Light cycles and grid bugs and Recognizers, oh my!
TRON was a cutting edge film that helped to humanize computers while creating a new level of technical excellence in filmmaking. It was ahead of its time and inspired filmmakers, artists, and fans for decades to come.
10 INITIALIZE IMPRESSIONS
The trailer for this film talks about a computer that will soon become the ultimate enemy. Shades of HAL 9000! Computer programmer Kevin Flynn is trying to find some information and gets zapped by a laser, sending himself into the computer itself. Some stunning digital imagery follows, but how will Flynn get out??
Presented below is the trailer for the film.
20 DECODE FILM
In Flynn’s Arcade, an unseen person plays a light cycle video game and loses to the computer controlled opponent. Within the computer, an anthropomorphic looking computer program, named SARK (David Warner) communicates with his “boss” the Master Control Program (MCP) about their plans to capture other programs and grow the system. Back in the real world, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) attempts to “hack” into the servers of the ENCOM Corporation using his program CLU (also Jeff Bridges). The benign world of computers navigating connections and circumventing security protocols is depicted as an exciting electronic battlefield between tanks and flying Recognizer drones. CLU is killed (“derezzed”) after being captured and interrogated by SARK.
The Senior Executive of ENCOM, Ed Dillinger (also David Warner) realizes what is happening and shuts down access for Level 7 and above, which upsets Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) who is working on his TRON program–a gatekeeper to monitor the system and the MCP. Alan meets up with his girlfriend Lora (Cindy Morgan) who works on a lower level with the founder of ENCOM, Dr. Walter Gibbs (Barnard Hughes) on a program that uses a laser to digitize real world items into the computer. Alan and Lora, who used to date Kevin, visit the young arcade owner/hacker to warn him of Dillinger’s plan. Kevin explains he is trying to get proof that Dillinger stole his code for three very successful ENCOM video games, including Space Paranoids.
The three sneak back into ENCOM to get onto the system directly. Walter tries to get to the bottom of the shutout by talking to Dillinger, but the two disagree at a fundamental level. Meanwhile Kevin is trying to find his proof when Lora’s laser is activated by the MCP and zaps him into the world of the computer. SARK is nervous to have a User in the computer world, but the MCP convinces him otherwise. In a jail cell, Flynn, who now looks as “digital” as the other characters, meets TRON (also Bruce Boxleitner) and RAM (Dan Shor), an actuarial program. Flynn is pitted against CROM (Peter Jurasik) in a ring game with power cestas. Flynn wins but refuses to kill CROM, so SARK does so instead.
Flynn, TRON, and RAM are teamed up on a light-cycle team, which is a game that Flynn excels at. The three manage to escape the game grid into the world outside. They are chased by Tanks and Recognizers sent by SARK. TRON is able to escape, but both Flynn and RAM’s light cycles get destroyed and they are left for dead. Being a User, Flynn is able to do magical things in the computer world, such as reconstitute a demolished Recognizer. RAM is amazed at this power, but soon succumbs to his injuries. TRON is headed for an Input/Output tower to communicate information back to his User, Alan, to help restore the ability for the Users to communicate with their programs. First he stops to get help from YORI (also Cindy Morgan).
TRON and YORI make it to the I/O tower, sneaking around the MCP’s guards, and Alan manages to get the necessary code imprinted on his disk to stop the MCP and crash his system. The two escape on a Solar Sailer simulation over the Game Sea. Meanwhile, Flynn has crashed his Recognizer into the I/O tower and changes the color of his circuitry from blue to red so he can blend in with the guards. He manages to sneak onto the Solar Sailer during a fight and joins the other two programs as they head for the MCP. TRON asks about the greater plan of the Users, but Flynn discredits that notion and says that they’re not Gods, just doing the best they can.
The Sailer is wrecked by SARK’s carrier, and YORI and Flynn are captured. TRON manages to escape and heads for the MCP. SARK leaves his ship ordering it to be derezzed, but Flynn uses his powers to maintain the vehicle until they too reach the MCP. TRON fights and kills SARK, but MCP revives him and he grows into a giant. Flynn realizes that he can manipulate the reality of the computer world and leaps into the beam of the MCP which distracts it long enough for TRON to fling his disk into the MCP, restoring the connections between the programs and the Users. Flynn is restored to the real world, now having proof that Dillinger stole his video games. Dillinger finds the MCP deactivated and Flynn becomes the CEO of ENCOM.
“Some programs will be thinking soon.”
“Won’t that be grand? Computers and the programs will start thinking and the people will stop.” – Alan and Walter
30 PRINT HISTORY “TRON”
TRON, while not extraordinarily successful at its release (according to Disney), has gained a cult following and much notoriety with time. It has become known as the first film to use computer generated animation as part of the plot and has influenced numerous films, TV shows and stories involving characters being sucked into an electronic world. Readers of recent Sci-Fi Saturdays articles will know that TRON was not the first film to utilize computer graphics. Looker had a rudimentary digital moment in it, and Star Trek II had a minute long sequence utilizing a computer to render a planet. But TRON is the one that people remember for providing computer graphics, along with clever filmmaking techniques, making it look like Jeff Bridges was actually in a computer simulation. In fact only 15 minutes of TRON’s 95 minute runtime actually contain computer graphics. The remainder of the computer simulated world was cleverly crafted using black and white footage of the actors, backlit with colored highlights making it look as if the circuitry on their costumes was glowing. It also used some static computer generated backgrounds with live action plates superimposed over them, similar to what Mary Poppins had done 20 years before–just without the animated penguins.
With all the interest in TRON (and the sequels and merchandise) it may seem surprising that it was not considered successful at its initial release, at least by Disney. TRON was originally scheduled for a December 1982 release, but moved to July 9 to compete with Don Bluth’s animated film The Secret of NIMH. Obviously the studio wanted to go head to head with the former Disney animator to show who was boss-mouse. In all honesty, December might have been a better time for TRON, as there were no sci-fi films slated for release that month. Moving the film where it did, it now had to compete with one of the biggest blockbuster summers in years. E.T., Star Trek II, Conan the Barbarian, Rocky III, Poltergeist, Blade Runner, and the aforementioned The Secret of NIMH all competed for a share of the box office that summer. Even though TRON recouped three times its $17 million budget, and was the most successful live-action film Disney had released in 5 years, it was just not enough for them to feel that the film was a success. Truly Hollywood accounting.
One thing that most people will agree on the success of, is Wendy Carlos’s electronic music score for the film. Known for a number of electronic music albums, plus the soundtracks to two Stanley Kubrick films (A Clockwork Orange & The Shining) her digital music fit perfectly in the thematic world of TRON. Her themes were well known to fans, not only of the films, but of the video games, where pieces like “Theme From TRON” would play under the action. The soundtrack also had two other songs performed by the band Journey. “1990’s Theme” and “Only Solutions,” based on the quote from Flynn (“Like a man says, ‘there’s no problems, only solutions’,” which is actually attributed to John Lennon), helped the soundtrack’s popularity. It was available on album and cassette at the time but wasn’t released on CD for quite a while due to deterioration of the master tapes. This was eventually resolved and the full soundtrack is currently available in many formats, including of course, digital.
40 IF GENRE = SCI-FI THEN
TRON is a quintessential sci-fi film. While it’s not set in outer space, it deals exclusively with technology and looks at the human condition…with a twist. It was a film that would inspire tons of stories about computers and virtual worlds, including films like The Lawnmower Man, The Matrix, Ready Player One, and Wreck-It Ralph. TRON created a visual metaphor for the way that data moves around a computer and how a program works, just as the Disney released Wreck-It Ralph, and its sequel, would do decades later. The growing popularity of video games and computers in 1982 only helped fuel the film’s ideas, and seemed to make the electronic world easier to grasp for some people. It even inspired a short lived television show at the end of the following year called Automan which features a TRON-esque “AutoMan” with his talking cursor, which is similar to Bit from the film. While later films, like The Matrix, would present computer rendered realities as indistinguishable from reality, TRON provides a different look for the virtual world, much like another famous fantasy film from 1939, The Wizard of Oz.
While the film inspired others after it, TRON seems to take inspiration from the past with The Wizard of Oz. Both films whisk an unknowing protagonist into a different world, which is depicted differently to audiences, black and white vs color in Oz compared to the colorful real world vs the glowing-neon computer world. Both heroes encounter a fantastic adventure to escape. Dorothy follows the yellow brick road to the emerald city to get the help of the Wizard, while Flynn must seek out the I/O tower and defeat the MCP. They also both encounter characters in the new realm that look like people they know back home. TRON’s programs are all based on the Users that create them, similar to the way that Dorothy’s farmhands and townsfolk appear as the characters in Oz. Both films are adventured for the protagonist, with neither character really growing or having much of a character arc, other than discovering they are “special” in this new world.
It also continued the growing distrust in cinema of corporations as the villains. While ENCOM is not exactly villainous, Ed Dillinger, and the program he wrote, is an unscrupulous businessman willing to stoop to petty theft to become chairman of a company. His program manages to absorb many other programs, presumably becoming a more powerful program in the process, and has set its sights on the Pentagon and the Kremlin, potentially inviting global thermonuclear war. Flynn, as an individual, teams up with others that want to “fight the power” and attempt to stop Dillinger from doing the wrong thing. Seemingly they feel that ENCOM does good things, and want to remove the bad apples. This theme continues throughout the 80s as companies continue to make bad decisions with their electronic hardware and end up creating dangerous plots, such as in The Terminator and Robocop.
50 GOSUB SOCIAL COMMENTARY
Perhaps TRON’s most obvious metaphor is the persecution of programs within the computer world that believe in Users being similar to religious persecution. The MCP has decreed that there is no such thing as Users, and Sark is tasked with carrying out this order. It seems that since the MCP actually communicates with its User, Dillinger, that it doesn’t really believe in the dictate. It uses it as a controlling tool to weed out problem programs and potentially help it acquire new ones in its goal of conquering the proto-cyberspace. The interaction between program and user is shown as a religious epiphany, as TRON passes the guardian of the temple to stand in a beam of light and get “the words” writ upon his disk. Much like Moses on the mountain. He is also in awe of Flynn when he is revealed to be a user. But Flynn makes sure to downplay any correlation between himself and a deity, even though he has masterful powers in this realm.
The film also speaks to the artistry of computer programmers by having the programs resemble the Users that wrote them. “Our spirit remains in every program we designed for this computer,” says Walter to Dillinger during an argument. It helps showcase some of the real world things that programmers did (and still do) with their code. It was commonplace for programmers to insert jokes, or signatures of some kind into their code, such as the story of Warren Robinett who wrote the Adventure video game for the Atari 2600. He inserted an easter egg into the code, so that any player performing a certain sequence of events would discover the message “Created by Warren Robinett.” Both a signature and a way to ensure he was credited for his work. In the world of TRON, the program Adventure would look like Robinett.
TRON also touches on a fundamental basis of the nature of computers. What are they here for? In the argument between Walter and Dillinger, Walter says that user requests are what computers are for. That is, they are built to service the end user. Dillinger argues that user requests are irrelevant if the computers are not servicing the business first. This argument is that regardless of whether the programs do good things or bad things, if they make the business money, that is what matters. The film sides with Walter on this argument, as the MCP is destroyed by the gatekeeping program TRON. He has his orders from his User and he carries them out. But it’s not that cut and dry. Users are fallible beings. Their failings are translated into their programs, which reflect their Users wishes. Programs can be used for good or ill, which the film also shows. The sequel, TRON: Legacy, follows up on this concept and expands upon the ideas presented here.
60 LIST SCIENCE
Creating a metaphorical analog of the way computers work and interact with the real world was an inspired idea. For most of the public, computers were probably something used in an office. Some lucky few might have had a home PC. Video games were definitely a more accessible understanding of a computer, having gained popularity just a few years before with Space Invaders, Asteroids, and Pac-Man (who makes a brief cameo in the film on one of SARK’s monitors). TRON inspired many individuals to try coding of their own programs, even simple ones. Schools offered courses in the BASIC programming language, which was a simple English based coding language used to get the computer to perform actions.
TRON also predicted the digital scanning of models to generate their shapes into computer code. In the real world, of course, the object is not disintegrated when it enters into the computer like the orange or Flynn. (Did they scan an orange to show how different their computer was from an Apple?) Hollywood now uses this technology to capture the likeness of actors to create a digital-double of the person for various special effect purposes (shades of Looker!) Computers are also able to capture the movement and performances of actors with motion-capture devices (mo-cap) which allow humans to basically control a digital model within the framework of a computer. There’s also TRON’s idea of avatars for the Users. Since each program looks like their User, it’s an early attempt to understand the interaction of real people’s programs with each other. Or the interaction of Users in a virtual space, aka The Internet.
A slightly less obvious nod comes from the things that TRON demonstrates that are poorly received in the real world. An example: when Alan returns to his desk to get some information the screen is filled with work cubicles. A cube farm of immense proportions fills the space (created as a matte painting). Welcome to the world of the future where individuals are packed into the available space to code their lives away. It’s an eerie premonition of the melding future of technology and business. Another moment that provides a chuckle is when Dillinger accesses the MCP on his office terminal (which is a high-tech, integrated monitor and virtual keyboard within his desk. Something worthy of Star Trek). He types his password as “MASTER”. It’s funny because it’s true. The system is not advanced enough for any sort of biometric access, and so the CEO of a billion dollar company has a password that can be cracked in moments, or even better, guessed. It shows how dumb villains really are.
70 GOTO FUTURE
TRON was not as unsuccessful at the time as Disney might believe. Books, albums, toys and video games bore the TRON likeness and ideas and showed up lots of places. The Starcade, the arcade located at Disneyland’s Tomorrowland, had banks of TRON arcade games to promote the film and satisfy the fun of “being inside the computer.” Players got to ride light cycles, battle tanks, fight off grid bugs, and battle the MCP himself. There was also Discs of TRON video game that simulated the disc battle on top of the light rings. Throw in the games made for Intellivision and Atari consoles (TRON Deadly Discs, TRON Maze-A-Tron, TRON Solar Sailer, & Adventures of TRON) and there was plenty of TRON to go around.
Fans continued to desire all things TRON and in 2010, a sequel emerged, with all the benefits of modern computer graphic imagery: TRON Legacy. It continued the story of The Grid and Kevin Flynn. It was followed two years later by a 19 episode TV Series called TRON: Uprising, which served as a prequel. Fans were hopeful that these forays back into the world were a sign for more to come. Unfortunately, Disney chose to further the films in its Marvel Cinematic Universe and Star Wars universe, and at this time, there has been no further movement on any TRON related films.
TRON is still a pretty amazing slice of 1982. It provides a look at how computers were used at the time, but has a touch of futurism in it as well. It is able to provide emotion to cold, calculating machines, and give the computer a soul–of sorts. And it still inspires viewers to be the best person they can be and live up to their dreams, no matter what they are (even if those dreams are to take over The Grid). It’s a fantastic visual treat that was megabytes ahead of its time.
80 END OF LINE
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.