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Tron (1982)

by on 2010/12/19

“This guy’s a little like Santa Claus!”

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At the time of writing, DVD copies of Tron are being sold through Amazon at prices ranging between $90 (used) and $390 (new).  The possibility that anyone would spend so much money for this video boggles my mind.  As nostalgic as I may feel, its core concepts have been realized and developed more effectively since, in more readily accessible films like Toy Story and The Matrix.

Like the Toy Story series, Tron relies on the central conceit that inanimate objects — in this case virtual ones — have a secret life and a consciousness similar to our own.  In anthropomorphizing the byproducts of technology, one can see the creators struggling with the then-novel notion of Alvin Toffler’s Third Wave (information) via the metaphors of the Second (industry).  Never fulfilling its own potential, however, its philosophical underpinnings simply dress the set of a conventional gladiator tale.

In one plot thread, disgraced programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) breaks into ENCOM, his erstwhile employer.  There he hopes to uncover proof that he, not usurper Ed Dillinger (David Warner), was the true creator of ENCOM’s arcade hit, Space Paranoids.  Assisting him in his heist are disaffected employees Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan).

In an alternate thread, both inset and parallel, Clu (Bridges) and later Flynn himself seek the core of the MCP (Master Control Program), to locate a file, and escape a strange, animated landscape.  Attempting to stop him is Sark (Warner), an overseer who conscripts programs into service as video game elements.  Assisting Flynn in his quest are rebels Tron (Boxleitner), Yori (Morgan), and Ram (Dan Shor).

Like The Matrix, Tron suggests ideas of awareness, communication, and transition between two realities which share a complex interrelationship.  But where The Matrix begins in the virtual realm and ascends to a “higher” plane, Tron moves inward from our world.  (As an aside, the visual cues marking the former’s transitions clearly influenced the latter’s digital rain.)  Additional similarities include the presence of a messianic visitor who “shouldn’t be able to do” certain things, like manipulate the world’s reality, create new objects, and even revive the dead.

Other more unique issues are raised, although they remain just as much unexplored.  What if you were to meet “god” and discover he’s just as lost as you?  Does he make you, or do you make him, and in whose image?  To couch it all in technology’s terms, do creators infuse their creations with a spirit?  Do users control their computers, or vice versa?  Or are there entirely different interplays at work?  In times when information is power, these questions are hardly trivial.

I feel a bit guilty, taking this effort to task for missing such opportunities.  To be fair and rebalance the critical scales, I should note what really impressed me.  I greatly respected the look of the world; I see what the designers intended.  It’s an original depiction of what has since been called cyberspace or virtual reality:  minimal, stark, almost neo-gothic — a vast empty space punctuated by occasional neon elements — voids, gradients, symmetries, and lines.

The aesthetics are as visually striking as they are thematically appropriate, but the vintage of the film subverts them to a degree.  The compositing process introduces excessive levels of grain in a binary world which should be eerily clean.  “Real” faces feel foreign, disconnected from their virtual frames . . . perhaps they might have been posterized to fit in.  A cameo by Pac-Mac looks (and sounds) distractingly dated and, ironically, CGI jaggies stick out amid fluidly hand-drawn lines.

So while Tron’s appearance lends novelty to a somewhat generic adventure, there is little of substance to recommend this piece.  Its grander ideas seem inadvertent, incidental, or unmined.  As I quipped to the local goth, I felt as if Disney had access to the Library of Alexandria, and used its treasures to build a children’s fort.  I’m not asking for boredom, stodginess, and academia, because movies like The Matrix have found success.  I’m hoping the sequel, Tron Legacy, delivers on its promise.

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Please note:  This review is a placeholder “stub” intended for future revision.

Rated PG

96 minutes

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