Tron lit up our childhoods with the warm blue glow of cyber-revolution. But how does it hold up now, after all these years? Can it live up to our rose-tinted memories? We decided to re-watch it and find out. Spoilers!
Tron really is the poster-child for nerdstalgia, as opposed to regular nostalgia — it's a movie that had a huge impact on a whole generation of nerds, with its beautifully shiny depictions of life inside a virtual world. Other pieces of science fiction are more influential in pop culture as a whole, or have spawned ideas or philosophies that have reached tons of people. But Tron has a unique place in geek culture, as a source of memes and imagery. The costumes, the lightcycles, the catchphrases...
I think a lot of us were caught by surprise by how much the "Tr2n" test footage at Comic Con 2008 thrilled and delighted us — it was like seeing an old friend after a long absence, and it filled a gap we didn't even know we had. It wasn't like most SDCC marketing, huge and clunky, visible from a long way off — it came out of nowhere. In that moment, we all realized how much we still loved Tron.
I hadn't actually watched Tron all the way through since I was a kid, and I wasn't sure what I was going to think of it after all these years. Was it going to be a horrible letdown? I had heard from other people that it doesn't actually stand the test of time that well, so I was sort of dreading watching it and having my bubble burst.
And then I finally re-watched it, and I had sort of two reactions simultaneously:
1) It's a seriously fun movie - it's actually more fun than I remembered.
2) It doesn't live up to the hype at all — but that's more a problem with the hype than with the film.
The actual story of Tron is pretty basic. Kevin Flynn is a computer geek who invented five awesome video games, including the bitchin' Space Paranoids. And an evil corporate scumbag named Ed Dillinger stole Flynn's work and then pushed him out of Encom, a nebulously defined software company that also makes teleportation lasers. With the help of his friend Alan and his ex-girlfriend Lora, Flynn decides to investigate Dillinger — but his super-program, the Master Control Program, zaps Flynn inside the computer using the teleportation laser. There, Flynn is forced to play a series of deadly video games until he escapes and helps Alan's program, Tron, to end the Master Control Program once and for all.
So yeah, it's still a seriously fun movie, that zips along at a super-fast pace. The whole "being forced to play video games for real" sequence, with the futuristic Jai Alai game and the lightcycle race, takes a grand total of five minutes — even though, in my memory, it lasted for ages. (Maybe because I spent a million hours playing the Tron arcade game back in the day. In fact, I wonder how much of our rosy memories of Tron are actually from the game rather than the movie.)
Similarly, to the extent that the movie has themes or ideas, they're brought up super quickly and then never mentioned again — we hear that Tron "fights for the users," but nobody ever gives a speech about what that means. At one point, Tron gets the magic frisbee containing the code that will destroy the MCP, and looks upwards saying, "This is the beginning of a whole new order. This disc is the key to our freedom." But that's the closest we get to a speech.
What Tron does have is tons of lovely setpieces in which video games are brought to life — in contrast to the other 1980s "videogame becomes real" movie, The Last Starfighter, Tron's video-game recreations are still as fun as ever. (Don't rewatch The Last Starfighter — the lengthy "hero doesn't want to be a hero any more" sequence will make you want to slit your wrists, and there's almost no starfighting in it.) Tron has tanks, and cool cyber-motorcycles, and a weird solar sail thing, and there are pew-pew-pew noises, and when you punch someone in cyberspace, it makes a kind of tinny electronic honking sound. When the laser digitizes Jeff Bridges and puts him into the system, it makes a noise a little bit like a dot-matrix printer.
And as much as Tron is an homage to the world of computers and the nobility of programmers, it's also weirdly a tribute to silent movies — or at least, it feels like that to me. Once we're inside the computer world, everyone is in black-and-white, except for the bright neon colors superimposed over them. People's faces, in particular, look like silent movie stars, and the actors seem to be doing larger-than-life facial expressions to go along with this. And when there isn't awesome action and digital violence, there is cyber-slapstick. There is so, so much cyber-slapstick in fact. Jeff Bridges basically clowns his way through this movie.
One of the great slapstick sequences in the film is above, and here are some more of our favorite slapsticky bits, set to Sly & The Family Stone's "Life":
I love how that one guard decides he'd rather jump to his death than tangle with Tron. He sort of waves and then goes splat.
Tron is sort of a precursor of The Matrix and a million other movies about going inside a computer — except that here, your physical body actually goes inside. (And yes, I know there were stories about going inside a computer before Tron, but maybe not movies.) The idea of physically going inside the computer, and hanging out with computer programs, and eating the food that computer programs eat, is sort of amazing, even now.
And Tron is the stuff of pure nerd fantasy — computer programs have the personalities of their coders, and even look like the people who programmed them. There's a soul in the machine, and it's full of life and enthusiasm. We meet Walter Gibbs, an older computer nerd who started Encom but has been pushed aside, and his cyber-alter ego, Dumont, and they both represent the older generation of developers who keep the flame of pure love for computers alive. Most of all, Tron promises us that the love of pure coding will win out over commerce, corporate megalomania, and crass exploitation. And our programs love us.
And there's another kind of Nerdstalgia going on here, too — this movie is an artifact from the era when computer games still had one single author, instead of a giant crew of programmers and creators.
And the other thing that remains charming about Tron is its fanciful depictions of computer life, like the way the programs drink glowy water in order to sustain themselves — this is one of the longer scenes in the movie, as Tron, Flynn and their friend Ram get down on the ground and scoop water from a shiny stream into their mouths, representing a power source. The scene where Ram dies in Flynn's arms, after finding out that Flynn really is a user, is actually quite touching.
And then there's this bit, where Yori tells Tron, "They haven't built a circuit that could hold you." And Flynn meets his program Clu's best friend, a "bit" that can only speak in "Yes" or "No." (Because it's binary, geddit?)
The other thing that's fascinating — and sort of a cool choice — in the original Tron is that there's no great disconnect between the "real" world and the computer world. Think about The Wizard Of Oz, which is the archetypal story that Tron is copying: Kansas is black-and-white and "realistic," Oz is colorful and weird. But Tron goes the other way — the real world is just as neon-drenched and weird-looking as the computer world. There are several shots of the city which make it look just like the Game Grid. When we see Alan Bradley at work, he's trapped in a maze of endless cubicles that look exactly like the weird cubicle prisons that the programs in the Game Grid are imprisoned in. There's no distinction between the real world and the virtual one, because they're the same, and liberation in one means liberation in the other.
This is a LOT of cubicles:
Tron works as a fun adventure movie, a silly piece of escapism, and an encapsulation of all our nerd fantasies from the 8-bit days. It'll be a huge disappointment, though, if you're expecting it to be a masterpiece, or even a rich piece of worldbuilding along the lines of classic Star Trek or Star Wars. It's not — the characters are shallow, but also the world-building is shallow. Nothing is thought through enough to stick to your ribs, so to speak.
And the movie's plot doesn't really hold together if you think about it for too long. Why exactly are Alan and Lora so willing to risk losing their jobs to help Kevin? Why is Lora coincidentally working on a teleportation device, and how does it manage to zap Kevin Flynn's physical body into a virtual world? Why does Kevin Flynn pretend to have amnesia for a big chunk of the movie rather than admit he's a User? If Dillinger is smart enough to create a super-program like the MCP, why isn't he smart enough to write his own video games instead of stealing Kevin Flynn's? (Update: Various people have pointed out that Dillinger just wrote a chess program that evolved into the MCP.) And so on.
And all three evil versions of David Warner turn out to be pushovers — instead of just getting rid of Kevin Flynn the moment he turns up, they decide to force him to play games until he dies (or escapes, which he does almost immediately.) Sark is your standard incompetent villainous middle manager, the MCP is just a shouty face, and Dillinger is your classic "guy who's enslaved by the computer he created."
So I was simultaneously thrilled and disappointed by Tron — I enjoyed it for what it was, but I think I'd built it up in my mind to be something more. Partly, it was listening to the creators of Tron Legacy talk about their continuation of this saga — they obviously want the world of Tron to seem a lot more substantial so they can make it the bedrock of a new series of movies and television shows. So they talk up stuff like the character of Flynn's program, Clu, who's only in two scenes of the original movie. And they talk up the themes and characters of the original film, which laid them out in super-light brushstrokes. If the new movie gives Kevin Flynn any character development, that'll be 10000 percent more character development than he got in the first one.
But also, I do think that a lot of stuff from the original Tron seems bigger and grander in my mind than it is on film. Like the idea that Tron "fights for the users," something that's barely brought up in the film but which seemed like a grand theme in my recollections. A lot of the big set pieces in the film are much bigger and more dramatic in my head than in their relatively quick and snappy on-screen versions. I do get the movie and the video game mixed up in my head a bit. And there's just the overall nerdstalgia-factor, which makes everything seem better than it was, especially if it involved pew-pew noises and computers.
I guess in the end, it feels like this is what happens when you try to turn nerdstalgia into an ongoing franchise, or into money generally. You risk taking something that was a high-octane dose of escapist fun and hyping it up, to the point where it may lose some of its original joyfulness. But if you ignore all the hype and discount your own exaggerated memories, and just watch Tron on its own terms, you'll enjoy the hell out of it.