Released in the summer of 1982, at the end of the first computer game boom, TRON tried to plug into the immense popularity of video arcades. The plot, such as it is, follows Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a software programmer whose game designs have been stolen by an unscrupulous tech exec. When Flynn breaks into the corporate mainframe looking for proof, the computer’s Master Control Program abducts Flynn, digitizing him and forcing him to fight in the very games he created. In order to escape, he must enlist the help of other programs—anthropomorphized software who take on the appearance of their “users”—to fight against the tyranny of the MCP.
While the dialogue is often bad, many of the central ideas of the movie are original and clever, and presaged cyberspace, computer hackers and avatars. Long before "information superhighway” became yesterday’s catchphrase, TRON showed its characters moving from computer to computer in vehicles of all sizes.
That TRON works at all is due almost entirely to Jeff Bridges, who holds the whole mess together with gleeful enthusiasm and a proto-Dude demeanor. It did not hurt that futurist Syd Mead (Blade Runner) helped design the visually sleek vehicles or that Moog maestro Wendy Carlos created a synthesized score.
The Disney production was also notable for being the first big screen film to use computer animation to generate whole scenes, and many of its special effects. Not all, however. The majority of shots that take place “inside” the computer world were filmed using tricks and techniques that went back to the early days of cinematography, and its signature “glow” was achieved by hand-tinting the film frames. This often lent the movie a silent picture feel, as if you are watching long-lost colorized footage of Metropolis, or the Soviet Constructivists.
TRON therefore is a unique cultural artifact, sitting on the divide between old and new cinema.
Alas for a disappointed Disney, TRON didn’t do well at the box office that year, especially against such sci-fi blockbusters as E.T., Poltergeist, The Road Warrior and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Even the TRON video game made more than the movie.
It may have been the video game, in fact, that helped secure the film’s long-term reputation. Driven by a booming 8-bit version of Carlos’ ear worm of a soundtrack, the arcade game was challenging and addicting and everywhere. Even today you can find functioning machines collecting quarters in bars and the rare surviving arcade. The video game wasn’t just a product tie-in, it was considered an extension of the movie and had elements that didn’t make the final film, but which were part of the official story — an early form of cross-platform pollination now known as “transmedia.”
Even as a box office failure, TRON continued to influence. The hardware and software needed to generate the SPX had been built from scratch and cost millions but the lessons the technicians took away from the experience helped shape the future of computer animation in Hollywood.
The kids who dropped all those quarters in the arcade grew up to become writers, programmers and filmmakers. TRON’s concept of a virtual reality is firmly present in the DNA of cyberpunk, the online community Second Life and The Matrix.
About the only property that didn’t benefit from TRON’s influence was TRON itself. Disney, for its part, never seemed to be aware of what they had, or how to tap into this particular fan base. Gamers, clamoring for years for a follow-up to the video game, had to wait until 2003 for Tron 2.0, a first person shooter with a TRON-esque veneer. It wasn’t enough though and some industrious fans, tired of the delay, took to designing their own homemade “light cycle” games. (By now it was possible, as processing power on personal computers were greater than the ones used to make the movie in 1982.) While the light cycle duel is only about two minutes long in the film, it has inspired over a dozens different arcade versions you can find online for free.
Steven Lisberger, who was the original’s director, spent decades trying to interest Disney in a remake or a sequel with little success. Then at the 2008 San Diego ComicCon, Disney dropped a visually stunning teaser for TR2N, later to be renamed TRON: Legacy, and the buzz has been building steadily online for the past two and a half years.
Whatever happens with the new movie, its anticipation has secured TRON’s place as a pop culture reference. Last year South Park used TRON imagery to parody Facebook, and the seemingly de rigueur porn parody every hit movie gets has already been made (it’s called PRON, in case you’re interested.)
“TRON spoke a certain language that was deeply understood by a generation of young people who were moving into the computer age,” wrote Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, who worked with Disney on coordinating their transmedia for the sequel across videogames, graphic novels, and mobile apps.
“Tron Legacy was made by some of these [same] people, and it stands as both an homage to that moment in time, and the shape of things to come.”
⇒ Read Zack Smith's review of Tron: Legacy.