When we scheduled out Year of the Month for the year, I was shocked to discover that I had not yet written about what I will never not thinking of as the futuristic world of TRON. For one thing, it’s my partner Graham’s favourite live action Disney movie—though Disney wouldn’t make another one for ten years following this, because it was a financial failure. (Though the video games made quite the profit.) Heck, even before he and I got together, it was something I would watch from time to time, given the option, because I’m a fan as well.
Ed Dillinger (David Warner) runs the software company ENCOM. He stole five programs from employee Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and used them to get where he is. Flynn now runs an arcade, where the biggest hit is one of his own games. Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan) go to Flynn for help with getting the lowdown on Dillinger, because his Master Control Program is preventing them from doing their work. It turns out that MCP is now a malign artificial intelligence that is even blackmailing Dillinger with its knowledge that he stole Flynn’s programs.
Flynn decides that the only way to get the proof that the programs are his is to use a terminal inside the company, so he gets Lora to sneak him into the building where she works on an experimental laser program. Flynn gets digitized and inserted into the mainframe, which is the part of the movie everyone knows, with lightcycles and identity discs and what I’ve always thought of as “computerized jai-alai” and so forth. People do not, I suspect, remember much of what actually happens in that part, though it’s probably more than they remember about the not-computer bits.
There’s a weird religious metaphor going on for a lot of the movie, too, because Users are basically gods to the programs; a character actually gets shamed for talking about who his User is. Though one assumes that MCP actually knows his, since he’s blackmailing Dillinger and all. But honestly, how much do you think my word processing program knows about me? It tries to autofill, but of course we all know how bad that technology is even today, and it pretty well didn’t exist then! I wouldn’t even see a computer in person for another couple of years, as I recall.
This is the interesting thing about TRON, honestly—it was made in a time when computers were starting to be everywhere but few people actually had much personal experience with them. This was four years past James Burke’s Connections series, which talked about how companies were starting to use computers for things like records keeping because it was so much easier, a quarter century after Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn bonded and bickered over the room-sized EMERAC in Desk Set. Computers were there, and people were starting to use them in their homes, but few people actually did yet, even if probably a lot more people suspected it was coming.
And the Academy refused to consider this film for Best Visual Effects because the (not actually as much as people think) use of computers in the visual effects was considered cheating. Cheating! It would be nominated for Costume Design (which to my unending annoyance the sequel was not) and Sound, but its revolutionary blending of computers, practical effects, and hand animation was, again, cheating. Now, the three nominees that year were Blade Runner, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and Poltergeist, with E.T. as the winner, but quality as those films are, you can’t deny that this deserved at least the nomination, if not the win.
In fact, many Disney animators refused to work on the film because they were worried that computers would eventually take their jobs—and they weren’t wrong. I don’t mean to denigrate computer animation, which at its best can be visually astonishing, but there’s a reason it took Pixar as long as it did to actually put humans in lead roles in their cartoons—and even when they did, there’s still some things that are extremely rough. The animation in The Incredibles when Helen and the kids are in the water is just awful, honestly, and hand-drawing that scene would’ve resulted in a better look.
The thing is, everyone always talks about the technology of the movie because its technology is easier to get your brain around. The plot is super complicated and mystical and does not, I’m going to be honest, always make any sense. Tron (also Boxletitner) is supposed to be the control program that keeps MCP from being, well, as evil as he is. That’s fine. But apparently no one considered the need for that in advance? Like, the whole time, letting a program that was showing signs of intelligence be completely without failsafes to prevent abuse of power was considered okay and sensible?
And I mean, the laser program that gets Flynn put into the computer in the first place is astonishing, and I’m not quite sure what’s going on with it or what the eventual goal is, and I’ve watched this movie, I don’t know, a dozen or more times including several in adulthood? Yeah, no idea. It’s all so strange. It’s pretty much as though they just kind of needed a way to get Flynn inside the computer and the rest of it didn’t matter, which is probably exactly what happened.
Don’t get me wrong—I still do like this movie. It’s a fun movie, and it’s definitely one where you don’t entirely have to be paying attention to it to enjoy it. It’s kind of disappointing that it bombed, and it makes me suspect that it’s one of those “we haven’t marketed it properly because we really don’t know what we have” movies, honestly. It deserves to be more part of the conversation about quality Disney movies. It’s not the best, but it’s far from the worst. It’s worth watching if you never have and worth a second look if you haven’t seen it in a long time. The best sort of thing for this column!