Yes, 1982’s ‘Tron’ Deserves Your Respect

As a child of the eighties, the “Tron” coin-operated arcade game intimidated me.

Unlike the bleeping and blooping thrills provided by “Centipede” and “Frogger,” I could never last for more than a few minutes on “Tron.”

All I cared about was how much play I could extract from twenty-five cents. I could go the distance on “Donkey Kong” or “Ms. Pac-Man” but I could never get past the first level of “Tron” and found my quarters were wasted on its difficult levels of play (ditto “Dragon’s Lair”).

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The look of the game was always what drew me in, as it had a purple neon sheen and cool glow that far outclassed every boxy arcade attraction positioned next to it. Yet, despite a mild appreciation for the movie it was based on and how some of the older teens around me would brag about their high scores for “Tron,” repeated experiences of crashing and burning on it after a couple of minutes were all the reminding I needed that the game was just not for me.

That all changed in my thirties.

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One of my favorite places on Earth is the Penny Arcade in Manitou Springs, Colo., which houses all of the video games (as well as pinball machines and antiquated games from the early 20th century) I grew up playing and adoring in my childhood.

I became reacquainted with the “Tron” game and turned into an addict. In fact, despite “Centipede” being “my game” (the way pool was always my college specialty), I’d always go right to “Tron” first and find that the game that I couldn’t beat, let alone get past Level One, was now much easier and more enjoyable as an adult.

Perhaps my reflexes were now faster or because I no longer took it so seriously and just had fun. In any case, the video game that once daunted me is now a favorite in my “adult years.”

The film “Tron” (1982) by Steven Lisberger, likewise, has also grown on me. While the visual pleasures and a few cool individual scenes endured, it was one of those movies where it’d play on The Disney Channel, and I’d quickly turn the dial to HBO or MTV instead.

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While my father owned an Apple IIE, I wasn’t a computer nerd in the ’80s and didn’t fully understand the concept of “Tron.”

While the film aired dozens of times on The Disney Channel during the 1980s, I didn’t actually see it from start to finish until decades later. I truly first caught up with it, and found it totally absorbing, in my 30s, at a midnight screening in Denver.

It’s incredible on the big screen.

Today, with the notion of online warriors, digital representations of the real players, at war with viruses attacking the integrity of their programs, is all too easy to grasp. Like a toothpaste commercial with a digital hit of Crest wiping out potential cavities, the battles of “Tron,” in an age where most have a general knowledge and acumen as to how their computer works, are easy to comprehend and become invested in.

“Tron” opens with a glowing computer grid, suggesting both the worlds within worlds and that the “information superhighway” isn’t all that different than a birds-eye view of a bustling city at night.

The sequel begins the same way, though more on that later.

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It opens at Flynn’s, a dream of an arcade, pushes inside the “Light Cycle” game created by the celebrated Flynn, played by Jeff Bridges. Flynn is the creator of “Space Paranoids.” In the Tron game, Bridges plays Clu, his stand-in for Flynn.

In addition to running the arcade and being a game creator, Flynn is also an ENCOM software engineer, where he works with Dr. Lara Baines (Cindy Morgan) and Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) whose game avatar is the title character.

We know ENCOM is a big deal, as top-level employees fly in a helicopter with glowing red neon on the propeller (!) and land on the roof, touching down on a glowing blue landing strip.

David Warner is Dillinger, the dark bureaucrat who oversees ENCOM but goes by Sark in the world of Tron, the Darth Vader to the all-seeing Master Controller.

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Whereas Lara and Alan have success “digitizing” an orange, they, along with Flynn, literally enter the world of Tron. In doing so they take their corporate battle with Dillinger to a literal level, as the rules of this world within the real world threatens their possibility of returning home.

The “users” are the people in real life, whereas the “programs” are the avatars in the world of Tron. The story has aspects of “Star Wars,” particularly in the world building and lore – the most intriguing aspect is the reference to religion, something the sequel explored to greater affect.

Despite how novel the gimmicky premise of exploiting the possibilities of computer technology is, “War Games” (1983) dug deeper and had this beat the following year. I wonder if Lisberger was ordered by Disney to tighten the first act, as clumsy edits have many early scenes fading in briskly and title cards working too hard to tell the story.

As an ’80s movie, it scratches that itch for anyone who longs for the days of Atari, Tang, Light Brites and Journey (which plays on the soundtrack). Nevertheless, as a visual presentation, even with effects that are no longer cutting edge, “Tron” is uncommonly beautiful.

It makes for a surreal action movie and the finale explodes with color and fanciful ideas about alternate identities on multiple plains of existence. It’s all so arresting, who cares if the setting and technology are relics?

Speaking from personal memory as much as what many said about “Tron” at the time of its release, the film is too talky for kids and too weird for many adults. Yet, as goofy as this is at times, the strangeness of it is exciting, as we’re seeing a new cinematic landscape.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Disney took a giant swing on this and, while not every scene works (and the film was a mid-range hit at best), it’s still easy to appreciate how much time has caught up with this ahead-of-its-day film.

“Tron” arrived the same year as “Blade Runner,” a far more profound work, of course, though another that deserves comparison for needing roughly a decade for the appreciation and acknowledgement of its achievement to kick in.

Both had a profound but seemingly stealth influence on the sci-fi genre; if “Blade Runner” inspired every futurist and existential sci-fi work that followed it, then every subsequent gaming fantasy, from “The Last Starfighter” to “Scott Pilgrim Vs. the World” to “Ready Player One” owes a great deal to “Tron.”

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While the dialog felt like gobbledygook and the plot was hard to follow in the 1980s, the ideas within “Tron,” that a digitized world allows for our true, hidden selves to be flaunted and go to battle with others, no longer seems remotely farfetched.

It might be an ’80s artifact for some, but the clarity of the premise and the still-dazzling, once-revolutionary presentation of its ideas make essential. It’s an under the table classic, a great work of science fiction that isn’t usually mentioned alongside other hallmark works in the genre, but absolutely deserves its place in that hall of fame.

As video game movies from the Reagan era go, it’s the equivalent of a number one top score, the kind where a joy stick and careful pressing of a button ensure that your initials will remain in the arcade history…until they pull the plug.

Finally, it must be said that the overhyped but impressive, maddeningly ambitious “Tron: Legacy” (2010) is a worthy follow up. There’s a key flaw at the center of it and it’s the seriousness of the lead performance by Garrett Hedlund; his character is the equivalent of Luke Skywalker, but Hedlund is playing him like Hamlet, adding a needless weight to a film already wallowing in busy world building.

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Most disliked how the film presented a “younger” Bridges, presented through early de-aging CGI, but the effects are appropriate, as Bridges is playing both Flynn and Clu, his digital doppelganger and black sheep.

The visuals remain splendid, and the story is a wild Biblical allegory: Flynn is God, Clu is the Devil and Hedlund’s Sam is the son of Flynn, in the middle of a battle for dominion over Tron.

Add a decade-best score by Daft Punk and you have a thrilling follow-up. Both “Tron” films are worth revisiting, as they have more on their minds than expected and succeed in shaping, in Flynn’s words, “a new digital frontier.”

You don’t need a pocketful of quarters to appreciate how “Tron” and “Tron: Legacy” beautifully visualize the corporate exterior world we work in and the computerized worlds within that we all visit daily.

Perhaps that’s the biggest irony of “Tron”: in 1982, the main characters are “trapped” in their computer, whereas today, we’re all too happy to plug in and remain in the grid.

Time to fire up those Light Cycles.

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