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Tron (1982)

Some movies set out to make history, and fall flat on their face. Other movies set out to just make a good story, and succeed brilliantly. Yet other movies set out to push the limits of cinematic techniques of the day, and not only do they succeed, but they also make a parmanent place for themselves in the ranks of film classics. Here’s what happened when one man set out to tell a good story with movie tricks that were unheard of in the day, and would not even have been considered by a crew with a lesser imagination. Not bad for a film originally inspired by Pong.

Tron is a sci fi film written and directed by Steven Lisberger, inspired by the nearly universal fascination with video games that had developed during the early 80s. It stars Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, Barnard Hughes, and David Warner, each in dual roles as human characters and avatars of the programs they have created.

In the mainframe of the software company ENCOM, a war is being fought on two fronts, each side unaware of the other except in vague concepts. In our world, a young and gifted hacker software engineer named Kevin Flynn is trying to gain access to the mainframe to find evidence that senior executive Ed Dillinger stole his code an presented it as his own, leapfrogging him into the upper tiers of the company, but Flynn finds himself blocked on every side by the Master Control Program that regulates access to the mainframe. When Dillinger tightens mainframe security in response to Flynn’s probes, Flynn convinces two ENCOM employees, Alan Bradley and Lora Baines, to get him direct access to forge a higher security clearance for Tron, a security program Bradley has created. Meanwhile, in the computer world, MCP is an oppressive overlord, trying to quash the programs’ almost religious belief in their users while at the same time absorbing all useful programs into itself to increase its own power, and trying to gain access into all parts of the network. Tron is a constant thorn in MCP’s side, and it has given the task of finding and derezzing this troublemaker to Sark, a control program who captures wayward programs and trains them for gladiatorial games in the Grid. When Flynn gains physical access to the terminal on the mainframe, however, MCP must act quickly to eliminate this new threat to its supremacy. Taking control of an experimental laser being developed for “quantum teleportation”, MCP digitizes Flynn and abducts him into the Grid. Lost in this strange world, Flynn is forced to learn the laws of the Grid, and then use his powers as a User (and a seasoned hacker) to bend these laws in order to free the denizens of the Grid from MCP’s iron-fisted rule.

Once upon a time, there was no such thing as CGI specieal effects. Moviemaking technology that we take for granted today simply didn’t exist – until Tron. Pioneering this new technique – and doing it the hard way, mind you – opened the door to new ways of portraying things in the movie world that simply couldn’t exist in the real world, like a whole virtual world inside a mainframe. Of course, only a relative handful of FX shots were actually CG, due to the insane difficulty in rendering them; the rest of the techno-world was portrayed using methods that would seem stupidly simple today: monochrome film, backlit animation, and of course the actors simply imagining this virtual world on an otherwise blank soundstage. There are no shots where live actors interact with the CG items, or are even in the same frame (hooray for rotoscoped animation), but despite the extreme limitations of CG at the time, the effects hold up really well, mainly because they aren’t trying to portray anything that’s “real”, or trying to make things that the actors must touch or manipulate on camera.

The plot of Tron is decently simple, serving as a means to get human Kevin Flynn inside the digital world and give him something to do while there, but the plot doesn’t have to be complex to make a good movie. The plight of the programs, virtual though they may be, is genuine both from a human point of view and a computer security point of view. While MCP’s ever-expanding grasp calls to mind how ridiculously easy it was for Matthew Broderick’s character to hack into NORAD in WarGames, this fit the perspective of computer security of the day – systems weren’t sophisticated enough to independently react to threats, and there was still the fear of the megalomaniacal A.I. that seemed to lurk in the perpetual near future. MCP works as an antagonist in a different way than his spiritual cousin, HAL 9000, in that despite being a computerized creation his roots as a chess program give him the ability to learn and strategize, analyzing available data and devouring the resources it finds useful. HAL only turned murderous as a result of a logic bomb in his programming, but MCP seems to be deliberously malicious, possibly striving for virtual world conquest. His right-hand program Sark serves to give a face to the threat, a “real” entity that we can hate rather than a nebulous control program whose face bears a striking resemblance to the Biship of Battle in John Carpenter’s anthology Nightmares.

Tron was made when CGI was still in its infancy (and indeed helped give birth to it), but it still holds up today as an enjoyable movie. The effects don’t seem dated at all, and the story is still engaging in its simplicity. I recommend Tron to all sci fi fans.

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