Throwback Thursday: Greeting Programs from Disney’s Tron

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—“classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important in some aspect.

As mentioned in my column last week on The Black Hole, in the late ’70s and early ’80s Disney was trying to add more adult fare to its theatrical releases. This concerted effort gave us such films as The Watcher in the Woods, The Devil and Max Devlin, and Dragonslayer, to name a few. It also allowed the Disney suits to greenlight a film that would incorporate computer-generated effects for a good portion of the film (actually about 20 minutes’ worth, which at the time was a lot). This film was Tron.

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Tron poster

Jumping on the video-game trend that was growing around the country, 1982’s Tron follows a programmer, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), trying to gather evidence proving that some games he created were stolen by his former employer, ENCOM. While hacking his way into ENCOM’s system, he becomes digitized by a laser and sent to play games on “the grid,” a representation of the ENCOM mainframe. There he teams up with a security program called Tron to find the evidence he needs, free all the other programs held as slaves by the evil Master Control Program, and get back to the real world.

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“That program really tied the whole grid together.”

For this film, though, the plot is not nearly as enticing as the visual effects—in 1982, this traditional and computer animation was state-of-the-art (and then some). To give an example of how far we’ve come, the main computer that was used to create the graphics had only 2 megabytes of memory and about 330 megabytes of storage. Nowadays, an iPod can hold 160 gigabytes. But really, the computer animation dealt with the terrain of the grid, along with the vehicles. Most of the film was actually shot in black and white and then colored with rotoscope techniques (see my review on A Scanner Darkly for more on this technique). For lighting on the grid, which gives the costumes that neon hue, they used a form of backlit animation, which was actually big at the time thanks to disco. So I guess disco doesn’t completely suck.

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“You want to do what with my disc?”

Jeff Bridges jumps into the role of Flynn and just runs with it. Bridges always brings a sense of cynicism and realism to his roles, but this is one of his mid-career films in which he also hammers a lot of energy into the part, which is very different from his later career. David Warner plays an evil executive, the one who stole Flynn’s programs originally, and also on the grid a program called Sark, who is the physical enforcer for the Master Control Program. Warner knows how to play evil well—so well he literally plays Evil in Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits—and this is no exception. He snidely chews the scenery as the great British thespian he is. Rounding out the main cast are Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan, playing Flynn’s friend and girlfriend in the real world and programs Tron and Yori on the grid. Across the board, everyone seems to realize the new ground they’re breaking and the fun they’re having, and it shows on their faces and in their chemistry with each other.

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Hey, guys. We’re having fun.

While not a huge hit at the box office, Tron did make back its budget. However, Disney considered the film a failure on its initial release. Only over time did Disney realize what it had, and in 2010 the studio released the sequel, Tron: Legacy. The sequel focuses on Flynn’s son, Sam, who ends up trying to rescue his dad from a newer version of the grid. The big bad in the sequel is a program that Flynn had created named Clu, with its physical manifestation being a motion-captured Jeff Bridges animated to look like he did back in 1982. While a fun film in its own right, the “young” Bridges is a little unnerving and doesn’t quite work for me. I would definitely recommend the original—for the fun it brings, its special effects, and its historical look at what the general public thought about computers at the time.

I can neither confirm nor deny the next public showing, but you should definitely look at the Geek Partnership Society September schedule—specifically the Geek Movie Night on Saturday, September 12th. I can confirm, though, that this film can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. It is currently available via Netflix rental and streaming right now, but streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out.

Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful. If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.

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