It’s been a while since I saw Tron. I never saw it on the big screen. I believe I last saw it when it using one of the most sophisticated, technological wonder of a multimedia player at the time known as the video cassette recorder.
So here I am more than twenty years later, and did it stand up the test of time? And more importantly… is there a Mickey Mouse out in the cyberscape field in the background under the solar sailer in one scene? Let’s answer the second question first:
Tron was one of the factors that got me into computers back in the 80s. It also sow the seeds of my interest cyberpunk too.
Kevin Flynn (played by Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski), a former programmer of Encom, is trying to hack into Encom’s intranet to find evidence of his former colleague Ed Dillinger’s (played by the Cardassian Gul Madred) theft of five of his video game programs. Meanwhile, Encom programmer David Bradley (played by Earth Alliance President John Sheridan) is fed-up because he can’t activate his Tron security program in the mainframe. Unknown to him he was locked out by the Master Control Program, Encom’s artificial intelligence that’s stealing classified programs and data from, for example, Strategic Air Command, and when executed Tron will discover the MCP’s illegal activities and shut it down.
So Flynn gets David and his girlfriend Lora’s help to break into Encom so he can access Lora’s local mainframe terminal, which unfortunately happens to be where a laser matter disintegration / reintegration machine is also located. Detecting Flynn’s access, the MCP zaps him and sucks him into the mainframe where he finds himself in a virtual reality cyberspace. He soon discovers that the MCP and his chief enforcer Sark (who resembles Dillinger) have been capturing programs and forcing them to play in games. During one of these games he finds the program Tron (who naturally resembles David) and they break out in a quest to free the system from the clutches of the MCP.
Which brings us to the first question originally posed.
This movie is iconic. The cyberspace reality, the light cycles, the solar sailer, the recognizers and tanks, the discs… Some of the first computer generated images to be used in a movie. I’ve never seen anything of the sort integrated into a movie before this and I don’t believe we’ll see anything like it again, not with our current CGI technology that can imitate anything at all. We’ve moved past that particular quaint era of crude digital effects.
Some details of the movie seem dated. Not a mention of the internet. Computers with absolutely no graphical user interface. Instead everyone uses command line instructions. The concept of disintegrating matter and reintegrating it in cyberspace seem like using a nuke to take out a mosquito, since movies like the Matrix featured the more efficient neural interface.
The video games are simple games. If you imagine characters inserted into current games like Doom, there’s your neon glow cyberspace heaven out the window right there.
However, no real detail of the system architecture – whether it’s something familiar or exotic – is revealed. This allows us to wonder how the computer is able to put Flynn into the mainframe and interact with the programs there.
So the movie, to me, should appear dated but it’s not, somehow. A paradox, but there you go.
The story is pretty simple. However, the set up, I discovered in the paragraphs above, is quite difficult to write in a sentence or less without sacrificing major details. Basically it’s a quest story where heroes break out of the iron grip of a tyrant. Then, they go on their way to depose said tyrant (whose lieutenant is depicted below with a strange wall display). It was a simple story but it was enclosed in references to computer technology unfamiliar to the general public. So, this along with the trippy neon glow environment of the cyberspace might have been its undoing at the box office at the time. Thus this could have been what put off the general audience in the early 1980s.
However, since it’s more than 20 years later now and the public is more familiar with computers, everyone should try to watch this movie and enjoy a movie made before computers were a common household item and conceptualised (by Syd Mead and Jean Giraud, no less) years ahead of its time.
End of line.