Filmgoer’s Flamethrower #30 – Tron

Posted: May 27, 2020 in Uncategorized

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© 2020 G.N. Jacobs

“Greetings programs!”

With that we follow Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) into a world where programs take the faces of their creators, the Users, as they do their thing under the all-seeing oppressive eye of the Master Control Program. The new element of Flynn, a User deified as a god inside the system, brings great change.

Looking back on this classic movie that with The Last Starfighter lays claim to the first large scale movie to rely so heavily on the nascent field of CGI special effects, I see that for myself the movie holds up better as that primary signpost in film technology than as a narrative. Did I hate the story? No. It was kind of there and even average storytelling can engage the willing audience.

When Flynn goes hacking for proof that executives at Emcon plagiarized his video games in the Master Control Program said evil power-hungry AI uses an experimental laser to digitize Flynn into the system. He makes the right kind of friends in programs, like Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) and Yori (Cindy Morgan). They cross great digital expanses…

The main conceit here is that people in the real world are mirrored by their programs that they create to perform functions inside the system. Jeff Bridges was also the hacking program, Clu (died early on). Cindy Morgan also played Yori’s programmer, Lori Baines. And Bruce Boxleitner gave his face to Tron, as well as Tron’s creator, Alan Bradley. David Warner plays Ed Dillinger, the plagiarizing CEO and two programs the Master Control Program and Sark, the MCP’s spear-carrier henchman and master of the digital games.

So, while making the metaphorical point that creator and creation are one and the same, later famously echoed in the Star Trek: DS9 episode “Far Beyond the Stars,” it naturally follows that relationships in the real world are mirrored among the programs. If Lori Baines used to date Flynn but now has landed on Alan Bradley, then Tron and Yori will share echoes of that relationship in the system. And Flynn will just have to get over his regrets for Lori when he sees Tron and Yori kiss.

Throughout the movie, the filmmakers consistently went for the simple story of one User thrown into the new world of the system as catalyst to bring freedom. However, complicating elements like the subdued romantic triangle mentioned above isn’t particularly well realized as we fly around set pieces that even allowing for advances in CGI in approximately forty years are still impressive.

Other elements that are kind of waved at include the obligatory gladiators bonding in the locker room scene. We don’t see very much of programs waiting for the call to the next round of combat disks getting short with the new guy who needs to be told – “we don’t make friends.” They’re there but skimmed over quickly to advance the story of the next station of the effort to make it to the input/output tower with Tron’s disk (a Frisbee) that will splinter the Master Control Program into millions of unformed bits.

Related to the skimmed over romantic triangle in general, I feel there needed to be more scenes between Flynn and Yori to better build up to the kiss between them at the end. Flynn had a hangup about Yori’s creator, Lori, not the software herself. Pretty much one way to expand this movie from its approximately ninety minutes running time is more scenes between Flynn and Yori, where she shares traits with her real-world creator that causes…confusion at the very least. The kiss, as we see it, is unmotivated…unless the filmmakers are just telling us that smooching with the other member of the team when you’ve set up a triangle like with Luke and Han in Empire Strikes Back is just a union mandated thing and kindly please just sit down and shut up.

On retrospect, I would’ve liked to see more cuts back and forth between the computer world and the real world. The Master Control Program doesn’t just boss hapless programs sending the annoying ones to the games much like a Roman emperor consigning his enemies to the arena; he (it?) hacks major companies and government agencies straining for more power (Skynet anyone?). These actions have real world consequences and this is a good way to have Allan and Lori pitch in to save the world from the runaway sentient computer. Just a thought.

What went well. Getting a pre-Lebowski Jeff Bridges to play Flynn proved excellent. He drives the film to the appearance of more story than is really there with his ability to act even when wearing a costume with what must be highly distracting neon lights attached at the rim of his face. This plays out best when Flynn reacts to Tron and Yori’s kiss and embrace in the middle of the movie.

Of course, you can’t talk about Tron without discussing the effects. People now might laugh at the starkly drawn first generation visual effects that look like somebody painting them on with a Day-Glo pen, but for the time they were groundbreaking. The result came out more like a classic mixed animation scene where a live dancer needs to hoof it with a cartoon mouse than the more integrated effects today.

What holds up about the visual feel of the movie are the underlying designs. There are skyships that sail beams of energy like a solar sail spaceship. Light cycles trailing walls of colored energy. Vast structures eerily reminiscent of human cities at night. And even allowing for the primitive and slightly blocky rendering, something about all those designs stay with you.

To wrap up. Tron is a nice average Dark Tower movie that without being an early entry into the then undiscovered country of computer effects might’ve fallen a little flat. The effects and design work combined with good performances from the cast has a way of making the movie rise above the modestly too short script that didn’t make full use of the dramatic elements raised, waved at and then sent back. A good, comfort food type movie.

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