Mon
Jul 9 2012 10:00am

There is Nothing Like Tron and That’s Why You Should Love It

There is Nothing Like Tron and That’s Why You Should Love It

Ask most people to name their favorite Jeff Bridges movie and most will probably not say Tron. (Starman, maybe?) Ask them to name their favorite Bruce Boxleitner movie, and most of them will almost certainly say Tron, and those people will be among those of us that know that Tron is a character, as well as the name of the movie (now, franchise.) Back in 2010, I was worried Tron himself wouldn’t be in the movie called Tron: Legacy and while I was partially correct, I still liked Tron: Legacy.

But not near as much as I like Bridges, Boxleitner, David Warner, Cindy Morgan, Dan Shor, Peter Jurasik and everyone else in the original film. And that’s because Tron is a movie which is aesthetically, stylistically, and conceptually peerless. This isn’t to say it’s the best science fiction movie of all time, but it might be one of the most original. It came out 30 years ago today and it’s still worth your time. Here’s why.

Big budget science fiction movies often have a desperate need pay the money invested in them, back at the box office. Often this means a sci-fi movie will attempt to be “hip” or worse, “timely” often with disastrous results. Examples of the former would be the Freddie Prinze Jr. version of Wing Commander and the latter would be Waterworld. Good science fiction movies, the ones we care about and endure are often the goofier ones that don’t care about being hip but are sometimes still timely, or at the very least, become timeless. I suppose I consider the George Pal version of The Time Machine to be in that crowd, along with the original Gojira (Godzilla). 

A science fiction premise revolving around video games must have seemed like a no brainer in the 1980s, but unlike the wonderfully derivative Last Starfighter, Tron writer Steven Lisberger thought to mashup the notions hackers and computer programs with the world of video game designers. In terms of plot, these skills weren’t just for some kind of gain in the real the world with high-powered computers, but instead, informed an adventure inside of a computer network itself.

If Tron were dreamt up today, it would likely involve someone like me (a blogger) being sucked into their computer screen and then having to interact with the sentient social media versions of themselves in an attempt to find a connection between the Facebook/Twitter representation of the “the self” and the true flesh and blood real person. Tron accomplished this awesome social commentary by putting people in glowing blue suits with computer chip hats on their heads.

Once sucked inside of The Grid (again, in the heads of most moviegoers, the Internet did not exist in 1982) brilliant game designer Flynn (Bridges) must interact with living computer programs who toil away under the influence of a draconian Master Control Program.  The only thing that keeps certain programs getting through their days is their beliefs in “the users” which the audience knows are actually human beings.  

Tron himself (Boxleitner) is actually a fairly square “program” owing to the fact that his “user” is a guy named Alan Bradley (also Boxleitner) who is also a pretty serious person compared with Flynn. Bradley created Tron as a security program, a directive that translates in the sentient-program world as “fighting for the users.” Almost immediately, Tron’s existence takes on the quality of a kind of crusader with a holy quest. In this way Tron is the only film I’m aware of that futzes with the Arthur C. Clarke’s law that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” by making the sufficiently advanced technology into living beings who view humanity as magic.

Sure, The Matrix existed inside a giant computer program, and the notion of having battles in a virtual realm wasn’t new before Tron. (Even Doctor Who’s “The Deadly Assassin” had a Matrix-style environment called…well, The Matrix.) The point is, no film or TV show is truly derivative of Tron’s basic conceit: living computer programs who believe in humans. The brilliant simplicity is one reason why everyone should watch the movie just once. For the very young, the obvious train-of-thought is as follows: if we can create microscopic life forms on a grid who believe we are Gods, then what kind of grid are we living in?

Not only is Tron compelling conceptually, but visually too. I know this is a fairly obvious way to praise the movie, but at the point at which movies are visual and audio experiences, the notable thing about Tron—in the realm of visual effects anyway—is that it wasn’t attempting to create something that looked real. Instead, the whole theme of the film was to create something that looked unreal because the state of unreality is what it’s all about. This effect holds up because it’s not like there was some huge trend in which tons of movies looked like Tron. There is no Tron-era of filmmaking in the way The Matrix or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon elicited copycats. Sure, the afore mentioned The Last Starfighter might count, but not really. And then, I suppose there’s The Lawnmower Man, but does anyone, really consider that to be any competition for Tron? The film stands alone, and even it’s recent flawed sequel didn’t really look anything like it.

At the point at which we can talk ourselves into thinking Tron has visual artistic merit, then it does so at almost an Andy Warhol level of pop. Warhol appropriated Campbell’s soup cans and images of well-known public figures. Lisburger and Donald Kushner appropriated Pong and other well-known video games of the time. Did they know the narrative was a little corny? I bet they did, but I don’t think they cared.

If Disney hadn’t distributed Tron I suppose we could have gotten a darker and less adventure-oriented movie. But that’s okay, because the adventure aspect of Tron is just like a good video game of its time. It doesn’t make sense, it’s fun as hell while you’re doing it and as soon as your done, you want to do it all over again.

It’s Tron’s birthday. Go revisit all those programs again. End of line.


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. Like most people, he wanted to be Tron when he was a kid, and now prefers The Dude Flynn.

16 comments
DavidEsmale
1. DavidEsmale
Tron was one of my favorite movies as a kid, but I don't think I've watched it in ages. I think I'm going to have to do a marathon Tron + Tron:Legacy viewing sometime this week to celebrate Tron's birthday. Seems like that is the appropriate thing to do.
S Cooper
2. SPC
One of my favorite movies ever. Has anyone seen any of the cartoon that's on now? I don't have the channel, but I'm very curious to see how they're bridging the two movies.
DavidEsmale
3. Herb832
I think most people would say The Big Lebowski is their favorite Jeff Bridges movie.

Most people I talked to (at least before the sequel) had never heard of Tron. Which always made me wonder if they had cable as kids. For me childhood will always be associated with coming home from the pool and catching Tron or The Adventures of Robin Hood on cable. And Tron is on the very short list of media that introduced me to speculative fiction, along with Zelda and the original Final Fantasy and The Hobbit.
Joe Vondracek
4. joev
@Herb832: Yep, The Dude abides.

I mainly associate Boxleitner with Babylon 5, but that's not a movie...
Rich Bennett
5. Neuralnet
Loved the original Tron.. it came out when I was about 12-13, perfect age for scifi wonder. Plus, computers were still so new that the movie somehow seemed... appropriate (for lack of a better word). I have rewatched a few times in the last couple of years and it is one of those movies that, for me at least, my memory of the movie is better than the movie actually is. LOL. I still love it, but have to admit as an adult in 2012 it drags a bit at times towards the end.

I liked the new movie, and there are definitely a few parts of Tron:legacy that are really well done. but, I feel like the people that made it didnt do a good job of capturing the magic of the original. Iliked the look of Tron:legacy but I missed the weird lighting/speech effects of the original and the programmer jargon. I thought they could have done a better job of handwaving the science for how it all worked.. my last pet peeve with the movie was that it seemed like they couldnt decided if Flynn and Sam were supposed to be helpless in the grid or awesome user/hacker programmers. Flynn's "zen thing" is a little boring in an action movie.
David Thomson
6. ZetaStriker
The point is, no film or TV show is truly derivative of Tron’s basic conceit: living computer programs who believe in humans.
You're forgetting the computer generated cartoon Reboot, which did exactly that while also merging early internet technologies, more gaming, and the concept of computer viruses and antivirus programs into the mix.
john mullen
7. johntheirishmongol
Tron is great, it was way ahead of its time. I don't think there is anything that really looked like it, and the story line was original, even if there are variations of similar theme out there.

And this may be heresy, but I disliked Lebowski. In fact, I he has played a lot of jerks in his career. Starman was pretty good though
Cait Glasson
8. CaitieCat
Yep, I was going to mention Reboot as well, good Can-con* that it is. It really did take the leap from Tron's position, and was pretty entertaining sometimes.

* The CRTC, Canada's version of the FCC, requires a certain amount of material shown on TV or played on radio to be "Canadian content", or "Can-con", something like 15-30%, depending on licence specifics. Thus, certain shows have a much greater chance of going into syndication and reruns here, if they qualify as Can-con.
Chris Long
9. radynski
If Tron were dreamt up today, it would likely involve someone like me (a blogger) being sucked into their computer screen and then having to interact with the sentient social media versions of themselves in an attempt to find a connection between the Facebook/Twitter representation of the “the self” and the true flesh and blood real person.

Which is why that's exactly what South Park did when they did a Tron/Facebook episode a couple years ago.
Ryan Britt
10. ryancbritt
@9
Which I've never seen! Now I want too.
Michael M Jones
11. MichaelMJones
Just to be contrary: when I think of Jeff Bridges, I think of the movie Stick It. :)
Walker White
13. Walker
The South Park Facebook parody of Tron (Gretings, Profile) is a better spiritual sucessor to Tron than Tron: Legacy
Theodore Minick
14. myrkul999
@2

The cartoon is good. They have Boxleitner doing the voice of Tron, who has not yet been turned, Quorra recently made an appearance, and the visuals are remiscent of Aeon Flux, with everyone all loose and lanky. All in all, well worth a space in my DVR.
DavidEsmale
15. Angela Parson Myers
Actually watched Tron with my kids when it first came out, but geek that I am, loved it, and still own a video of it. For me, the high point was the end, after Flynn is back in the real world, looking out at the city from the top of the building, and the city looks uncannily like the virtual world he just escaped. Am I the only one who sees it this way?
David Elliott
16. dissembly
Wow... you... you actually gave me a good reason to re-watch Tron.

I thought it was one of the worst movies I'd ever seen, but now I'm starting to think I was just young and didn't "get" it.

Kudos to you, sir. I will be giving it another chance.
DavidEsmale
17. Tomboy Tarts
The original TRON is still today, I feel, an amazing story. It's tight. The characters are interesting and I love retro graphics and CGI. At least at that time, visual effects and CGI were used only to portray futuristic/surreal scenes in movies but now we use it in almost every film, even the ones that are based on present-day dramas that require normal settings and it all looks so fake. Granted, the CGI today are really works of art, but when used willy nilly the way Hollywood does it, it makes the experience seem to far-fetched and a bit off.

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