Greetings, Programs! Tron was 28 Years Ago Today

Director Steve Lisberger’s computerized fantasy went into wide theatrical release on July 9, 1982…twenty eight years ago today.

I remember I first saw the Disney film at Cinema 23 in Verona, New Jersey, with one of my best friends, Scott Williams. I was twelve.

Tron wasn’t particularly well-regarded by the mainstream critical establishment back in the summer of 1982, though Roger Ebert lauded the film and awarded it four stars. Audiences were also cold to the story of a “computer world.”

The years have been kind to Tron, however. It’s become something of a classic of Generation X, and a long-awaited sequel, Tron Legacy, bows December 17, 2010. I for one, can’t wait…

Here’s a snippet of my review of Tron:

…Impressively, Tron even seems to position itself as a critique of the “new” Walt Disney Company…post-Walt Disney. It thus bites the hand that made it, so-to-speak. For Disney is a company, the film indicates, where the computers and the bean-counters have seized control.

Contrarily, one might also cogently argue an opposite point with some validity; that Tron is actually a jingoistic Cold War statement against Communism; one depicting a battle for personal freedom against a “Red”-hued assimilating enemy, the Master Computer Program.

Beyond these intriguing and debatable sub-texts, Tron continues to fascinate new generations of viewers on the basis of the intricate, visually-complex fantasy computer world it creates with such aplomb. This is a dazzling alternate universe where all the main characters of the human world — in the spirit of The Wizard of Oz — boast an identity “double,” — a computer program doppelganger. Given the contemporary popularity of World of Warcraft and Second Life, Tron’s notion of electronic counterparts or computer avatars acting as our alternate identities in a man-made photoelectric landscape is very timely a quarter-century after the film’s release.

Greetings, Programs!

Tron depicts the story of a rogue computer programmer named Flynn (Jeff Bridges) who was fired from his job at the mighty corporation ENCOM when a fellow programmer and now executive-senior-vice president, Dillinger (David Warner) stole his design for several blockbuster video games, including the popular Space Paranoids.

Dillinger has also all-but-ousted the company’s original president, the gentle and elderly Walt (Barnard Hughes) — who created ENCOM in his garage.

Dillinger has turned Walt’s creation into a devouring machine bent on the acquisition of smaller corporations and companies so as to seize a bigger market share. Assisting him in this dedicated raiding effort to control all commerce (international and domestic) is the monstrous MCP — Master Control Program.

Flynn is zapped by a matter-transformer controlled by the MCP and “digitized.” He thus enters the world of the MCP and other computer programs. There, he attempts to re-claim his cstolen reations and destroy Dillinger’s machine servant. Flynn is assisted in this matter by a regulatory program, Tron, created by another information-seeking ENCOM programmer, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner). The MCP attempts to destroy Flynn — a man the other programs revere as a god-being called a “User” — using his right-hand man, the villainous Sark (also David Warner), to do it.

I Programmed You to Want Too Much: Big-Business Unfettered in Tron.

An excavation of the context underlining Tron is important to any understanding of this unique fantasy film.

The first significant trend to discuss here is technological advance: the evolution of arcade video games into home based game systems (like the Atari 2600) in the late 1970s; and then the lightning-fast, subsequent replacement of those game systems with home computing devices like the Commodore VIC-20 in the early 1980s.

Forget a chicken in every pot, by the mid-1980s there was a PC in every American house. Accordingly, terms such as BASIC, DOS, RAM, “user friendly” “disk drive,” “program” and “memory” (not to mention “crash…”) entered our lexicon as we accommodated a new and useful device into our daily lives.

Tron expresses, in fascinating terms, the sense of uneasiness many Americans felt with the rapid growth of this new technology. On one hand, humans were still at the top of the food chain in Tron: “Users” sending “programs” to do their bidding in an invisible (to our eyes…) electronic universe.

However, on the other hand, the electronic world of our helpful programs had been (secretly) co-opted by a hungry, assimilating devourer that put the food-pellet-gobbling Pac Man to shame: the MCP. This fear of insidious technology in our homes finds voice in much of Tron’s dialogue. “The computers will start thinking and people will stop,” warns Walt Dumont (Hughes) in one critical scene.

At other points, however, Tron expresses the desire for a “free system” in which Man and Program ally in beneficial unison. And the film’s brilliant climax is not entirely unlike that depicted in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) a sort of religious communion/fusion between Man and machine. As in that cinematic case, man here is the deity, shepherding his sense of traditional human values to the “cold,” “intellectual” machine. In Tron, Flynn dives into the MCP (in a Godly beam of blinding light…) and briefly joins with it. His decency — his humanity — transforms the outward shade of evil (a crimson, coruscating red) into the film’s shade of rebellion and liberty; blue…

You can read the rest of my review, right here.


3 responses to “Greetings, Programs! Tron was 28 Years Ago Today

  1. Fantastic review! This film is definitely one the beloved classics from my childhood and I can still remember seeing this on the big screen the year it came out and being completely dazzled by the visuals!Now, looknig back at it, I have nothing but feelings of nostalgia when I watch this film, esp. when they show those shots inside Flynn's arcade with all those old school arcade games! I remember when this film first came out how much I wanted to play a version of SPACE PARANOIDS. So cool now that you can.I also loved the two spin-off video games, esp. DEADLY DISCS OF TRON which was very cool and so much fun to play… still is!

  2. I remember this one fondly! Both for seeing it in theaters when it debuted and when I showed it to my kids on DVD. There are three of us in my household (we're working on my wife at the moment) as excited as you for that December 17th sequel request date. btw, I think Disney is hyping this brilliantly by building anticipation with its sneaks and peaks marketing campaign). Wonderful review, as always. Thanks, John.

  3. I've never seen this one and may need to check it out [along with The Black Hole]. Your original review is a thorough analysis and certainly reflects a more positive take on it than I recall.It would be good to see Bruce Boxleitner in this role. He does a splendid job in Babylon 5. Of course, Jeff Bridges is always a fave.Your review doesn't make it sound as "dumb" as critics have dubbed it.Re: earlier comments- The Year Of Living Dangerously is a Gibson/Weaver/Weir classic.

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