I often tell people that Blade Runner is the most fascinating movie that I don’t actually like. While it excels at art direction, lighting, and mood, it fails at telling a story worthy of all that world building. The disconnect between the effort to create a convincing future and the director’s inability to understand his own vision is a source of endless interest. Truly, it’s so interesting, that Ridley Scott could release five versions of the film twenty years later and people like me ran out to buy it.
The film was released in the fabled year of 1982, which saw many beloved genre classics debut in theaters. Films like The Thing, E.T., and others captured the imaginations of kids everywhere. It was also the same year that Disney went out on the ledge and released Tron. For many years, the film was thought of as a commercial disaster, but later analysis proved the film did well … just not well enough for Disney to tap its unusual visual style for much more than strange pavilion in its PeopleMover ride at Disneyland.
This is where I enter the picture. I loved the PeopleMover. It’s the origin of my fascination with public transit and the Disneyland ride I’ve probably been on most thanks to the marathon sessions park Cast Members would allow me to take. There was rarely a line for it as all it did was take riders on an elevated tour of Tomorrowland and, briefly, into the world of Tron. From that brief glimpse, I was fascinated. The colors, designs and bizarre aesthetic was so appealing. Down in the old Tomorrowland Starcade, they had five Tron video game cabinets and I wasted plenty of coin trying to best its ruthless 8-bit efficiency. All of this was before I ever saw the film.
Sometime in 1984, the film was on home video and my eldest uncle had secured a video store account in Alhambra, California. This was a time when video stores required deposits and credit cards and my family, at the time, had little access to either. So, one day he takes me to the store, Video Depot, and there was Tron playing on the big screen TV. I recognized it at once as it happened to be the same scene from the PeopleMover. He agreed to rent it and, at long last, I would have understanding.
Despite its name, Tron is really the story of Kevin Flynn, a bright renegade computer programmer working to clear his name after being unjustly fired from his job at ENCOM. Flynn must’ve had some cash stored away as he spends his exile running a video game arcade and probing ENCOM’s database for the evidence that will exonerate him. His nightly travels into the system come to the notice of the Master Computer Program, a monitoring AI at the service of ENCOM’s senior executive vice-president Ed Dillinger.
Take stock of that description. How much of its makes sense to you? Now think about how this script was written in 1981.
Two ENCOM employees, Alan Bradley and Laura (being a woman, she doesn’t get a last name), warn Flynn that Dillinger and the MCP are on to him. He proposes to break into the building with them and forge computer credentials so Alan can finish his Tron program and instruct it to shut down the MCP; the process will also allow Flynn to finally retrieve the data. Once inside, the MCP uses a laser to transport Flynn into ENCOM’s mainframe where he discovers a new world that is at once different from the real world, but also very familiar. He finds Tron, who he perceives to look like Alan, and the two make their way to central computer, where the MCP resides as a giant pillar of energy. Since Flynn is human, he has the ability to alter the underlying physics of the computer world. That extra power convinces Tron that he is a “User,” one of the mythical god-figures of their culture’s nascent religion. They defeat the MCP and Flynn returns to the real world with the data, clearing his name and getting Dillinger’s job in the process.
The whole thing is really simple and, in its way, quite Disney-ish, but what really makes Tron work is everything that hangs on this spine: its genuinely forward-thinking visual style. The project was the brainchild of Boston animator Steven Lisberger. He and his team experimented with backlit animation, a process in which drawn figures are illuminated by a light source shot directly into the camera. It’s mostly used for special effects, but he saw the possibility of utilizing the process to make images seemingly made of light. As an experiment, he and his team created a character he called “Tron.”
While working on other projects, “Tron” grew from a curiosity, to a 30 second animated ad he offered to radio stations, to a full feature film concept. It eventually found its way to Disney, where he was able to hire such heavyweight visualists as Syd Mead and Jean “Moebius” Giraud. Mead is a self-proclaimed futurist who, well, let me just give you an example of his style:
He was working in movies, designing some of the interior sets for Alien and the V’ger spaceship for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Moebius, meanwhile, was a French comic book artist on titles like Blueberry and L’Incal. Look closely at Tron and you’ll find a couple of his improbable hats in the background. Mead’s genius for design saw the Electronic World (which we now call the Grid) basically made in his image, with Moebius filling in the gaps with a quality Lisberger found more “lyrical.”
I think its this combination of styles that gave Tron its lasting impression in the minds and imaginations of kids who would later becomes filmmakers, artists, and cosplayers. That said, I have to admit that Tron isn’t a very good movie. It is one of my childhood favorites, don’t get me wrong, but if I’m going to hang Blade Runner for film crimes, I must also do Tron in.
First, creator/director Steven Lisberger is a hippie. That’s plainly obvious from the metaphysical aspect he obliquely adds to the film by creating the notion of “The Users.” It’s not really something they comment on a lot, but its key to resolving the film’s plot as Flynn uses his User power to distract the MCP. Lisberger’s intent in including the spiritual theme was to open computer science to less technical ideas and to aesthetic appreciations. Luckily, this hippie-ish thought is applied to the film in a hippie-sh way; it’s suggested rather than told. The one time it is directly addressed, Flynn says, “You know what it’s like. You just keep doing what it seems you’re supposed to be doing no matter how crazy it seems.” That tendency toward suggestion makes the film something of a mystery in the minds of the young people receiving it.
Also, there’s that kick-ass lightcycle scene:
So in between the amazing visuals, there’s an elliptical narrative unfolding about identity and, oddly enough, the nature of the soul. The pieces don’t quite fit, preventing the film from working entirely, but establishing a foothold in the mindspace of all of us too young to know better. Therefore, the imagery and ideas of Tron reverberated for years to come until Disney finally decided to try their luck with a sequel (which I’ll talk about another time).
Director Steven Lisberger went on to make the nearly forgotten John Cusack vehicle, “Hot Pursuit” and then, apparently, retreated to an office on the Disney lot where he became a guru for the animation department and the fledgling computer animation aficionado named John Lasseter. In the late 1990s, Disney asked Lisberger to develop ideas for a sequel. He freely admits that he never cracked it as his ideas drifted into the realm of biotechnology and further away from the iconic style (and copyrightable imagery) that was attracting the studio back to the property.
But Lisberger, from the times I’ve seen him speak, seems content with that. He unleashed Tron into the world and has always enjoyed the praise of the very audience he sought to court.
-End of Line-