Tron (1982) **
One of a handful of interesting sci-fi and horror misfires produced by Disney during the late 70’s and early 80’s in an effort to attract the attention of a slightly older audience, Tron is an exceptionally strange film by mainstream Hollywood standards. The idea here was to tap into the burgeoning popularity of video games and thereby pull droves of 13- and 14-year-olds into the theaters, so there’s some amusing irony in the fact that the movie struggled so hard at the box office until the tie-in arcade game appeared a few weeks after Tron opened. And given the film’s subject matter, it seems perversely appropriate that Tron looks today like such a victim of its own technology.
Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, from the 1976 remake of King Kong) is a computer wiz who has recently been fired from the big electronics company he helped put on the map. The issue behind his dismissal is really pretty stupid in the grand scheme of things. Flynn had been using the company’s computers after hours to develop a package of video games. Flynn’s biggest rival at the office, a programmer of middling ability but tremendous political acumen named Dillinger (David Warner, from Nightwing and Time Bandits), hacked into Flynn’s computer just after the games were completed, copied them, and then erased the original files. Dillinger then presented Flynn’s games to the head of the company, representing them as his own work. The games— “Space Paranoids” in particular— made a shitload of money for the company, and Dillinger was promoted to a position from which he could fire Flynn, who has been spending most of his free time in the ensuing weeks trying to hack his way into the company’s mainframes to find evidence of Dillinger’s malfeasance.
Meanwhile, Dillinger has been hard at work remaking the company in his own image. His biggest success is the Master Control Program, an artificial intelligence designed to coordinate and run all the different computer systems in the company’s main office complex. This is where the trouble really starts. Like Charles Forbin before him, Dillinger is finding out that artificial intelligences can’t necessarily be relied upon to share their creators’ agendas. Far from serving as an instrument for advancing Dillinger’s power at work, the MCP has grown into a veritable digital supervillain— not only has it been seizing control of all the company’s own systems, it’s started breaking into outside systems and appropriating any data or programs it thinks might prove useful in the future. The MCP has even started talking about hacking the Pentagon! And like Forbin’s Colossus, the MCP is ready, willing, and able to use blackmail to prevent its creator from standing in its way; if Dillinger tries to stop it from doing anything it wants, the MCP will see to it that somebody finds what Flynn is looking for.
There’s just one thing that might be able to stop the MCP. Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner, of “Babylon 5”), a former coworker of Flynn’s, has developed a security program he calls “Tron,” which operates independently of the MCP, and keeps tabs on everything that goes on within the company’s computer system. In other words, Tron could spot the MCP’s illegal activities, and get Dillinger into a world of trouble. Tron has also picked up on Flynn’s efforts to invade the company’s network, though Alan does not as yet realize who’s doing the hacking that his program has detected. But his girlfriend, Laura (Cindy Morgan, from Galaxis)— who used to be Flynn’s girlfriend— thinks she knows. She had been dating Flynn about the time he was fired, and though she doesn’t really understand what it’s about, she knows Flynn harbors some kind of grudge against Dillinger. She and Alan go to see Flynn at the video arcade he opened after losing his old job (the arcade’s cash cow, to add insult to injury, is Flynn’s own “Space Paranoids”), and it is here that all sides of the story come out. Once Alan and Laura know why Flynn’s been making himself such a pain in Dillinger’s ass, they agree to help him find the incriminating evidence he seeks. (They don’t like their new boss any more than Flynn does.)
The three conspirators settle on a simple but plausible-sounding plan. Alan and Laura will sneak Flynn into the building at night— evidently no one on the late shift will recognize him— on the pretext that they need to catch up on some backlogged work. Alan will then go to his cubicle and unleash Tron, while Laura takes Flynn downstairs to a terminal in her division, from which he will attempt to get past the MCP’s defenses and find whatever’s left of the original video game files bearing his computer’s electronic signature. The only kink in this plan is that Laura works in the R&D branch of the company, and her current big project is an experimental teleportation machine that works by using a powerful laser to disintegrate objects while simultaneously encoding them digitally. This digital image can then be transmitted throughout the network, and reassembled in the real world by another laser hooked up to the same program. It just so happens that the computer Flynn is using is sitting right in front of this laser, and when the MCP gets wise to what Flynn is trying to do, it zaps him with that laser, drawing him into a sort of parallel universe within the company network (nobody had yet thought of the term “virtual reality” in 1982), where the MCP reigns supreme.
This is where Tron really starts to get goofy. Apparently, all computer programs— not just the ones that are intended to be— are artificial intelligences; in the computer world, they take the form of semi-mechanical humanoids with glowing stripes and dots forming patterns all over their bodies. The MCP rules over them in the manner of a Big Brother-like authoritarian tyrant, using its purpose-designed warrior programs to effect periodic roundups of the computer world’s inhabitants, who are brought to the MCP and rewritten to suit its own sinister purposes. The MCP’s right-hand program is called Sark (also David Warner— all programs have the faces of the people who wrote them, and since Dillinger wrote the MCP, while the MCP apparently wrote Sark, the latter program has to look like Dillinger). Apart from commanding the warriors, Sark’s main function seems to be disposing of programs the MCP has deemed superfluous by means of gladiatorial contests patterned on Flynn’s video games. And now that Flynn has been digitized, he finds himself sent down to Sark’s arena, while Sark is instructed that the MCP wants Flynn sent to the games and made to play until he is destroyed.
The only problem with this strategy, from the MCP’s perspective, is that Flynn wrote the games that are supposed to destroy him, and he can play them better than anyone else alive. So when Flynn, his cellmate RAM (Dan Shor, from Strange Invaders), and a third program are sent to the arena to race light-cycles against some of Sark’s minions, Flynn not only leads his teammates to victory, but breaks them out of the arena altogether. Sark’s forces pursue (using tanks and aircraft from “Space Paranoids”), and succeed in killing (“de-resing”) one of Flynn’s fellow escapees, but the other two fugitives get away, and ultimately hook up with Tron (played, like Alan Bradley, by Bruce Boxleitner), who in this world is a sort of anti-fascist resistance fighter. Tron has been prowling around Sark’s complex looking for a way to gain access to the MCP, as per Alan’s instructions. With the help of Flynn, RAM, and a third program named Yori (who must have been written by Laura— she’s played by Cindy Morgan), Tron’s job just got a whole lot easier. The insurrectionists spend the rest of the movie traveling across the computer world to the MCP’s headquarters, while Sark and his warriors pursue them. On the face of it, the odds against Tron, Flynn, and company look pretty long, but the MCP has failed to consider one thing: because Flynn isn’t really a program, but rather one of the mysterious Users, he has godlike powers in the computer world, while the MCP, for all its pretentions, is still just another piece of software.
Today, Tron’s main claim to significance is that it featured the first large-scale use of CGI in a feature film. All of the special effects are computer-generated, which certainly makes sense in light of the movie’s subject matter. Unfortunately for Tron, its creators were so impressed by the effects that they scarcely concerned themselves with anything else. As with Disney’s earlier The Black Hole, Tron’s story is rather giddy even by the standards of early-80’s sci-fi, and makes less and less sense with every minute you spend thinking about it. (Why, for example, would a programmer capable of developing an artificial intelligence as powerful as the MCP stoop to video game piracy to advance his career?!) Matters aren’t helped any by the editing, which renders long stretches of the movie extremely hard to follow, especially early on, before the details of the film’s backstory have emerged. And of course, there’s the usual problem of the havoc that the passage of time wreaks on any movie that stands or falls entirely on the strength of its effects. Though I’m sure they were dazzling at the time (believe it or not, I never saw Tron when it was new, and I remember the video game and the toy line a hell of a lot better than I remember any of the trailers or TV commercials for the movie itself), Tron’s CGI effects look extremely primitive and more than a little silly today. This isn’t really much of a problem for me, because I’ve always greatly preferred CGI that doesn’t try to look like anything but CGI, but anybody who goes into Tron after a steady diet of Jurassic Park, The Mummy Returns, and the like is likely to laugh their asses off at the awkward, clunky computer animation in this movie. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again— if special effects dazzle is all a movie’s got, it’s going to be in deep trouble ten or twenty years down the road.