In the summer of 1982, Walt Disney Studios released Tron, an animation enhanced movie set within the inner workings of a computer. To the general public at that time, computers were mysterious machines that took up entire buildings. The term "program" might have been familiar, but only true nerds with degrees had any idea what ram and bytes might be. I remember watching the long production (full of tedious jargon I didn’t understand) and thinking that neither it nor my date would likely prove memorable. I was wrong on both counts.
It is now almost thirty years later, and I have been married to the man who sat next to me that night for just about as long. As for the film, while it didn’t prove to be a box office hit, it did go on to acquire a cult following due to its unique art direction and introduction of computer graphics.
The plot (which, in my opinion now as with then, plays second fiddle to the visuals) centers on Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a hotshot programmer and former employee of Encom, a huge company that is apparently based on the abilities of one enormous computer. The disgruntled Flynn knows he was fired because his colleague Ed Dillinger (David Warner) didn’t want anyone to know he had stolen the code the software whiz had written for a series of video games. Passing it off as his own work, Dillinger went on to receive several promotions, as well as pocketing all the cash from the top selling arcade amusements. Unfortunately, the only evidence of the intellectual property theft is trapped within the memory of the central computer, so Flynn is trying to break into the system. But he can’t seem to get passed the powerful Master Control Program (MCP) that dominates all of the mainframe’s functions.
Flynn has two friends that are still at the firm, Lora (Cindy Morgan) and Alan (Bruce Boxleitner). Convincing them of the crime, Lora agrees to help Flynn procure the proof he needs by letting him use her access code, while Alan launches a security program he authored and named Tron. It has the capacity of finding the rogue commands Dillinger has placed in the system. This work-together plan seems like a good idea until the MCP takes over by digitizing the pesky hacker.
The next thing Flynn knows he is inside the computer, where all programs are personified (he is known as Clu) and interacting within a virtual world. Determined to obtain absolute power, MCP is assimilating all programs, and any that believe in "Users" (meaning the programmers who wrote them and whom they revere as god-like creators) are tortured and destroyed. One of the ways MCP does this is by pitting the programs against one another in gladiator-like battles.
Flynn soon finds himself trapped in such a sport. Yet he knows he can’t stay there long. He needs to break free somehow, find Tron, and usurp the power of MCP so the programs can once again be free to function the way their benevolent programmer/users intended.
Most of the story takes place in this highly stylized environment, where peril and chase scenes are frequent, and conflicts end in deaths implied by characters turning into bursts of light. Because the programs are all portrayed by their corresponding human counterparts in the movie’s real world (Tron is played by the same actor as Alan, MCP is Dillinger, etc.), the violence feels more like injuring and killing living things rather than just deleting inanimate data. These depictions will likely present the greatest concern for parents. Thankfully the script doesn’t contain much sexual content (just a couple of kisses and veiled remarks featuring the movie’s token female) and includes only a few mild profanities.
Although I followed more of the geek-speak with this viewing than I did in 1982 (as will most of the tech-savvy audiences of 2011), the light storyline continues to come across as just an excuse to get to the weightier matter of cool visuals. While theses pale in comparison to today’s more sophisticated effects, fans of such art forms will appreciate the place Tron plays in the evolution of computer graphics and animation. As for myself, I appreciate the movie most for the sentimental memories I associate with that trip to the theater so many years ago.