Revisiting Sci Fi Cult Classic ‘Tron’ 40 Years Later

Julien Neaves, Sci Fi Head Writer

1982 was quite the year for Sci Fi in film, with all-time classics like ET: The Extraterrestrial, The Thing, Blade Runner and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (aka the best Trek film ever). And it was also the year that gave us the highly imaginative Disney Sci Fi adventure Tron. With games like Donkey Jr., Dig Dug, Q*Bert and Joust devouring quarters at the arcade what could be cooler than a film sent in a video game-sequel world? And the film had its OWN arcade game! Mind blown!

Tron was also one of the first films to make extensive use of computer generated effects, crafting a world unlike any other. It spawned multiple video games, an underwhelming style-over-substance, uncanny valley visiting 2010 sequel in Tron: Legacy and an underrated and short-lived animated series Tron: Uprising, but nothing hit the zeitgeist like the original. But four decades on how does it hold up? Pretty dang well.

I don’t think red’s your colour broski

In case you forgot the story (and it’s been a while, so who can blame you) it follows a computer corporation called ENCOM which ostensibly is being run by stern Senior Executive Vice President Ed Dillinger (David Warner) but is actually being controlled by a rogue, megalomaniacal artificial intelligence called the Master Control Program (MCP). Dillinger shot his way to the top by stealing video game designs from former ENCOM programmer and Mr Too Cool for School Kevin Flynn (played by a then Too Cool for School Jeff Bridges). Flynn divides his time between running a video game arcade from his house (I know, awesome right?) and trying to hack the ENCOM mainframe to find proof of the theft. He teams up with strait-laced programmer Alan Bradley (future Babylon 5 commander Bruce Boxleitner) and Bradley girlfriend/his ex Dr Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan) to uncover the truth behind ENCOM’s shady dealings.

But MCP is not too fond of Flynn poking around his system and uses a digitisation laser to send him into the Mainframe, a computer world where the AI rules as a tyrant, killing and absorbing other programs and subjecting them to sadistic, video-game inspired gladiatorial games. MCP must have gone to the Bond villain School of Villainy because instead of just having his minions kill Flynn he puts in him in the games for some reason, leaving the fish-out-of-water hero to fight for survival. He is a boss at video games so he does well, and being a human (or “user” as he is known) he is able to manipulate the environment to his advantage.

Stay on the straight and narrow boys

He also teams up with the titular Tron, a security program created by Bradley and which bears his likeness, and Tron’s ally Yori, which bears the likeness of Baines. Also in the Mainframe there is MCP’s general, the vile Sark who bears the likeness of Dillinger (because of course he does).

The trio of Flynn, Tron and Yori are a likeable group, with each taking up the role of rogue, knight and princess respectively similar to Han, Luke and Leia. Not a whole lot of time is spent of character development (for example, why Bradley and Baines are potentially throwing away their careers for Flynn does not make sense) but the film doesn’t really need it. The star here is definitely the visual effects. Watching it now it does feel dated and static at first but I found the more watched the more I just accepted this world and was entertained.

Now this is ultimate frisbee!

And there is a lot to be entertained by including the illuminated character designs, the blue and red neon infrastructure, the geometrical tanks and Recognizers, and the games themselves. The disc throwing and light cycle still look so cool and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the scenes again. I also enjoyed the lore of the peaceful blue programs and their religious belief in the “users” and the quick glimpse at the other odd, multi-coloured programs. I actually wished I could have spent more time in this world.

In terms of pacing, it does take a little while to get to Flynn in the Mainframe and that is where things do get going. Some of the build-up, including the overly long and dull digitisation laser scene, probably could have gotten the chop. And the scene with Flynn driving a hijacked Recognizer with an overly cute byte also feels a bit bloated. Other than that the film cuts a decent pace. As Disney films go this one is on the darker side, with characters being tortured and de-rezzed (de-resolution) which meant death. I felt it when my boy RAM bit the big one. Pour some ones and zeroes out for him.

It’s time we’ve had a face to face Sark. Get it? ‘Face to face?’ Ah, what do you know from funny?

The final battle of Tron against Sark was pretty sweet, with the disc scraping off part of the villain’s head. His return as a giant version is inconsequential but I guess they wanted to raise the stakes right at the end. And the face off with MCP? Well, he’s a large red cylindrical face. There is no way that he could not seem ridiculous, even with David Warner’s solid but uncredited voice work. But the battle (which I fondly recall being replicated in the tie-in video game) is still a satisfying one.

I felt satisfied when the credits rolled on Tron. Sure it doesn’t have the flashy modern effects of the sequel but it has a vision, charm and life to it that still transports the viewer to a wondrous world that should have been nominated for Best Visual Effects at 55th Academy Awards (for shame Oscars, for shame!). And it is a rich world worth revisiting on film. Just make sure it has more heart and likeable characters than Legacy. Bleh.

Score: 7 out of 10

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Julien “Editor Jules” Neaves is a TARDIS-flying, Force-using Trekkie whose bedroom stories were by Freddy Krueger, learned to be a superhero from Marvel, but dreams of being Batman. I love promoting Caribbean film (Cariwood), creating board games and I am an aspiring author. I say things like “12 flavours of awesome sauce”. Read more.

Are you a fan of Tron? Sound off in the comments. And you can check out more classic Sci Fi content below:

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