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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.