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Tron (1982,USA)

01/08/2011

Director: Steven Lisberger            Starring: Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner

When I recently viewed last year’s super shiny, big budget Tron Legacy I couldn’t help but feel that I should have taken the time to revisit the 1982 original first partially to act as a primer plot-wise, refreshing the sketchy memories from my youth of the earlier film but also to provide a basis for comparison between the revolutionary CGI of the early eighties and the best that the twenty first century has to offer. As it happened I didn’t get around to the original Tron beforehand but better late than never eh?

Kevin Flynn (Bridges) is a genius computer programmer who has eschewed a life of software development in favour of owning a video game arcade and maintaining a fine sideline in computer hacking thanks to the theft, by unethical rival Ed Dillinger (Warner), of computer games written by Flynn which have gone on to make software company Encom a global success story. In his attempts to unearth evidence of Dillinger’s theft, Flynn threatens the Encom “Master Control Program” which teleports him into the digital world within the Encom mainframe where he is forced to fight for survival in gladitorial style games for the MCP’s amusement. As the MCP grows in power Flynn realises there’s a lot more at stake than stolen computer programs and so he joins forces with Tron (Boxleitner), a security program intent on ending the MCP’s reign of terror, in order to overthrow the tyrannical MCP and free the population of The Grid.

Yes, it’s utterly nonsenical and requires some seriously hardcore suspension of disbelief but if you can get past the “zapped-into-a-computer-by-a-laser” plot device it’s actually pretty clever and kind of subtle. Touching on social, political and theological themes, the society of The Grid consists of programs, many of whom believe in “the Users”, their creators who direct their actions within the system. The MCP, like some sort of Communist overlord, is on an athiestic purge to rid The Grid of those who believe in the users either retasking the programs to his own ends or pitting them against each other in the games in pitched battles to the death. The arrival of Flynn in The Grid upsets this plan, his power, unfettered by the limited parameters of programming, essentially establishing him as some sort of deity among the circuits.

The cast help you deal with the slightly sillier aspects of the plot by having the decency to play the whole thing straight. Bridges and Boxleitner work well together, Bridges’ coming across as the flamboyant genius and foil to Boxleitner’s more straightlaced portrayal of programmer Alan Bradly and his security program Tron. David Warner steals the show for me though as the devious Dillinger and the equally cunning and untrustworthy Sark (the MCP’s right hand in the world of The Grid) not to mention the tyrannical MCP itself. It’s a performance reminiscent of his turn as Evil in Gilliam’s Time Bandits the year before and is a joy to watch, especially as his attempts to stop Flynn unravel.

Of course the story plays second fiddle somewhat to the film’s production design and special effects. In a groundbreaking move the digital world was created with a combination of cutting edge computer generated effects and more traditional animation and rotoscope techniques. The thing that struck me most about watching it on DVD almost thirty years later was that the effects actually stand up rather well. Granted, the CGI is a bit primitive compared to what we are used to today (and what is on show in Tron Legacy) but the feel is perfectly suited to the 1980s computer setting. The iconic light cycle scene is still pretty exciting even if the graphical detail is pretty lacking in comparison to the latter version. With Tron, Disney laid the foundations for the development of the computer generated effects taken for granted (not to mention abused) by filmmakers today. It’s impressive stuff and has stood the test of time well.

Whichever way you cut it, Tron is a seminal work of science fiction, a product of the Space Invaders age and it’s a testament to the vision of writers Steven Lisberger and Bonnie McBird that when Disney updated the film for 2010 they more or less rehashed the plot from the original with a few minor tweaks in order to bring a more contemporary feel to the proceedings. While the special effects might not impress anyone born after 1985 there can be no denying the importance of Tron in the history of modern filmmaking and even now, almost thirty years on, it still has a vibrancy and enthusiasm that is often hard to find in today’s cinema.

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