28 05 2010

In the late-’70/early-’80s, Disney was attempting to reposition itself in a niche away from the traditional family product that they were known for, moving instead towards darker-tinged science fiction and fantasy. This was partly in response to the success of Star Wars in 1977, as is apparent with the generally goofy (but at times surprisingly sinister) Disney live-action feature The Black Hole, released only two years later.

So when a young, independent animator called Steven Lisberger approached the company, looking for someone to finance an experimental science fiction film about video games, it seemed like the perfect fit. This was the era of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong and Frogger, when home computing was beginning to make inroads and the potential of all things digital seemed limitless: the so-called “silicon revolution” had just arrived. What better way for Disney to remain relevant than to release a film that capitalised on such a current trend?

That film, of course, was Tron (1982). Combining back-lit animation, traditional animation and computer-generated imagery with live-action footage, this was Star Wars for the impending Information Age. Its setting was stark yet elegant and often beautiful; its themes struck at the heart of the increasing commercialisation of a market hitherto dominated by hobbyists and academics. In short, it was the mythology for a new age.

And yet in 1982, Tron was maybe a bit too “out there” for most people. Lisberger created a world that was intended to draw the average person into the romance of computer-geek culture, but instead it only alienated them further. Too many adults at the time had no relationship to computers or the culture that surrounded them, and so there was no entry-point to allow for them to connect with the characters.. For a lot of children, however, there were no such problems.

The story centres around Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a programmer and video arcade-owner whose original games were stolen by a ruthless former colleague, Ed Dillinger (David Warner), now an executive at software company ENCOM. When Flynn attempts to crack ENCOM’s system from within the company’s own R&D lab, hoping to gain proof of Dillinger’s theft, Dillinger’s Master Control Program (MCP) uses an experimental laser to zap Flynn into cyberspace.

As a computerised version of himself, Flynn soon meets Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) a video game warrior determined to destroy the MCP and restore freedom to the system. Along the way, he drinks from a water-like power source, flies a Recognizer (a vehicle of his own design) and, most memorably, rides a light-cycle, a bike which, when on the “game grid”, can only turn at right-angles.

The plot itself is more-or-less the standard hero’s journey, but what makes Tron unique is the then-cutting edge technology on display and the way the design works with its limitations rather than against them. Primarily the work of Jean “Moebius” Giraud (who had previously worked on Alien (1979)) and Syd Mead (who was also working on Blade Runner (1982) at the time), the backdrops, vehicles and costumes perfectly blend angular, geometric elements with softer and more natural curves and shapes. The result is a world that is both high-tech and spiritual, where an “I/O tower” becomes a digital cathedral and belief in the “users” of the system takes on theological importance. When combined with the backlit animation and the high-contrast black-and-white footage of the actors, you have something unlike anything else before or since.

What no doubt threw people off at the time was the notion of electronic avatars. Both Boxleitner and Bridges play two characters each, where their programmes take on the appearance of their “real world” counterparts. (Warner plays two characters and also voices a third.) And although “cyberspace” is not referred to directly, even the idea of a digital, virtual environment where the intangible resides was just not something most people were able to relate to.

It’s taken almost 30 years, but now Tron seems more relevant than ever. Later this year a sequel will be released, with Disney finally ready to see the franchise take off. And with games like World of Warcraft being totally mainstream forms of entertainment, the idea of a virtual world full of avatars no longer seems so foreign to most people. Most ironic of all, however, is the fact that without Tron preceding it, the highest grossing film of all time would have been unthinkable.

Tron has endured precisely because it was ahead of its time. It has minor flaws—it can be corny and stilted at times, though this stems more from its genre roots than anything else—but it seems more and more prescient with each passing year. And just as Star Trek bred a new generation of scientific pioneers in the Space Age, Tron has given rise to Generation X’s Information Age trail-blazers. It is we, the few, the proud, the geeky, who have carried on its legacy and allowed it to rise from the ashes, 28 years later.

Here’s hoping the sequel lives up to the original.



One response

29 05 2010
Bonnie MacBird

Hi Dion, nice article. I was the original writer on that film, and the Bruce Boxleitner character was based on computer scientist Alan Kay, who met with Steven and me early in the process. I hired Alan as the technical consultant and we worked on the script, spending quite a bit of time on the concept of “agents” inside the computer, for over a year. Alan and i have been married for 26 years now! ….Bonnie MacBird

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