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Non-Review Review: Tron

Tron is a cult classic, and one which truly earns its strips. Unlike, say, Blade Runner, which is frequently identified as a “cult classic”, I don’t think it’s possible to make a strong argument that Tron is simply a masterpiece which underperformed upon its release. As much as modern movies are seriously indebted to Tron and the way it redefined what computers could offer a movie-making experience, it’s still a deeply flawed movie which will only really appeal to a very select bunch of filmgoers. Thankfully, I discovered, I am one of them. 

Seeing red (and other primary colours)...

 

Tron is a movie aimed at people who work with computers. It’s that simple. From the portrayal of Flynn’s attempts to use a computer as a metaphor for warfare (even featuring the line, “there’s too many of them?”) through to in-joke references to a computer program literally consuming the system’s resources (right down to the portrayal of computer programs as stereotypes – the accounting program is mild-mannered and shy, and wouldn’t look out of place with a suitcase, for example), the movie might be accessible to people who don’t use computers nearly religiously, but it’s really aimed at the hardcore desk jockeys. 

Which, in fairness, isn’t really too surprising. I mean, it’s a story where the use of a computer in an office space becomes a life-and-death battle and something far more exciting than a few keystrokes and a line of code. A routine file execution becomes an epic odyssey worthy of the Greek poets, a humbling tale of heroism and tragedy, of the triumph of the silicon soul. If I ever wanted to feel important about a job in software, this is the film I would choose to watch. Basically it’s like Willow or Legend or Labyrinth (all films produced around the same time), except for computer geeks instead of fantasy nerds. 

In a way, Tron is as efficient as it can be in telling its story. In offering the viewer a plot by a sentient computer to slowly merge with the world’s electronic infrastructure at a time before we had the world wide web (and before we all knew what firewalls and bits were), it uses cinematic shorthand – clichés and tropes offered up as a way for us to grasp what’s going on quickly. Be it borrowing iconography and language from war films (“what were you before…?” is a common question) or pulp detective novels (“you’re not makin’ me talk,” one character remarks; the computer refers to “the boy detective” skulking around his files). The result is something strange: it’s at once new, but yet something we’ve seen more times than we can remember. At its worst, this actually undermines the story, making it seem less original than it is – we’re seeing something we’ve never seen before, but it feels mundane. 

The movie presents geeks as heroes. Flynn, fresh from setting the high score on his arcade game, is sweating like an athlete. When confronted with the computer’s evil plan, one of the heroes boasts, “Not if my Tron program running.” It’s odd to see these sorts of characters offered as lead heroes (so often are the nerds and geeks relegated to the token sidekick role), but I’m not complaining. 

The movie’s core problem is that the story is ridiculously straightforward and borders on episodic at several points. The rules seem to be made up as they go along, and there’s no real idea of what ultimately needs to be accomplished, other than what we were told five minutes ago. Amid all these trappings, the film is your conventional fantasy narrative through-and-through: go to x, do y, get z, take z to x. It’s sometimes hard to get particularly excited. 

On yer bike...

 

Still, that’s not to say the entire movie is devoid of interest. In particular, there’s the fascinating idea of a system without “users”, where the notion of the humans operating the machines are as gods to the computer functions being commanded – the notion that a computer program must believe that we have “a plan” and therefore infuse their existence with purpose somehow. It’s nice to see a movie tackling an obviously religious angle in an overt manner. 

There’s also just the joy of watching the film play with some wonderful concepts. It’s great to see Flynn as effectively a trojan (an infectious foreign code acting as something legitimate), years before the term came to popular attention. Or that he picks up a “bit” on his adventures. 

The special effects are… a mixed bag. Interestingly, despite the praise that the film earns for embracing computer-generated imagery, some of it is (obviously, even) hand-drawn. And most of it is fairly conspicuous. Tron isn’t a movie you can pick up and show to a regular movie-goer – it would rightly be dismissed as “corny”. Though they were cutting edge at the time, most of the special effects may as well be cardboard cutouts now. Not that I intend to downplay the fact that they were groundbreaking at the time (and are still technically stunning) – as someone in the film remarks, “on the other side of the screen, it looks easy”. I’m just saying that a certain willing suspension of disbelief is necessary – particularly when the film is compared to the design of its sequel, Tron Legacy

Still, I love the design aesthetic, with the neon and the saturation levels. Even in the real world, the primary colours seem to dominate the film. It really is a wonderful film to watch from a technical point of view – the director and the production staff have done an absolutely stunning job of offering a fantasy of what the inside of computer software looks like. 

The presence of Jeff Bridges and David Warner certainly don’t hurt the film, with both actors clearly enjoying their roles and having a great deal of fun with the production. I can’t imagine how strange it must have been to film this movie before CGI became ubiquitous, but there’s very little indication that the performers were uncomfortable with the type of “make believe” that the technique requires. 

Tron isn’t a classic film, or an essential one. But it does have an important place in pop culture history. It’s an example of how wonderfully imaginative a film’s visual design can be (even if it is just over a standard fantasy plot). It’s a cult classic in the truest sense of those words. It isn’t for everyone, but those embrace it will find something special hidden in there.

6 Responses

  1. I don’t know if you read anything into this, but did you see an anti-communism thread going along?

  2. The way the evil program kept referring to overthrowing users (i.e. God) and creating a society where all was controlled by the program?

    I’m doing a shite job of explaining this, I can elaborate later, but I have a class in like ten minutes.

  3. Okay, I’ll try again. The oppressive MCP asks people to denounce their belief in users (God), he is Red (not particularly important but an interesting color choice).

    And this really reading deep, but the wall MCP was constructing that was eventually torn down by Flynn (Berlin Wall).

    Hopefully this take made more sense.

  4. It looks like it could be read as a War on Terror metaphor. Flynn held as a political prisoner, the dictatorship of Clu, and the palaces constructed with extreme class descrepancies.

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