In 1982, the world of computing was vastly different than today. Desktop computers were still in their infancy, with popular machines being Commodore’s VIC-20 and Radio Shack’s TRS-80. Game consoles existed, but the video arcade was the home for video gaming, as machines ate a steady stream of quarters. Cyberpunk and the concept of cyberspace were still new, with John M. Ford leading the way in 1980; but, neither would be well known until the 1984 publication William Gibson’s Neuromancer. However, the visiuals of cyberspace got a boost from, of all places, Disney.
The early 80s saw Disney experimenting with releases, taking risks that the company normally had passed on. One of the experiments was an, at the time, animated project that would incorporate computer graphics in with the traditional techniques. The project evolved further, becoming a live-action film with computer animation enhancing the look. Tron was released in 1982 and performed well enough, bringing in double its budget of US$17 million, but received mixed reviews and was not nominated for an Academy Award for Special Effects because the use of computers was considered “cheating”*. The late Roger Ebert felt that Tron was not given due credit by audiences and critics alike and showcased it at his first Overlooked Film Festival in 1997.
Tron, though light on plot, is a beautiful movie. The film stock changed depending whether the action is in the real world or in cyberspace. The computer world was filmed in black and white with bright primary colours hand-drawn on to the film, creating a stark contrast. Tron created the base of most depictions of cyberspace and its denizens. Wendy Carlos’ musical score heightened the other-worldly nature of the digital realm. Tron, despite being ignored by audiences in general, proved to be influential, including leading to the works of Daft Punk and the creation of Pixar.
The plot of Tron is simple enough. Software engineer Kevin Flynn, played by Jeff Bridges, has been fired from ENCOM after alleging that his boss, Ed Dillenger, played by David Warner, had stolen several video games designed by Flynn. As a result, Flynn tries to hack into ENCOM’s computer but gets blocked by the Master Control Program set up by Dillenger. One of Flynn’s hack attempts has CLU, also played by Bridges, try sneaking through the system; CLU gets discovered and is de-rezzed by a Recognizer. Meanwhile, Alan Bradley, played by Bruce Boxleitner,, one of Flynn’s friends and former co-workers, has a security program, Tron, that monitors communication between the MCP and the real world. Flynn convinces Bradley to get him back inside to increase Tron’s security clearance. However, the MCP has reached artificial intelligence and is actively protecting itself. The MCP uses a laser to digitize Flynn into the Game Grid. On the Grid, Flynn finds himself a prisoner of the MCP, forced to participate in gladiatorial games based off the video games he and others programmed at ENCOM. With the help of Tron, Flynn escapes and works towards the overthrow of the MCP in order to return to the real world.
Since Tron‘s release, the movie’s influence grew. As mentioned, without Tron, there would be no Pixar. In 2008, Tron was nominated for the American Film Institute’s Top Ten Science Fiction Films, although the movie didn’t make the list. The visuals have infused themselves into pop consciousness; depictions of cyberspace resemble Tron‘s grid.
In 2010 Disney released Tron: Legacy, a sequel and reboot of Tron. The world of gaming changed in the almost thirty years since the release of the original. The video arcade, mainstay of the 80s, has all but disappeared. Console gaming is far more widespread, as is the Internet. Keeping the feel of the original Tron while incorporating modern graphics and sensibilities had to be balanced with the capabilities of CGI. Back for Legacy was both Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner reprising their roles from Tron. Time had passed for their characters, with Kevin Flynn having a son, Sam, played by Garret Hedlund, and then going missing in 1989, Sam has long lost his belief that his father will return by the start of the film, but a page brings him to Flynn’s Arcade. Sam snoops around and finds a computer still on, waiting for input. Sam logs in, and gets digitized to the Grid. He’s picked up by a Recognizer, which now looks even more ominous. Sam is sentenced to the Games, where he’s recognized by a semi-feral program called Rinzler as a user. The film continues with Sam’s fight to escape, the discovery of his father and the last of the isomorphic algorithms, and the race to return to the gateway to get back to the real world. The concept of Zen plays heavily in the film as the chess match between Flynn and CLU turns into first a game of Go then into a game of Roborally**.
As a reboot and sequel, the movie does well. The Grid is bleaker than in Tron, and an explanation is given for why the blossoming of colour at the end of the first movie is gone. The story in both Tron and Tron: Legacy is Kevin Flynn’s; Sam may be the mover and shaker in Legacy, but it is his father’s story that comes to a close. The music, by Tron fans Daft Punk, again adds to the otherworldlyness of the computer realm and adds a sense of menace that Wendy Carlos didn’t have. Legacy is just as beautiful as the original.
Next week, the pitfalls of adapting games.
* Times have changed indeed. Life of Pi won the Oscar for Achievement in Visual Effects in 2013 with heavy use of CGI.
** Not so much because there’s robots, but because even carefully laid plans in Roborally can be completely derailed thanks to an unforeseen random element.