There’s a whole cult of denial surrounding Tron. It failed to attract much support during its original theatrical release in the summer of 1982 because, the conventional wisdom goes, it was way ahead of its time. People weren’t willing to open their eyes and embrace these early technological advances, they argue. They were too scared to see the possibilities. Plus, the special effects are great, they claim with a straight face.
As someone who enjoyed the film as a young child (my family rented it for one of my birthday parties), it does not please me in any way to report that more than 30 years since I first excitedly watched it with my equally excited friends on full-screen Beta that it is not this timeless gem die-hard supporters just can’t get enough of.
No, it is not a good film at all, not even on Blu-ray.
It takes 20 minutes for the basic purpose of the film’s plot to even emerge. Jeff Bridges is a disgruntled ex-programmer relegated to running an arcade after being pushed out by rival David Warner who has managed to get a major corporate promotion for taking credit for five video games he didn’t make. The only way Bridges can get compensation for any of his shitty creations – Space Paranoids? Give me a break – is through whatever meagre percentage of profits he can squeeze out for housing the machines in his arcade.
When we first meet him he’s trying to hack into his former company’s system to try to retrieve some mysterious, elusive file which he claims is the only evidence that can prove he’s the sole author. Some quick, obvious questions. Before writing a single line of code, didn’t he draw the tanks and Recognizers on sheets of paper so he’d have some idea what he would be animating? Didn’t he generate any paperwork whatsoever? Is it really believable that he wouldn’t prepare beforehand for the possibility of being ripped off? I mean, honestly, this guy’s a computer genius? By the way, he’s been trying to get justice….for three years! Good God, man, have you ever heard of legal representation?
As he types commands into an old-school PC (always fascinating to watch in real time), the computer version of himself (who sounds more robotic and has a very girlish scream) is shown in one of those tanks ultimately failing to fight off said Recognizers, the least intimidating video game vessels ever created. (They’re no Tie Fighters, that’s for sure.) No longer able to hack on his home turf, he has to be snuck into his former employer’s building by former girlfriend Cindy Morgan and her current boyfriend Bruce Boxleitner who wears painfully nerdy glasses. Boxleitner himself has been shut out of Encom’s computers because Warner is well aware of Bridges’ unauthorized hacking and is apparently operating from the Nixon playbook, which strangely doesn’t arose any suspicion from the company whatsoever.
But instead of deleting the evidence that would prevent Bridges from fully making his case against him, the Master Control Program, which apparently is the real CEO of Encom and is an unapologetic information addict (shades of the modern-day NSA), decides to just hide the fucking thing so it can’t be retrieved. Oh right. He dangles the possibility of its exposure to Warner in order to keep him in line. Still, with Bridges determined to continue hacking, is it really worth keeping it for blackmail?
During his second attempt to infiltrate the system, MCP actually warns Bridges that if he persists he will make another dumb decision. He’ll suck him into the computer world and force him to participate in crappy sports not realizing that Bridges is the Michael Jordan of video games. (In an early scene, he sets a new record for the ho-hum Space Paranoids which features those same Recognizers he’ll be encountering throughout the movie.)
It’s within this dull, not so inviting world that Bridges meets a couple of “programs”, one of whom is Tron (also played by Boxleitner without the ridiculous glasses), one of the key elements to defeating the dopey MCP who rules this world like a dumb Hitler.
And this of course leads to the famous game sequences that have not aged particularly well. There’s just no suspense. After Bridges survives his electronic scoopball challenge, he refuses to finish off his opponent. So Sark (the computer version of David Warner in a ridiculous costume) does it for him. And just when he’s about to do the right thing by eliminating the victorious Bridges as well, the fucking moronic MCP stops him! He reminds his overeager underling that he wants to give the “user” more false hope before he gets killed in action.
That’s right. If Sark had just pressed that goddamn button sending Bridges plummeting into nothingness below the electronically collapsible game grid never to be heard from again, MCP would have nothing to worry about for the rest of the movie. But no. He lets him live. For fuck sakes!
After Bridges, Tron and another program named Ram escape during the lightcycle game (it’s just not that impressive anymore), they become fugitives on the run. Eventually, they hook up with Yori (Cindy Morgan’s computer program) who is hot and heavy with Tron which is meant to mirror Morgan and Boxleitner’s offline romance but makes zero sense in the computer world. (Programs have sexual feelings?) When Tron needs to communicate with the real-life Boxleitner they meet with Dumont (Barnard Hughes) who lurks all alone in a tower, twirls around while sitting in what looks like a giant bowl and wearing a very silly pope hat.
Inevitably, there is yet another opportunity for MCP and Sark to be triumphant over our plucky neon heroes but they fuck up yet again and well, I don’t have to fill in the blanks here. You know how this all ends. And it’s terribly underwhelming.
The cult of Tron truly believes this movie was robbed of a popular run back in 1982, that it even deserved an Oscar nomination for Visual Effects. (Ha!) But 1982 had much better science fiction offerings with superior technical achievements which have held up a whole lot better. Consider the second Star Trek movie and the immensely popular E.T. for starters. Then move on to John Carpenter’s creepy, underrated remake of The Thing before ending with one of the greatest films of all time, Blade Runner.
I mean just compare the stunning visuals of Ridley Scott’s dystopian, futuristic film noir masterpiece alone with the very dated and limited appeal of Tron’s harsh, primitive, angular computer graphics. It’s no contest. While the Blu-ray does a superb job of bringing out the reds and blues of these scenes (they have never looked more vivid), they also expose a considerable lack of imagination. And because it’s a Disney movie, there isn’t much intensity in the action and torture scenes. There’s also not much doubt how it will all turn out, either.
Throughout the film, I could not understand the motivations of MCP. What is its actual purpose? Beyond collecting international data & computer programs and making David Warner’s life difficult, why does it exist? More importantly, it never feels like much of a threat to the world at large. At one point, it casually mentions wanting secret information from the Pentagon. Why? To launch an attack? Why is it acquiring all this knowledge electronically without any clearly stated objectives? And what’s with all these fights to the death? If these programs are such a threat, why not just delete them permanently? Why the video game charade?
As for Warner, how is he able to get away with stealing Bridges’ creations without producing any new games for Encom? It’s difficult to accept that his blatant fraud would remain undetected for so long by so many within the company. A whole lot of idiots must be looking the other way the entire time.
None of this matters to Tron fans who care more about the film’s overrated look than its story which has been recycled and parodied for decades. Falsely seen as some kind of cinematic oracle for the future, it’s really a routine story about a copyright dispute with uneven, less than dazzling effects and weak-ass action scenes. Even the naturally affable Jeff Bridges is not enough to justify its unwarranted cult reputation.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, September 29, 2018