Tron is perhaps best known as the first film from a major studio to use computer graphics, created by Mathematics Application Group, Inc. (MAGI). I can’t confirm whether or not MAGI still exists, but their claim to fame is that they were the first to make create a computerized cinematic environment like Tron, and also the first company to produce computer-generated imagery for a television advertisement – for IBM. After Tron, MAGI also helped to create an experimental test film for Disney in 1984, Where The Wild Things Are. Based on Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book, Where The Wild Things Are married three-dimensional scenes and camera control with two-dimensional character animation. This test was supervised by Disney animator John Lasseter (later, Lasseter became head of animated at Pixar, and is now in charge of animation at Disney). I’ve never seen Where The Wild Things Are, but I would love to, so if anyone knows where it can be found, please let me know.
That’s enough history. Tron is about the incredible journey of computer programmer Kevin Flynn, played by Jeff Bridges, into the computer world Clu, which he is partially responsible for creating. I’ll keep the story short because it is boring and irrelevant. Flynn created the super popular videogame Space Paranoids on the company computer at ENCOM, a big software corporation. An evil sneaky British guy named Ed Dillinger (David Warner) steals the Space Paranoids program, takes credit for it, and becomes CEO. Dillinger’s rise to power, like most things in Tron, isn’t really explained very well, but that’s what happened. Anyway, Flynn gets fired and is reduced to running a video arcade full of Space Paranoids machines, which is a little bit degrading. Along with a nerd and a hot chick, Flynn breaks into ENCOM headquarters to hack into the computer and retrieve the proof that he created Space Paranoids, not Dillinger. Unfortunately, a crazy lazer shoots Flynn in the back, and digitizes him into Clu (the computer world), a crazy neon land where video warriors battle stuff with glow-in-the-dark Frisbees. In order to get home and get the proof about the truth about the Space Paranoids, Flynn must Frisbee his way across an angular computer landscape to do battle with Master Computer Program, constantly referred to as MCP.
I re-read the last paragraph, and what I just described sounds like a really boring movie. Fortunately, you won’t watch Tron for anything in the story, but for the computer world visuals, which managed to inspire a little motion sickness in the pit of my stomach, even though I was watching on a television and not in a theater. The conceptual artists behind Tron included Jean “Moebius” Giraud, Syd Mead, Peter Lloyd. Moebius should be familiar to anyone who’s ever read an issue of Heavy Metal magazine or the European comics anthology Metal Hurlant.
Above: A sketch by Moebius
At one point, Moebius also worked on a special miniseries about the Silver Surfer for Marvel Comics, written by Stan “The Man” Lee. The feel of the Silver Surfer, designed by Jack “King of Comics” Kirby, is all over Tron - especially in the outfits worn by the programs who populate Clu, which I will referring to as “the computer world” henceforth, because Clu sounds like a board game. The computer world villain and MCP itself resemble nothing so much as Galactus, the Silver Surfer’s nemesis. I never really cared for the Silver Surfer, even though I appreciated it’s visual ingenuity, and I feel the same way about Tron.
Above: Galactus, as rendered by Jack Kirby
Besides Moebius and Jack Kirby, Tron’s other major visual touchstone would seem to be the father of video art, Nam June Paik. The pioneering electronic pop group Kraftwerk would be right at home in Tron’s computer world, and it was Paik who sculpted Kraftwerk’s video image as musical robots years before Tron hit theaters.
Above: The Worlds of Nam June Paik at The Guggenheim Museum, 2000.
Speaking of electronic pop: Tron’s score was composed by Wendy Carlos, who predates Kraftwerk in the field of synthesized music. Carlos (formerly Walter) is probably best remembered for her sixties output, which included the classic Moog showcase Switched On Bach, and her score for Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. According to Wikipedia:
[Tron] incorporated orchestra, chorus, organ, and both analog and digital synthesizers. Some of her end title music was replaced with a song by the rock group, Journey, and the music that originally was composed for the lightcycle scene was dropped. 1984's Digital Moonscapes switched to digital synthesizers, instead of the analog synthesizers that were the trademark of her earlier albums. Some of the rejected material from the Tron soundtrack was incorporated into it.
The rock band Journey also figures into the soundscape of Tron as well. Journey was the first rock band to have an arcade game based on them, so they're natural fit for Tron.
Tron was made under the auspices of studio chief Ron Miller. Like most films produced during the Ron Miller era, which spanned the late 1970s through the rise of Michael Eisner, Tron is full of groundbreaking concepts and technical achievements, but weak on story, character and dialogue. It’s too cold to appeal to kids, and the incessant tech speak – actually, the whole concept of anthropomorphizing computer programs into heroes – is just a little to nerdy to make it really loveable. It’s also not intelligent or provocative enough to be anywhere near the same league as George Lucas' THX-1138 or Fritz Lang's Metropolis, the two movies from which Tron seems to borrow its thematic material. As in Metropolis, Flynn is a member of the privileged class in the sky, a “user” flung down among the lumpen “program” class who are (mostly) denied free will. This is because they are controlled by Master Computer Program (MCP or something), who bears more than a passing resemblance to the Mammon, the god of greed that was evoked in Fritz Lang’s famous factoryworks. As we follow Flynn, we start to question the concept of human free will – humans, it seems are also bound to follow crazy instructions at the hands of their masters, every bit as much as the programs they create. That’s as deep as this movie gets. Wisely, the philosophy is kept mostly at the level of Space Invaders. For me, the only reason to watch this movie is for the visuals. And they are reason enough.
I think the film also suffers from Jeff Bridges later cinematic incarnations, specifically, his career-defining moment as Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski. Every time he expresses disbelief at being transported into a Kraftwerkian computer world, he sounds like The Dude, amused by the trip he’s taking, but not amazed. He sounds like he’s high.
Above: Jeff Bridges with writer/director Steven Lisberger
The quality of the DVD transfer is excellent, but sadly, the disc’s only special feature is an audio commentary featuring writer/director Steven Lisberger, producer Donald Kushner, associate producer and visual effects supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw and visual effects surpervisor Richard Taylor. Predictably, it’s totally geeked out.