Written & Directed by Steven Lisberger
I never grew up aware of this movie, but around 2000, it suddenly became an old Disney film thrust back in the spotlight. Possibly due to a lack of cable, thus an absence of access to the Disney Channel (Tron was shown on the channel’s first day on the air), I just passed it by. I had seen bits and pieces of the movie and wasn’t too terribly impressed, but I am always fascinated with this period of Disney’s output, a weird dark territory where they were taking risks and on the verge of bankruptcy. It’s a much more interesting time for the company than now, where they churn out processed formulaic drivel. So I decided to give the two films in the Tron series a shot and finally see what drew a cult following to them.
Tron is a misleading title as he’s not the main character in my opening. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), an arcade owner and former programmer for ENCOM, a computer software corporation. Flynn left when his original works, a collection of games, were hacked and stolen by fellow programmer Ed Dillinger (David Warner), who is now the company’s vice president. Flynn gets help from current ENCOM employees Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan) to get into the building one night and retrieve evidence that this was his work. However, the systems at ENCOM are overseen by the Master Control Program (MCP), a sentient digital lifeform that wants to protect the world it has made. Using an experimental device, Flynn is digitized and sent into the world of the computer. This turns out to be populated by programs that see the users as their pantheon of gods. Some have sided with MCP, while others are eager to help Flynn, like Tron (also Boxleitner), a program made by Alan.
Tron may have the worst worldbuilding I’ve ever seen in a mainstream movie. I am no fan of clunky exposition but damn if this movie couldn’t have used some to help the audience understand what the hell is going on. I understood that the digital world was populated with sentient beings, but the human characters just seem to accept this as a given, which is odd, to say the least. I needed a little more surprise from Flynn or the establishment that people in the material world knew this about the digital realm. Tron is an incredibly ambitious film for its time, but I think too much attention and focus was given to the special effects and not the foundations of the narrative. If you haven’t recently, go back and watch the first ten minutes and see how easily someone unfamiliar with the movie will be very confused with how much the story jumps around.
I think part of the problem may have been giving script duties solely to writer-director Steven Lisberger. He had a decent career as an animator up to that point and certainly handled the direction and SFX beautifully. Bringing in someone with more experience in writing scripts would have probably helped the first act flow much better and establish the rules of this world. Lisberger only has one writing credit post-Tron, Hot Pursuit, a John Cusack vehicle that wasn’t well received.
The film’s characters aren’t anything spectacular, save for Flynn, and that’s all due to Jeff Bridges’ performance. He brings the natural charisma and laid-back charm that is himself, and it gels well with the type of character Flynn should be. Unfortunately, David Warner is essentially playing an emotionless stock villain, which is disappointing as the previous year’s Time Bandits showed he can deliver a much more complex performance in an antagonistic role. The supporting players, Boxleitner and Morgan, are serviceable but nothing you’ll remember for long after.
And so we’re left with the early digital effects, which, for the period, are wildly advanced. I totally understand why a kid would be enamored with this movie as it ups the ante compared to a lot of spectacle on the screen at the time. But I’m also not surprised that Tron ended up relegated to a cult classic because it misses those core pieces of humanity. Compare this to E.T., which may not have the splashiest of SFX, but presents characters the audience can connect with and therefore resonates much more substantially with all ages. Tron ends up being a really spectacular visual effect presentation and experimental film in one. You won’t find yourself developing strong emotional ties to anyone here, but it’s a fun ride, an excellent way to pass an hour and a half and be entertained.