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Review: TRON (1982)

TRON (1982)

Directed by: Steven Lisberger

Premise: A hacker (Jeff Bridges) is transported inside the world of a computer network where programs are sentient beings that are forced to participate in gladiatorial games. The hacker leads a revolution against the system.

What Works: TRON is a fun film that has a counter cultural spin to it. This picture was made at a time in which computers were still quite new and the subculture of hackers and programmers was still very small. TRON tapped into this and it reflects the sensibilities and concerns of the subculture at that moment. In particular, TRON dramatizes the fear that the independence of programmers and software designers might be imperiled by commercial interests and that the humanity of individuals might be overshadowed by corporate entities and economic systems. In retrospect, this film anticipated exactly what would happen within the computer industry in the coming decades. The story world of TRON is designed to illustrate this theme as it sets up a dual universe of the physical world and the realm within the computer network. The filmmakers employ clever cues to suggest the links between the two: the same actors star in comparable roles and visuals in both the corporal and the digital realms suggest sterility, order, and stratification. The story melds this light political commentary with religious and spiritual symbolism and that helps this film considerably. The visual style of TRON can be abstract and even now, when sci-fi is a familiar storytelling genre, the film’s look remains unusual. The Spartacus-like narrative provides a familiar storytelling frame through which viewers can grasp what they are looking at. The political content is important to TRON but this film is ultimately most notable for its technical accomplishments. TRON was among the first pictures to meld computer graphics with live action and it opened doors for a lot of films that would come later such as The Last Starfighter, The Lawnmower Man, and The Matrix.  

What Doesn’t: Upon its release, TRON was not a big hit. Its filmmaking style was sometimes too abstract for audiences of 1982 and viewers did not know what to make of it. Following its premiere, Disney downplayed TRON for many years, regarding it as lesser title despite the fact that it has accumulated a cult audience. (In fact, Disney was so concerned about the regard for the original TRON that the studio passively suppressed the film in the lead up to the release of the 2010 sequel TRON: Legacy.) Between 1982 and the present the culture caught up with and in many ways surpassed the scope and technology of TRON and so the film has gone from being too avant-garde to being quaint. Although age has not been kind to TRON, this is a film that is worth a look but it has to be enjoyed with the understanding that it is a product of 1982. That isn’t damning with faint praise; great pictures like the 1933 version of King Kong have to be enjoyed with an understanding of the cinematic technology available at that time. Nevertheless, some of TRON’s visuals do look absurd to twenty-first century eyes and at least a few scenes will probably elicit giggles from the audience. But aside from its age, TRON also suffers as a film that is a little too high concept. The picture has a neat idea, that there is a virtual world inside of our electronics, but the sterile look of the cyber world is off-putting and the film’s philosophical underpinnings are shallow. Science fiction films often use philosophical ideas but there is a difference between actual intellectual subtext and balderdash used as window dressing. At times TRON drifts toward the latter.

DVD extras: The DVD/Blu-ray edition includes a commentary track, a documentary, featurettes, deleted scenes, image galleries, and trailers. 

Bottom Line: TRON is a technically important film but it is the kind of movie that has to be enjoyed as a product of a specific time. It is flawed but it is also a very interesting film that, perhaps unconsciously, tapped into the intersection of computer technology and the human experience in ways that are now quite relevant.

Episode: #408 (October 7, 2012)