videogame company?
DF: If so, why is there a freaking laser lab in the basement?
KS: You know, for Missile Command. I’m sure the whole place is also haunted by multicolored ghosts and filled with fruit and the occasional pretzel.
DF: Can I just say that I have complete respect for all the actors in this project, because I can only imagine that filming all the digital-world scenes must have been the weirdest thing ever. Like, for one thing, the dialogue is beyond confusing and I’m sure they could barely visualize what sort of world they were supposed to be in. I kind of admire how Jeff Bridges actually manages to sound like he’s just kind of hanging out having fun, even though it makes Flynn look semi-insane. (Apparently, they filmed this on an entirely black set, which must’ve given it an added Our Town quality.)
KS: That is an interesting element to Jeff Bridges performance. In the trailer for the new movie, he looks so serious because the stakes are so high and he’s been trapped in the computer world and he has this wizened, respectable beard. But here he’s basically just hanging out, having fun, and hoping to get some royalties for Space Paranoids.
DF: It’s fitting that this move kick-started the digital-effects era, because there’s an almost Pixar-ian strain to the storyline. Like, when the Programs are all talking about their Users, it sounds almost word-for-word like the toys in Toy Story talking about their Children and being played with. I guess the only real difference is that Pixar humanizes things that we can clearly see – toys, bugs, fish, old angry men – whereas this tries to humanize semi-abstract concepts.
KS: Like RAM.
DF: I guess, at a certain point, that’s the one major gripe I have with the TRON cult. There’s this perception that TRON was so ahead of its time, that it’s a landmark in the development of our cultural understanding of cyberspace, etc, but if you really analyze it for two seconds, it’s basically just a pseudo-religious fantasy movie where the characters wear tech-sounding nametags. I can totally understand why Disney made this movie: It takes computers and turns them into shiny people with good, clean hearts.
KS: Not that far off from how I imagine someone from the 1800’s or Papua New Guinea would, when presented with a computer, assume how it works. “Oh, there must be a bunch of little men running around in here, doing everything I tell them to.”
DF: The most mind-blowing thing to me about TRON is that after it had a silly reputation for about ten years and a cult reputation for about twenty years, Disney somehow came around to the idea of making a sequel to the movie at a cost of $200 million. And not even a reboot, a direct sequel, with what appears to be dozens of fan-servicey little things pitched directly at the few people who have memorized TRON.
KS: They decided to take this story that really doesn’t make much sense and just faithfully stick to it. Why did Jeff Bridges go back into the system? I can guarantee that in the new movie it probably won’t be because someone stole his idea for King Monkey, a game about a barrel throwing ape who gets foiled by a Polish carpenter.
DF: I guess, in a sense, it’s not a whole lot different from refurbishing an old videogame for a new system. Replace Bruce Boxleitner with a new stoically handsome actor, check! Replace Cindy Morgan with the new-model babe, check! Replace giant floating evil head of doom with young Jeff Bridges, check! Replace young Jeff Bridges with old Jeff Bridges, check!
KS: Add a little Michael Sheen-as-Ziggy Stardust and replace the hilarious beep-boop-boop score with Daft Punk not doing their usual beep-boop-boop stuff and … voila! TRON Version 2.0. Last question: Am I the only one that found it interesting that this film stars Bruce Boxleitner and it also has lots of boxes made of light?
DF: Yes. You are the only one.
Next Week: PopWatch Rewind will take a break next week, but check back here in two weeks. Blue Valentine is a movie that had a lengthy battle with the MPAA over its rating. The first five letters of the title are: B-L-U-E-V. So, we’ll be watching Blue Velvet, another movie that ran afoul of the ratings board due to some graphic sequences. People, we just really wanna watch Blue Velvet. Join us!