Tron: The Original Classic
April 2, 2011

Computer geek that I was, I somehow missed ever seeing Tron. I should have checked it out before now, just because it’s historically significant both in terms of its use of computer graphics and in how culture views and portrays hackers. The upcoming release of Tron: Legacy means that Tron: The Original Classic is now available on Blu-ray for the first time. In addition to the two-disc Combo Pack (Blu-ray + DVD), the movie is available as a single-disc DVD.

Tron: The Original Classic cover
Tron: The Original Classic
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Jeff Bridges is a fired programmer whose video game ideas and code were stolen by David Warner’s corporate shark (unsubtly named Dillinger). Bridges enlists former co-workers Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan to get him back into the company computers to find the evidence. The Master Control Program (run by Warner) doesn’t like this idea, so it digitizes Bridges into the system, which forces him to play computer games to defeat the MCP. In the digital world, Bridges teams up with Tron, Boxleitner’s program alter ego.

I was surprised to see Morgan (Caddyshack) as a scientist, Boxleitner’s sweetie, and Bridges’ ex, since I didn’t know that there were any women in this movie. Having the programmers also play their programs is a nifty realization of how writing code can be a creative ability, with approaches that reflect the designer behind them. Watching their scenes, I remembered using VT terminals with their clicky clunky keyboards and colored text on a black screen. And wow, the server room, with the huge reel-to-reel tape drives! While the devices have changed, with touchscreens now in everyone’s phones instead of just the big bad guy’s obsidian desk, cubicle farms haven’t.

Jeff Bridges with Bit

I also got a hoot out of seeing the floppy drives and the glowing practical suits against the monochrome background. (I’m the one who loved Automan, remember.) The occasional creative shot idea — as when Jeff Bridges’ humanoid program, Clu, is destroyed by digitization, and those sparkles dissolve into an overhead night view of the city — shows that ultimately, it’s not the technology but the mind behind it that creates the visions worth watching. I would almost rather watch a past take on the future, a past prediction like this one, than a current, high-gloss over-production. The older visions are less taxing, more creative, and not as loud and aggressive. (We’ll see if I still feel that way once I watch Tron: Legacy for the first time.)

I wasn’t expecting to see such in-depth themes as those involving religion and fighting against tyranny. All I knew before was the electronic jai-alai, the lightcycles, and the glowing frisbees, which still struck me as plenty cool. But the transformation of a User into a Program calls into question the programs’ ideas of how their world works, similar to a deity taking on human form. When the MCP takes over, the previously free programs are captured and kept in cells, where they plot their rebellion.

TRON Lightcycles

Releasing both films together was genius, since much of the appeal for both, in my opinion, is the retro-tech/nostalgia glow stemming from the original. The graphics here hold up well — they don’t look too dated — since they had such a unique minimalist vision behind the design. The pure live-action (“real world”) stuff, though, looks grainy and over-saturated to today’s eyes, more used to seeing the cleaner computer-generated images.

I’ve never personally known anyone who was a fan of Tron, or even many who’d seen the movie, but I know they’re out there, and dedicated enough to bring it back. I’d love to hear one of them talk about what it was like to have seen it at the time, not in today’s world, where it’s likely that my smartphone is more powerful than the computers these guys were working on. (There’s some of this in the special features, but I’m looking for “regular people” reactions, not from those working on the sequel.) Seen today, Tron has neat images and an intriguing technological approach, but the story takes second place to the on-screen visions, and it can seem a little slow at times. By the last third of the movie, the editing seems choppy, with events sometimes a little confusing or too abruptly presented, but pacing expectations were different then. On the plus side, it is nice to have lots of time to admire the visuals.

TRON world

Tron Special Features

In addition to the audio commentary with the director, a producer, and two visual effects supervisors, carried over from the 20th Anniversary DVD special edition, there are two new features:

The Tron Phenomenon — Ten minutes of the Legacy folks — director, stars, producers, writers — memorializing the original and talking about how they didn’t have laptops or cell phones back then. Of more interest to me were the brief comments on how they created a digital world through hand-done animation and effects and the influence the movie has had on designers and computer scientists.

Steven Lisberger

Photo Tronology — 16 1/2 minutes of Steven Lisberger, director and co-writer (shown above), and his son Carl visiting the Disney archives for the movie. They review set photos, including some of Jean “Moebius” Girard, who was one of the conceptual artists on the film, and Steven shares his stories.

The original DVD features, many of which are nicely described on-screen before you select them, are also found on the Blu-ray. They include animation samples, trailers, three deleted scenes, information on Tron from various specials and promos of the time, a lot about the effects, various galleries and design information, and a making-of from 2002 that lasts almost an hour and a half. I liked watching that, especially hearing from Bridges and Boxleitner, but the most prominent fact I will take away is this: I had no idea Lisberger’s studio was responsible for Animalympics, a nostalgic favorite of mine.

17 Responses  
James Schee writes:  

Uhm I’m a fan of Tron, and you know me personally.:) I was REALLY young when I saw this though, on VHS, so can only vaguely recall it these days. I remember liking the visuals, and being a little concerned at the idea of when I played a game I was risking a person’s life. (I was really young.. 6 or 7 I guess) So it made me leary about playing my Atari 2600 for a bit.:)

I remember the Tron Atari game a lot better though, especially the tank game which was awesome. The lightbike on the movie were great visuals, but in the game it was frustrating! lol

Curious to see how this stands up all this time later if I can find it for rent. I have not seen the sequal yet because I couldn’t remember original’s story enough.

Grant writes:  

Great review, really enjoyed your comments. Tron is a movie that, over the years, I have liked more and more with each viewing. I was almost 18 when Tron first came out so I was already a budding film buff and could easily identify it’s pluses and minuses. I remember that initially I didn’t want to see it. Getting older and “too cool” for Disney and all. But my brother was a huge computer geek and made me go and in spite of my criticisms of it as we left the theater, I was secretly entertained.

I think it was just a few years earlier that Disney’s “The Black Hole” had come out and I think Tron and Black Hole were the last two “live action” Disney films that still felt like they were “Disney” products. Both in the films look and tone. Tron wasn’t a great movie, but I felt it still had the remnants of that “Disney Heart” to it (something that I wouldn’t feel again from a Disney film until a decade later with Beauty and the Beast).

For me, Tron also marked the end of the concept of going to the movies as being a form of entertainment to be “shared“ with family. And I can say that, even then, the digitization of Bridges, the light cycles, the recognizers, all of that was pretty stunning and very unique. It came out a couple years after Empire Strikes Back and everyone was comparing it’s effects. I can remember both Tron and Harryhausens “Clash of the Titans” getting poo poo’d by many Star Wars fans. After Tron came out I became a huge fan of the video game. But the fun of Tron is, as you point out, in it’s “creation”, in its “ideas” and in the details of it’s craftsmanship. I have the first anniversary dvd that has a great making of documentary on it. But I will be buying the bluray.

I’d also mention that South Parks hilarious “Tron/Facebook” episode makes a great companion to the film.

Johanna writes:  

Cool, James, although I don’t recall us ever talking about it before. One source I researched while writing about this said that the movie just did ok but the spinoff games were what made it very profitable.

I was worried about not having seen Tron before I saw Legacy, which is why I watched it first, but now that I have — there’s not really much to the story, overall. Although I wouldn’t have known that without watching it, so that’s not particularly helpful.

Grant, another source (reliability unknown) said that the double-punch of Tron and Black Hole is what scared Disney away from live-action for a good while. Also science fiction. It’s interesting you would mention those two together, because they do feel similar in some non-specific ways that I can’t quite put my finger on.

Are the recognizers those big square flying things with rectangular legs?

James Schee writes:  

Yeah, thinking about it I’ve come to understand a friend of mine’s view a little better. He’s a Superman fan, has a Superman tattoo, has Superman items and the like. Yet other than movies and Lois & Clark has never really read the comics, followed news about it or the like.

That’s kind of how I am about Tron, minus the tattoo.:)

Grant writes:  


I think for me, that untangible thing you’re talking about with regards to Black Hole and Tron was that, unlike contemporaries like Superman and Star Wars which really felt like something totally new, Tron and Black Hole felt like something straight out of Disney, it felt dated (in a very Disney kind of way) in spite of whatever ground breaking effects Tron and, to a lesser degree, Black Hole might have had. At least that’s my take on it.

As far as Disney being scared of live action, they were definitely on a downward spiral by the time Black Hole came out. I took a look at their list of live action films. Between 1960 and 69 they made 48 live action film. Between 70 and 79 they made 45. Between 80 and 89 they made 25. That’s quite a drop.

As far as Disney being hesitant about doing much Sci fi stuff, that’s not too surprising given that prior to Black Hole and Tron, their only sci fi themed live action films were bombs like “Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979, same year as Black Hole), The Cat From Outer Space and the two Witch Mountain films (of which only the first was considered really successful. Sounds more like they never really took the theme seriously. I think Star Wars probably forced them into making the more experimental “Tron”.

Yes, the Recognizers are the big flying things that stomp on stuff.

Grant writes:  

I love Superman The Movie. I never get tired of watching it. The only movie I ever went to where the audience actually stood up and cheered (where he catches lois and the helicopter of course). It’s number three on my list of all time favorite films.

Thad writes:  

The thing that struck me most the last time I watched Tron was that the term “User” was applied to programmers. Thirty years ago, they really were synonymous; now the idea that you’d have to know even “cd” or “ls” just to use a computer seems rather quaint.

(I DID like Legacy’s use of whoami, the Unix command that is also an existential question.)

David Oakes writes:  

Watching TR0N for the first time, up on the big screen, was like wearing Automan as a suit to fight bad guys. The absolutely coolest thing a ten-year old has ever seen, and unlike things that occured “in a galaxy far, far away”, it could *really happen*.

I liked Black Hole as well, and felt at the time it was a turning point for Disney to start making really cool live action films again. Zorro or Swamp Fox for the post-Lucas generation. The eventual realization that this was not to be was like being mugged by the Easter Bunny.

But then I discovered Moebius’ comics, and “adulthood” didn’t seem as bad. (I still want to wear Automan like a suit, though.)

steve b. writes:  

I never liked the movie (I liked the arcade game a lot more) but the Tron toys were kinda cool. The action figures were made of translucent colored plastic, so they sort of captured the glowing effect.

Johanna writes:  

Grant, I think you’re right about having a rather Disney, old-fashioned feel for both those movies. The plot in Tron is very simple, when you come down to it. The only layers are the quasi-religious symbolism of Users and Programs, and even that is a rather straightforward mapping.

I don’t think that Disney’s decline in output is specific to live-action, is it? The 80s were a difficult time for the company in all kinds of ways. They were figuring out what to do about the parks after the deaths of both Walt and Roy, including opening Tokyo Disneyland, and starting the Disney Channel and Touchstone while fighting off takeovers. There were a lot of distractions.

Thad, good point. There are multiple new categories now, brought on by Apple, of types of computer interaction.

Grant writes:  


“I don’t think that Disney’s decline in output is specific to live-action, is it? The 80s were a difficult time for the company in all kinds of ways”

Oh most definitely. I was just responding to the comment about Tron and Black Hole causing Disney to be gunshy about making more live action films or Sci-fi stuff. I’m sure they had much bigger problems to deal with. Although I’m not sure what the effect of Walts 1966 death had in 1982.

Johanna writes:  

All the makings of I’ve seen lately, for movies Disney released in the 80s, talk about how everyone was still asking themselves “what would Walt have done?” to gain guidance in an uncertain time. They were still used to thinking of the company as his, although that changed once the Eisner era started, I suspect.

Mike writes:  

Grant, another source (reliability unknown) said that the double-punch of Tron and Black Hole is what scared Disney away from live-action for a good while.

I’d also throw in Something Wicked This Way Comes, which came out the year after Tron and had its own peculiar set of problems. The early ’80s were really a strange time for Disney.

James Schee writes:  

Are you going to do a review of Black Hole? Now THAT was a movie I loved, and am looking to get on DVD/Blu Ray. Its one of the few (perhaps only) movie to make me cry over a robot.:)

Johanna writes:  

I don’t have a copy of it, unfortunately, so no. I’d rather remember the goofy robots without the benefit of adult view, too.

Tron: Legacy » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] plus a Blu-ray for the original Tron. Personally, I would have rather had Tron on DVD […]

mc writes:  

I saw Tron as a kid and really liked it! And looked for it for many years to share with my son, so I was stoked when they digitially remastered it! What bothers me is the SLIGHT REMAKE of an original classic!! And they removed my favorite scene :/ You know, where he is playing the video game and gets sucked up into the game. Yes, they moved that similar scene to Tron:Legacy. And then laser in his departure in both films!! It was not in the original Tron!! Sooo, I can’t figure out why anyone would change a classic film by taking away from it (or adding to it) just to make the 2nd part match (when they are similar now)!! The newer version’s cool, but why change the classic for it?? I wish I hadnt lost my VHS version of Tron. It was better to me!! I loved when the kid is zapped into play right there (I think the game was outside for some reason, like a phone booth–kinda weird— but it was cool under the stars) Wish I could get the original!!


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