Original US release date: July 9, 1982
Production budget: $17,000,000
Worldwide gross: $33,000,000
I had previously seen TRON so long ago (and so infrequently – once, perhaps?) that it was all new to me, again, upon the re-watch for this column. In fact, I remembered more from the TRON world within the “Kingdom Hearts” video game than I did from the film, itself. It wasn’t a movie that I discovered as a kid, so I was introduced to it as an adult.
That’s probably fine, because it’s a little high-concept for a kid, in my opinion. It’s not inappropriate; it’s just sophisticated. The story follows the plight of Flynn (Jeff Bridges), whose video game designs were stolen by Ed Dillinger, the diabolical senior executive of Flynn’s former tech company employer. In order to protect his illegal machinations, Dillinger creates the Master Control Program to guard and control the company’s server and operating system as Flynn works from the outside to hack the system and find the proof he needs to bring Dillinger down and get his games back in his own hands. The events escalate when Flynn is physically sucked into the system, itself, and must now not only find his evidence, but uncover a way out in order to save his own life.
The first thing that struck me is how prescient the film ended up being. I’m not referring to the obvious theme of the artificial intelligence becoming sentient. That hadn’t been seen as often back in 1982 as it has been, by now, but it had still been addressed by other stories before Tron came along.
No, what I’m referring to is the fact that the entire core of the narrative is centered around an instance of intellectual property theft. IP theft is, of course, all the rage, these days. The vast majority of the population is guilty of it and continually finds a way to justify their actions. “It’s just a [movie, TV show, video game]”. So? “Well, I can’t afford to go to the movies, so this is the only way I can see them.” 1. Not true. 2. I can’t afford a Jaguar. Guess what I don’t have? A Jaguar. And it goes on and on. But theft is theft, and in TRON, it’s appropriately treated as such. There was no way that Disney, director Steven Lisberger, or his fellow writers Bonnie MacBird and Charles Haas could have foreseen how this crime would eventually become socially acceptable groupthink, but I would guess they’re probably hanging their heads in shame and hoping that there’s a TRON, somewhere, working to correct the problem.
The film also serves as a metaphor for a dictatorial state, where freedoms are revoked and dissenters are pitted against one another. Also eerily prescient, yes? Much as was the case with the artificial intelligence aspect of the script, this political component isn’t original to TRON, but Lisberger and crew sure seem to be batting 1.000 regarding their choice of imminently relevant themes. Practically everything this film chooses to warn us about is coming to fruition. TRON was “The Simpsons” before “The Simpsons” existed.
In addition to all of that, there’s a religious metaphor going on, as well. Many of the computer programs refer to their programmers/creators as “users” and see them as gods. Others, who believe in no such thing, refer to those programs as religious crackpots and there is a deep divide between the believers and the non-believers. I never got the impression that Lisberger was making any particular statement about religion but was instead just presenting it as a thought-provoking conversation starter. Once Flynn – a user – is sucked into the system, the film once again seemingly predicts the eventual creation of “Undercover Boss”, of all things, as Flynn has no immediate desire to reveal his true point of origin to the rest of the programs.
Aside from the surprisingly poignant subtext, the film is a lot of fun and extremely visionary. Obviously, TRON was Disney’s response to the overwhelming success of Star Wars, but there’s enough here that’s unique to this specific property that it, like David S. Pumpkins, is very much its “own thaaaang”. There’s also an element of The Wizard of Oz, here, as each real-world character has a counterpart within the network. It’s admittedly odd that the anthropomorphized computer programs have feelings and even show affection for each other in the same ways that humans do. None of these programs are Leisure Suit Larry, so I’m not sure where they learned to do such things if they were never programmed to know them. But maybe I’m overthinking.
The special effects are clearly outdated but it’s within the effects’ rudiment that lies the film’s charm. I can’t say this for certain, but the world within the network feels simplistic by design, perhaps in an effort to not overwhelm an unsuspecting audience who wasn’t as used to this type of film in 1982 as we are, today. Or, maybe not, and this was the best Disney had to work with in 1982. Either way, I wouldn’t change a thing. The film has a look all to itself that has never been replicated – or even approximated – in any other franchise in the decades since. There’s no mistaking TRON for any other property when one sees it. The bright colors, the innovative physics, and the borderline-creepy atmosphere work in conjunction to set the film apart from any that came before or has come in its wake.
The film actually didn’t make a whole lot of money upon its release and that’s probably because audiences were no different 35 years ago than they are, now: the film looked different and American audiences don’t truly want originality in their films. The movie didn’t get a foreign release, so the domestic gross was all it had to work with. That’s a shame, as there are a lot of great ideas in TRON (no! Not ideas! Anything but IDEAS!) that are presented through a truly distinctive veneer. No self-professed geek’s brain library is complete without adding at least one viewing of TRON to its database.
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