TRON–Landmark sci-fi, visual effects achievement celebrates 40th anniversary

The vast majority of us didn’t even have a home computer yet, not even one with a floppy drive, and we were just starting to understand what BASIC meant in all caps.  Forty years ago this weekend many of us gathered for a Disney movie that didn’t look like any Disney movie–or any previous movie–we’d ever seen.  At one of the SouthRidge III theaters–not the big one–someone threw wet Lifesavers at the screen to get them to stick.  Then the curtain dropped, the lights went down, and sci-fi was changed forever.

It’s a member of the exclusive clubhouse of the greatest year of movies–1982.  In a summer that gave us E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Blade Runner, Poltergeist, and John Carpenter’s The Thing, Disney’s groundbreaking Tron is a great movie, and it stands the test of time as a unique science fiction classic.

For a movie fan, if you were stuck in a time warp you could hardly find a better place to be than 1982.  Getting noticed in a year of movies like Conan the Barbarian, Jim Henson’s The Dark Crystal, Rocky III, First Blood, Tootsie, The Secret of NIMH, The Last Unicorn, Night Shift, The Man from Snowy River, Tex, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, with Raiders of the Lost Ark still in theaters?  That was no small feat.  Tron sees the 40th anniversary of its release this weekend.  A cinematic milestone?  Of course.  A must-see classic?  Absolutely.  Better still, you can view Tron in a more vibrant and detailed clarity than how you may have viewed it in a local 1982 movie theater thanks to an update in 2011.

For those not involved in the computing world in the early 1980s, Tron first introduced audiences to programming terms like the Master Control Program (MCP), random access memory (RAM), and the idea of avatars.   It introduced us to light cycles, an early CG home run–even decades before quality 3D or IMA.  Audiences were ducking and dodging in their seats as opponents exploded into the walls of the Grid.  Identity discs brought to life what were only blips on the screen in the “real” world, and we cringed as Flynn took a step too close and almost fell off the game rings.  No other film since looks like Tron, not even its big budget 2010 sequel Tron: Legacy or its 2012 animated series Tron: Uprising.  Its backlight animation worked amazingly well for our first entry into a world we hadn’t seen before.  Video games were just beyond the stage of blip games like Pong.  It was a time before the Atari 2600, just as coin-op gains were gaining traction in big cities.  Tron’s release made that explode across the world.

It was in this world that director Steven Lisberger was able to film Bruce Boxleitner as Alan Bradley aka Tron and Jeff Bridges as programmer/hacker/high scorer Flynn in a complex blue-black and white costume and fill in the details in post-production and place them in a brilliantly colored, infinitely tiny, futuristic universe.  The look was both retro to an almost 1940s vision of the future and yet also it pushed ahead, way ahead, to some future we will never really meet.  Just look at this futuristic, visionary image from early in the film where Bridges plays an avatar of his real-world character–well before anyone knew what an avatar was:

And the story works.  Tron offers a one-of-a-kind and unreal world where, in the classic sci-fi style of The Fly, you can be teleported to someplace not outside but deep within this world, where Flynn tries to understand his new world of the Users, to fight to survive with identity disk battles and light cycle races, and to get home.  Boxleitner, who would get far less screen time than Jeff Bridges, provided an understated hero for a generation of kids.  David Warner (Time After Time, Star Trek V, VI, Star Trek: The Next Generation), one of the best actors to play a villain in any franchise, also played a triple role as Dillinger, Sark, and the MCP, giving movies three of its all-time best villains, and adding yet another perfect genre performance to Warner’s portfolio.  Caddyshack’s Cindy Morgan as Lora/Yori, Dan Shor as the ill-fated RAM, and Barnard Hughes as Dumont all created memorable supporting characters.

The in-movie arcade game Space Paranoids, which Flynn masters in the film, is nothing compared to the tie-in Tron arcade game based on the film that spread to around 800 units across the country in the year after the film was released.  Its light-up joystick became another iconic image of the early 1980s and the game a staple among 1980s game players.

So story and the movie hold up 40 years later.  Even most of the fashions work (except Bruce Boxleitner’s glasses).  And that ENCOM cube office environment would be the norm by the time the dot-com generation arrived 20 years later.

Without Tron there would be no Ender’s Game, no Matrix, no Ready Player One.  No Pacific Rim or Avatar.  For those who saw Tron in theaters or even on the original DVD release, for those who only know Tron from the poster in Zachary Levi’s bedroom on Chuck, and for those asking “who’s Chuck?,” look forward to a great ride.  Last upgraded in quality in 2011, Tron is available at Amazon by itself both on DVD and Blu-Ray and in a bundle pack with 2010’s Tron: Legacy.  And this is the first major anniversary year that Tron is available to stream–watch it anytime on Disney+.  You’ll want to check out the behind-the-scenes extras, including five hours of features.  You can even get a shirt celebrating Flynn’s arcade.

Happy birthday #40, Tron!

C.J. Bunce / Editor / borg




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