Our review of Tron: Legacy 3D / Tron (Blu-Ray), published April 4th, 2011, is also available.
"On the other side of the screen, it looks so easy."—Flynn (Jeff Bridges)
Literary critics, who should know better, mark the beginning of cyberpunk with William Gibson's virtual reality noir Neuromancer in 1984: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." A synthesis of Raymond Chandler's prose and Philip K. Dick's ideas, Gibson's novel certainly ushered in an era, reintroducing the world to a notion it already knew, that reality is merely a construct of the computer between our ears.
But Tron had already beaten Gibson to the punch.
Steven Lisberger was a man with a dream. An animator, Lisberger had previously directed only one feature, 1979's Animalympics, and spent most of his time doing commercial work. Fascinated with the video games and the wonks who created them, Lisberger sketched out ideas along a classic formula: hero enters a magical land that he must help free from a tyrannical ruler. The gimmick: the magical land exists inside the computer. You remember, those huge blinking, tape-driven machines that take up the whole basement? Or at least, that is what they looked like in 1982. In any case, Lisberger enlisted afore-mentioned wonks, sold the idea to Disney (who was looking for ways to expand their live action market as the studio struggled in the early '80s), and set to work on his dream project…
Perhaps it was too soon. After all, in spite of its story flaws and stiff acting, Tron has aged remarkably well. Its inventive visual approach and sheer enthusiasm with a new medium has turned the film into a joyous celebration of the geek aesthetic. Whereas more technically adept recent films like The Matrix are starting, even now, to look tired (aren't you sick of bullet time already?), Tron conjures memories for all those who remember programming in BASIC in the days of infinite computer potential. And it always helped a little that my initials are MCP too…
Lisberger wisely keeps the plot simple: video game guru Flynn (Jeff Bridges, who always seems jazzed up for a quirky role) must hack into his former employer's computer system to find evidence proving that he is the real creator of the popular Space Paranoid game. But the evil Master Control Program sucks him into the system in order to make him fight it out as a gladiator under the thrall of the evil Sark (David Warner, who also plays Flynn's real-world nemesis Dillinger—and does the voice of the MCP). Flynn meets up with true-blue hero Tron (Bruce Boxleitner, who does gung-ho with tongue firmly in cheek), and the two (with Tron's girlfriend Yori (Cindy Morgan) tagging along) lead a rebellion against the MCP to free programs and users alike. As noted above, the story is pretty familiar (and Lisberger admits he borrowed a bit from Spartacus), and everyone plays their roles just on the border of self-parody—how else could you approach a line like "Forget it, mister high and mighty Master Control! You're not going to make me talk!"
But frankly, the film's weak story and characters actually add to the fun of Tron. The movie is exhilarating eye-candy, full of marvelous set-pieces that still hold up. The famous lightcycle chase ranks as one of the great action sequences in modern cinema, bright and inventive and slickly directed. And while there are some awkward moments at the climax, the film is always fun to watch. And it looks better than ever. Lisberger's decision to shoot in 65mm (with cameras that, as one crewmember put it, "still had sand in them from Lawrence Of Arabia") has paid off in the long run: the anamorphic transfer on this disc is simply stunning, as crisp as a new movie. The eerie quality of the virtual characters, with their black-and-white faces and glowing costumes, is more striking than I remember it in the theater, giving the film an experimental feel (that Lisberger intended all along) that must have been lost of those who grew up watching it on washed-out VHS. In addition to the fine video transfer (THX certified), Disney has remixed the sound in a solid 5.1 version (although it does not feel quite as immersive as virtual reality probably should).
The first disc of this two-disc set presents the feature with a commentary track (apparently ported over from the laserdisc) by the production crew: Lisberger, producers Donald Kushner and Harrison Ellenshaw, and effects supervisor Richard Taylor. Some of the discussion is highly technical, although it is fascinating in hindsight to see how old fashioned many of the visual tricks (especially the extensive backlighting) were. Now they would be done quickly and cheaply with computer graphics, but the actual number of CG shots in Tron are fewer than you might expect, even considering that there are (according to Lisberger) 1100 effects shots in the film. And Dillinger's great touch-screen desk? Literally done with mirrors (and a little rear projection). In between the technical stuff, Lisberger and company talk about the influences on the film (Bruce Boxleitner's real world character Alan was based on Alan Kaye, who would later develop the laptop computer), tell strange anecdotes (Peter O'Toole was tapped for Dillinger/Sark, but wanted to play the swashbuckling Tron!), and speculate on how the film's core theme of virtual agents is only now becoming a reality in computer technology. Plus, they point out the "hidden Mickey" in the film. Overall, this is an excellent commentary that repeats very little from the other supplements available in this package.
The second disc offers most of those aforementioned supplements—and there is quite a bit. The centerpiece is a 90-minute documentary on the making of the film. Lisberger and company tell the story of Tron's development, from its initial concept—to fuse the new technological paradigm with Lisberger's own artistic sensibilities as an animator—to the evolution of the film's extensive backlighting techniques. Interviews with all the major cast members (except, curiously, David Warner) are in place, as you would expect. Everyone expresses their enthusiasm for the project, even though all the performers admit that they had trouble at the time understanding the film's concepts. The production crew discusses the effects work in almost excruciating detail, down to the technical glitches. The final section winds up with some vague comments dodging the fact that the film tanked in its original release—although Lisberger does make an ironic remark about how the Academy refused to allow the film to compete for an Oscar because he "cheated" by using computers! In the last few moments, we are treated to some concept art for Tron 2.0 (lately sporting the title Tron Killer App). While this is a highly informative documentary, full of details not covered elsewhere on this double-disc set, it would have been nice if Disney had given this some chapter breaks.
But if your appetite for all things geeky is not satisfied by the documentary, there is plenty more on this second disc:
Development: Interviews and early concept art, including Lisberger Studios' original animation featuring an early version of the Tron character, a video test for Disney, and a clip from a 1982 PBS special, "Computers Are People Too."
Digital Imagery: The effects crew shows how the work of different animation teams was blended. It is surprising how much of these breakthrough visuals had to be manually processed for the film using traditional cel techniques, whereas now it could all be done in minutes inside your desktop PC. A TV segment on MAGI and a demo reel from Triple I (two of the major animation teams) show off what passed for state-of-the-art at the time.
Music: Two deleted music cues from Wendy Carlos, composer of the film's synthetically classical score, one for the lightcycle chase and the other for the end credits.
Storyboarding: If you like that lightcycle sequence, here it is again, with storyboards and the final sequence side-by-side. You can also pick through a gallery of storyboards by Moebius (and his main title boards are set to music) and others. Hmm, would the lightcycle chase have been half as cool if they had gone with their original concept of motorized skateboards?
Design: Lisberger hints at his frustration over creating a Tron 2.0 in a brief introduction that compares the older video games' use of abstraction (which he finds more artistically liberating) and the newer trend toward strict realism. Three extensive photo galleries offer design images for all the major characters, the vehicles, and the settings for the "electronic world" of the film.
Publicity: Four full-frame trailers, faded and scratchy, plus a rare five-minute sample reel done for exhibiters (what must theater owners have thought when they saw this?) and a "work-in-progress" demo reel with unfinished special effects. There are also plenty of publicity stills, stills of the raw live footage, and posters and advertising art.
Deleted Scenes: An alternate opening to the film, with a text intro to dumb things down, is offered. But the biggest find is a pair of short scenes (one missing its soundtrack) featuring Tron in Yori's apartment. What, you didn't know that programs have apartments? The designs are beautiful (courtesy of futurist Syd Mead), but the attempt to "humanize" the programs does seem a little out of place and overly sentimental.
All this stuff will keep you busy for a long time, but the general message comes through clearly: Tron was a dream project made by independent animators (which financial help from Disney) looking to push the envelope. It may have seemed like a box-office disappointment in 1982, but its impact on the film industry (just watch the look in Pixar guru John Lasseter's eyes as he talks about it during the documentary) has been profound.
It is hard to describe how well this film has aged, how it has really come into its own as both a prediction of cyberspace and a lesson in how to incorporate special effects into a solid narrative. And it vibrant and action-packed enough to entertain kids even today, who can certainly understand its premise even better than audiences in 1982. When Tron first came out, it was cool (or at least, it was for a small audience). For most of the intervening years, it seemed clunky and silly, more of an embarrassment to cyberpunks who thought they knew better. And now, it is cool again, offering a glorious and utopian vision of virtual agency that many of its successors can only hope to achieve, as a sort of Wizard of Oz for the information age.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track by Steven Lisberger, Donald Kushner, Harrison Ellenshaw, and Richard Taylor
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