by Mel Valentin
In the summer of 1982, Hollywood studios released five future science-fiction classics: "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan," "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial," "Blade Runner," "John Carpenter's The Thing," and "Tron." Only "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan," with its dedicated fanbase, and "E.T.: The Extraterrestrial" were sizable commercial hits. "Tron" arrived in mid-summer to mixed reviews, underperformed at the box office, and disappeared from theater screens within weeks. "Tron," however, came at a perfect time for the burgeoning video market. With its emphasis on cutting-edge special effects and a storyline to warm the binary-encoded hearts of computer and sci-fi geeks everywhere, attained "cult" status.In Tron, programmers are called “users,” and their “programs” are personified into active, sentient characters that look and act like their creators. Users are regarded as deities by some programs. Other programs reject the existence of users as myths and superstition and persecute those who still believe in the users.. One user, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a one-time employee of ENCOM, a Microsoft-like software company, hacks into the ENCOM mainframe via program (CLU) to uncover evidence that an ENCOM senior vice president, Ed Dillinger (David Warner), stole five video arcade games from Flynn, using the video grams to obtain a promotion and get Flynn terminated. ENCOM’s Master Control Program (MCP) de-rezzes Clu before he can find incriminating evidence.
"Groundbreaking effects + average story = still watchable."
In response to Flynn's hacking attempt, Dillinger and the MCP shut down access to the mainframe. Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), another programmer, tries to get Dillinger to lift the security ban, but fails. Suspecting Flynn’s involvement in the recent break-in, Bradley and his girlfriend, Lora (Cindy Morgan), an ENCOM scientist and Flynn’s ex, warn Flynn that Dillinger and Sark are aware of his activities. Flynn convinces Bradley and Lora to help him hack into the ENCOM mainframe. Bradley, suspicious of Dillinger and the MCP’s activities, hopes to upload his own security program, Tron, inside the mainframe at the same time. Aware of their plan, the MCP takes over a nearby experimental laser, digitizes Flynn, and sends him into the virtual world of sentient computer programs.
Inside the virtual world of Tron, the MCP's chief enforcer, Sark (Warner again), forces Flynn to play a jai-alai-like game against another program, Crom (Peter Jurasik). After a victorious Flynn refuses to “finish the game,” Sark disposes of Crom. Almost immediately, Sark forces Flynn to participate in another game, this time using “Light Cycles” as part of a team that includes Ram (Dan Shor), an actuarial program, and Tron (Boxleitner again), Bradley’s security program. Together, they escape from the arena to disable and defeat the MCP. An attack by Sark's forces separates Flynn, Ram, and Tron. Tron seeks out another program, Yuri (Morgan again), for help.
Lisberger has claimed the inspiration for Tron came to him moments after he stepped inside a video arcade in the late 1970s. The idea turned a screenplay that would take several years of false starts and the development of computer animation (albeit in its earliest, crude form) and other visual effects to bring Lisberger’s vision to the screen. Lisberger ultimately brought Tron to Disney, obtaining unprecedented creative control for a first-time filmmaker. They supported Lisberger’s decision to hire Jean Giraud (a.k.a. Moebius of Heavy Metal fame) and futurist Syd Mead (Blade Runner). With computer animation still untried and undeveloped (not to mention limited computing power), Lisberger relied on “back-lit animation” (a process where the actors were filmed on bare soundstages against black-and-white backgrounds and later rotoscoped and colored).
Lisberger excelled in creating a virtual world rich with immersive possibilities. When it came to character development, however, Lisberger was on more unstable ground. The characters are flat, one-dimensional, and unengaging in the real world or the virtual one. Over the course of Tron’s two-hour running time, we learn little about the central characters that isn’t spelled out within the first few minutes (e.g., Flynn and Bradley are computer programmers, Flynns’s out for revenge, Dillinger a power-hungry executive, Lori a scientist and dual romantic interest, etc.). The simplistic plot involves virtual gladiatorial contests and a race to stop the MCP before it takes over the government's computer systems (an idea reminiscent of 1971's Colossus: The Forbin Project). Lisberger (Slipstream, Hot Pursuit) obviously didn’t know much about character development or pacing (and his staging tends toward the shallow end of the filmmaking pool), but he made up for his flaws as a storyteller through Tron’s innovative visual design.Not surprisingly, "Tron" opened to mixed reviews from critics and underwhelming box-office numbers. An arcade game was more financially successful, ultimately generating more revenue than the film itself. Lisberger's shortcomings as a storyteller played a part, probably a large part, in "Tron's" under-performance at the box office. Lisberger's vision of a simulated gaming world, however, influenced video game designers and the richly imagined, complex worlds video gamers experience today, as well as influencing an another sub-genre, cyber-punk (e.g., William Gibson's "Neuromancer," "Count Zero," and "Mona Lisa Overdrive"), that was just getting started.
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originally posted: 06/03/08 15:27:35