Way before streaming movies and the swiftly disappearing DVDs and the dear departed video rental stores, my step-father had a big bookshelf filled with VHS tapes on which he’d recorded movies from Showtime, HBO, PBS, Cinemax, whatever he could finagle. That bookshelf constituted my early film education, and one of the movies on regular rotation was Disney’s groundbreaking movie TRON.
The movie wasn’t my first encounter with the world outlined in blue and red, that came when my family went to Disneyland back when they had the PeopleMover, a sort of tram ride that at one point took you inside the world of TRON, light cycles zooming past you as the tram made its way through the grid.
So I love TRON, and I was excited to see TRON: Legacy, negative word of mouth notwithstanding. I brought up my excitement to my writing buddy Greg, only to learn that he thinks the original TRON totally stinks. I cast about for confirmation from someone, anyone, that TRON’s great and nobody except my friends Limor and Phil seem to agree that TRON’s, you know, totally awesome. But they’re so nuts about TRON that they made a TRON bag.
In an effort to mount my defense I went back and watched TRON one more time, and what I saw did nothing to get in the way of calling this week’s classic movie.
First, the bad. A lot of the efforts to make the computer world seem like our workaday world get real cheesy real fast. Trying to make a one-to-one balance in a totally alien world just doesn’t ring true, and has the flavor of bad 70’s science fiction. There’s also a certain cheese factor to the real world sequences, but a lot of that comes from the simple fact that the gleam has long left the video arcade rose. What was edgy in the 80’s can fit in your phone today. The acting in general isn't great, but it’s serviceable, and as always Jeff Bridges could do anything and make me believe it.
Nobody questions TRON as a technical achievement that created an entire virtual world through the combination of computer animation and a process called “backlit animation.” For backlit animation, all of the scenes in the computer world were shot on completely black and white sets. Once the shots were developed, artists processed each frame in a process similar to conventional animation. The fully computer animated sequences, which comprise less than twenty minutes of the film, animators used a computer that had a memory of 2 MB with 330 MB of storage. That’s one of the reasons the movie is so dark: black backgrounds require less detail and therefore less memory.
The secret stars of the film are designers Syd Mead, of Blade Runner fame, and French comic book artist, Mobius. If you’ve read any of Mobius’s brilliant comics you’ll recognize his signature style in the costumes worn by the programs, while you can see echoes of Syd Mead’s Blade Runner hovercars in the light cycles. Mobius and Mead do for TRON what H.R. Geiger did for Alien: create a cohesive world that feels somehow sensual and technological all at once.
The secret strength of TRON, however, is in the way it wields metaphor. 1982 is two years before William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer gave us a vision of cyberspace that was at once compelling, sexy, and relentlessly functional. Gibson famously wrote this most computer-centric of novels on a manual typewriter in his kitchen. He’s said that at the time he wrote the book, he knew next to nothing about computers, and instead looked at cyberspace as a metaphor for memory. That’s what Gibson saw when he looked into the depths of cyberspace.
When Lisburger looked into the depths of the cyberspace he saw the shape of a new religion. The programs who live in the computer world of TRON believe they can find salvation from the imperial machinations of the Master Control Program only through their users. Only by serving their users can the programs realize their true purpose. Lisburger asked the question “What are the theological and philosophical consequences of creating a digital ecology?” Which is, of course, what cyberspace is, and why fighting for freedom inside of it is so important. The fact that Lisburger’s asking the question with glowing blue and jai alai deathmatches, only makes TRON all the more awesome.
Incidentally, this is exactly where TRON: Legacy stumbles all over itself. Legacy can’t decide whether it’s about freedom of information, father/son dynamics, or the consequences of spontaneously evolved artificial life. Worse, when it addresses those issues it does so through talking, as opposed to dramatizing it through story, which is exactly what TRON does so well. Aside from a perfect score from Daft Punk, TRON: Legacy is exactly what detractors have always said of the original TRON: technological spectacle with very little substance.
I probably won’t ever convince Greg that TRON is a great movie, but I’m okay with that. I’ll save my enthusiasm for folks who get the “Now THAT is a big door!” joke, know what it’s like to dance your ass off to Daft Punk at 3:00 A.M., and spend their time teaching people how to make their very own TRON paraphernalia. I’m talking to you, Limor and Phil.