Director: Steven Lisberger
Writers: Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird
Cast: Bruce Boxleitner, Jeff Bridges, Barnard Hughes, Peter Jurasik, Cindy Morgan, Dan Shor, and David Warner
Aside from a brief affair with the TRS-80, I didn’t get much exposure to computers growing up. This later came as a tremendous source of frustration to my engineer roommate who would ask about the speed of my processor and then sigh when I told him about the motor going, “vroo-vroo,” if I opened more than three programs. He couldn’t understand that, as a writer, I didn’t so much use a computer as manhandled a magical typewriter with Internet access. Evidently, Steven Lisberger, the mind behind Tron, isn’t an engineer either.
How else would you explain the opening half hour, in which our hero, Flynn (Jeff Bridges), gives a pep talk to a virus and a slimy CEO named Dillinger (David Warner) cowers before his own Master Control Program instead of hitting Ctrl-Alt-Del? Whether the corporation uses uncanny sentient technology or Lisberger thinks game designers have unlocked the secret of existence is left unclear, though I’m inclined to believe the former, given the reason Flynn and his companions break into Encom is to prove Dillinger has stolen his code. This would mean only those working from Flynn’s creation can build sentient programs.
Anyway, Master Control Program tries to stop the intruders by zapping Flynn with a magical vroo-vroo gun that transports him into a digital plane of existence. Astute readers may be wondering what a magical vroo-vroo gun is doing in the offices of a company that makes video games. Based on a line about the numeric villain using both American and Soviet Union databases to take over the world, I presume the building doubles as a research facility for a secret military project of some kind.
You’ll notice I’m doing an awful lot of guessing. That’s because Tron tends to insinuate its story rather than tell it. In the real world sequences, which serve exclusively as placeholders for the main plot, this creates a number of distractions. How are Flynn’s fellow interlopers, Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora (Cindy Morgan), fairing in the Encom facility? Do they even know about Master Control Program’s bid for global domination? You’d figure their side of the heist would make for a nice counterpoint to provide suspense, but Tron is apparently above convoluted devices like parallel editing.
In magical vroo-vroo land, however, the narrative blinders allow the movie to hint at untold possibilities without getting bogged down with details such as foreshadowing or internal logic. Like Ulysses in The Odyssey, Flynn, whose journey literally consists of moving from point A to point B, seldom encounters a problem he can’t solve in the next scene. The hero gets captured by Master Control Program’s evil henchmen; he escapes using his superior gaming skills. The hero needs a guide he can trust; he befriends Tron, who looks and acts like his buddy Alan. The hero must get to the processing core; he hitches a ride on a vehicle that leads him straight, and I do mean straight, to his goal.
What this linear approach lacks in tension, it makes up for in ideas, and I don’t just mean famous set pieces like the Frisbee duel or the light cycle battle. Consider the film’s offhand religious analogies. Master Control Program knows human users exist, but he persecutes any program daring to have faith in them. The concept bears its share of American Red Scare, but Lisberger uses it to tackle more audacious territory, hinting that the villain really aspires to replace God. Incidentally, the character looks like a Communist dreidel, but I wouldn’t read too much into that.
Worth noting, though, is the fact Master Control Program was designed by two proud figures fighting over a mere copyright infringement. As the embodiment of Flynn and Dillinger’s combined ego, the animated villain hints by his name and actions that the human urge to control the masses stems from mortal arrogance, not godly doctrine. This notion is reinforced when Tron asks whether the users have a grand design. “You wish,” answers Flynn. “You guys know what it’s like. You just keep doing what it looks like you’re supposed to be doing.”
The thematic implications fascinate me. It’s no coincidence Flynn acts as a Christ figure throughout the movie. After all, the New Testament presents the ultimate evidence that God’s will is in continuous motion. Other religions have similar turns. Like those who naively speak of natural order, spiritual leaders who accuse people and lifestyles of deviating from a supposedly divine scheme are ignoring the chaotic majesty around them. Man plans, God creates, and I’m getting way off topic.
My point is Tron may be light on plot but not on substance. Its structure has struck some as incomplete, but I call it minimalist. The same can be said of the gorgeous visual effects, which involve more rotoscoping than actual CGI. Unlike Avatar (2009), in which every frame bursts with colour and movement, Tron evokes its endless landscapes with a few crude polygons and static grids. The gaps between every line are like ocular silences that give the piece its texture. Whereas contemporary blockbusters have proven comparable to an American Idol contestant desperate to show a full range with every performance, this film seems content to sing a cappella and let the beat form in our minds.
You see, contrary to popular belief, Tron isn’t effects driven. It’s dream driven, as evidenced by its groundbreaking concept inspiring countless other cult series, my favourite of which I’ll have awkwardly referenced by the end of this paragraph. To this day, I recall every exciting daydream the movie planted in my young mind. Will Tron spark my imagination the same way when I finally learn how computers work? No one knows for sure, but I intend to find out. Reboot!