CULT CLASSIC: Tron (1982)

Tron (USA, 1982)
Directed by Steven Lisberger
Starring Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner, Cindy Morgan

When we describe a film as being "ground-breaking", we very rarely mean that every aspect of it is simultaneously as original or pioneering as any other. Unless you are talking about the very early days of cinema, before the modern language of editing was settled or the Hollywood approach to storytelling began to dominate, there are very few films that would fit into this category. Even if we came across such a film, being ground-breaking is not a guarantee that a film will age well - in fact, it can often mean the exact opposite.
In my review of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, I said that its effects "are ultimately far more ground-breaking than either the story or the way that it's told". There can be little doubt of the technical leaps and bounds that George Lucas' film made, but it has its fair share of problems in amongst its paradigm-shifting visuals. We find ourselves in a similar position with Tron, in that its technical accomplishments and legacy (mainly in animation) somewhat overshadow its narrative qualities. But in spite of its many flaws, it remains a likeable film and is more than worthy of its cult status.
It doesn't take a mega-fan of all things Star Wars to realise that Tron takes after the original trilogy a lot on both a visual and a narrative level. It's ironic that a film whose plot revolves around accusations of plagiarism should be so unabashed in ripping off other people's work. Some of the resemblances can be written off as coincidental or inadvertent, given the timing of its release: for instance, the fact that MCP looks very much like the power regulator in the centre of the second Death Star from Return of the Jedi.
Others, however, are much more conscious and much less easy to excuse. The relationship between the MCP and Sark closely resembles that of the Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader (the leader and the enforcer), the action is driven by two heroes and a heroine (Luke, Leia and Han) and the dialogue is every bit as jargon-heavy as A New Hope. There are even a number of shots which contain visual references to that film: the regulator programs look suspiciously like TIE fighters, and the chase sequence with the light cycles is very similar in tone and style to the Battle of Yavin (which it itself a rip-off of The Dambusters).
But beneath the visual references, there is a deeper similarity between Lucas and Tron director Steven Lisberger. In making Tron, Lisberger wanted to break video games out of the "clique" in which they found themselves in the late-1970s; having been inspired by the original Pong, he took the idea to Disney, feeling that they could make computers cool. Lucas did something similar with Star Wars, taking a genre increasingly defined by introspection, seriousness and a lack of emotion, and bringing it back to the crowd-pleasing Flash Gordon films of his youth. Both were at heart thoughtful populists: they wanted science fiction (or space fantasy, at any rate) to be democratic, retaining its ability to make people think (or at least imagine) without keeping it solely the preserve of 'clever people'. You may not like where their intentions ultimately led, but there can be no denying that those intentions were good.
At its heart, Tron is a film about the conflict between creativity and commerce. The relationship between Flynn and Dillinger is a clash between the former's creative artistic temperament and the latter's commercially-minded hackery. The film is an argument over the purpose of computers, and by extension all technology: while Flynn believes in using technology to solve problems, in a way which means that everyone can contribute, Dillinger believes that they should be confined to doing business, and that only those who are deemed worthy enough should be involved.
There are many science films based around the idea of a computer or perfect machine going wrong and turning on its creators. In Tron this is given a neat twist by the complicity of certain humans in this process, and the focus on personal data rather than the military brute force of Skynet in the Terminator series. Dillinger's initial relationship with the MCP is designed to promote himself, in an unintentional foreshadowing of social media. But bit by bit the MCP demands more and more personal information, harvesting it wherever it can to build up its power. Lisberger could never have conceived of the world of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica when he was scripting Tron, but parts of it feel decidedly eerie in 2018.
The film also has an interesting thread running through it about religion and religious belief. The programs appear in the image of the "users" who created them, in a clear nod to the Genesis story in Christianity. But the MCP and Sark spend their time trying to rid the programs of their "superstitious and hysterical belief" that they were created, with the MCP being set up as the new, positivistic 'God' of scientific or technological progress. For all his impressive presence, the MCP is as limited in scope and power as any of his pagan predecessors or any of the golden calves humanity has built in the real world. You could almost liken him to the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz, but with data banks instead of a curtain.
Both the users and the programs operate according to plans, with the distinction seeming to be whether either party can create these plans or whether they come from a higher power. The point seems to be that creativity and art are synonymous with faith, while a cold, business-like emphasis on rationality and nothing else prevents true innovation and limits the human experience. C. S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain that if a man were to "close his spiritual eyes against the numinous" - a divine being or presence which inspires awe - he would part company with "the richness and depth of uninhibited experience." Tron clearly doesn't go that far, and its dichotomy between Flynn and Dillinger's positions as is ludicrously simple as the dark and light sides of the Force, but it certainly raises interesting questions.
Despite having more substance than you might expect, Tron is still found wanting in a number of narrative areas. The first 20 minutes is essentially little more than jargon, and even once Flynn has been digitised it is a real slow-burner. If you don't have any form of grounding in technology, the opening section will seem so impenetrable that you will struggle to retain any interest when things get more action-packed. Our hand is held by Jeff Bridges and David Warner, who guide us through swathes of exposition in a brace of settled and rounded performances. But when stripped of its visual splendour and philosophical queries, there's not much left that's truly gripping.
The main reason to see Tron now is the same reason there was to see it in 1982: its remarkable visuals. A lot of it has of course dated, just as the effects in The Black Hole look ropey by comparison to the stuff that Industrial Light and Magic was doing in the same period. But whether looked on as a period piece or as a harbinger of what computer animation could achieve, there's little denying its power. John Lasseter famously said that "without Tron, there would be no Toy Story", and it's not hard to see the inspiration for PIXAR's early work in here. If nothing else, no film set inside a computer or virtual reality has ever looked this distinctive.
Tron is a charming but flawed film which is more than deserving of its cult status. While its storytelling is ultimately found wanting, at least in comparison to its visual achievements, it remains an interesting ideas-driven film whose influence over sci-fi film-making remains writ large. Bridges and Warner anchor the film with two fine performances, providing as much heart as they can in amongst the pyrotechnics. If you have any interest in the history of CGI or animation, this remains a must-watch.

NEXT REVIEW: Hot Fuzz (2007)