Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 11 July 2004
Source Disney DVD
An art in its infancy retains some amount of integrity, despite the technical grandeur related to its progression.
In the evolution of the video game, for example, the first generation, characterized by blocky graphics and bleep-bloop-bleep-blop soundtracks, is considered as lame to those inducted to gaming’s later generations. In comparison to updated games, with fluid 3-D graphics and elaborated button use, titles such as Pac-Man are forgivably dated.
However, Pac-Man (along with Space Invaders and Galaga among numerous others) encouraged a player’s imagination like few, more modern games can. In these two-dimensional, visibly pixelated arenas, playing is an invitation to complete the look of these worlds.
Such is the case with Tron. The film (based loosely on a video game) involves the plight of computer programs’ mutiny against a larger program. Understand that director Steven Lisberger has cited Spartacus as more of an influence than Star Wars.
In Tron the effects are simple in comparison to the seamless appearance of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. However mighty these beasts, the triumph of the latter film exists solely in comparison to older ones; Tron was the first film to employ computer graphics with such enormity.
Computer animation was so foreign at the time that the use of computers prohibited Tron from receiving an Oscar nomination — members of the Academy stated that the use of computers to craft environments, rather to draw them by hand, was a means of cheating.
Oftentimes praise is involuntarily given to films that create rather than merely occur in a completely imagined environment, and Tron’s is one that rivals any in film. Flynn is the film’s protagonist — a “computer genius” according to the trailer’s narrator — he is the first and most formal depiction of the cyberpunk. He has programmed a handful of popular arcade games for which a coworker has allegedly robbed credit and climbed selfishly up the corporate ladder.
Flynn believes the evidence in this act is in the program itself (this is deciphered among minutes of arbitrary computer jargon). By sneaking into the lab at night, Flynn disturbs the “master program” and is transported into the system. The film operates on the philosophy that interactive data in a computer exists as a parallel reality, and even though there are a few easily ignored contrivances, the idea does retain some amount of depth.
Each person in this world is a manifestation of an existing program, and each is identified by a disc (literally, a Frisbee) attached to his back. This disc is also a weapon, and when thrown emits a light drawing its flight. Flynn, once inside this computer world, finds Yori, a program, and Tron, a specialized security program and the film’s presumed namesake.
It is important to first analyze the plot because it is the basis for (and, consequently, disguised behind) a truly astonishing vision. Fabricated and imagined landscapes were custom for both Disney (Tron’s parent distributor) and films of the early eighties, and Tron’s is distinguished for its fluid use of juvenile computer graphics. This comment is admittedly biased by the thought that the filmmakers faced a seemingly insurmountable obstacle in making this film. Imagination, in this case, is far more powerful a tool than any camera. Lisberger has relied upon his vision (rather than his resources) in crafting Tron. In turn he has heightened the limitations of traditional filmmaking.
The technique used in producing Tron is painstaking in its required detail. The reality portions of the film excluded, most every frame requires six elements — or, six simultaneous images per frame. Every second of film involves nearly 150 separate images.
Tron was shot in black and white with actors in similarly colored costumes against a black backdrop. The resulting footage was placed against a matted or drawn background, and further animations were rotoscoped. The result is such a constant use of imagery that, when paired with the knowledge of its production, this fabricated world becomes alive.
Most every single frame of Tron contains a moving background element — not a second of this world is static. Each program is dressed in a quasi-futuristic getup, complete with helmet, that echoes a computer’s circuitry.
Tron’s images intoxicate; this computer world, depicted in the vocabulary of computer graphics that are highly contemporary, is a deserved dog-ear in the history of cinema.
These abounding images are secondary to some of the film’s set pieces. There is a Solar Sailer that travels on beams of light, tanks called Recognizers that are comprised of independently floating shapes, and, of course, Light Cycles.
In this world programs are harnessed in groups and forced to compete in different arenas. One involves two circular fields: a ball is bounced against the ceiling between them and will diminish a portion of the field if the contestant fails to catch it. The most awesome sight is the Light Cycle arena. Flynn is forced to compete via cycle shortly after his arrival, and he is fairly competent; after all, the game is the product of his design.
Each Light Cycle (there are as many as three on one of two competing teams) is capable of making a ninety-degree turn without losing a bit of speed — and these things are fast. Each also emits a trail in the form of a wall. Cycles’ paths become mazes, and players lose by crashing into a wall or another’s trail. This scene is a sight to behold; it belongs among the hundred greatest scenes in film.
In essence, in watching this film one is essentially watching a game. But there is a trick to this — these aren’t anonymous, blocky video game characters, these are humans we have been introduced to. As formulaic as Flynn’s plight may seem, his adventure — because it comes attached to the understood context of a game — is felt. This occurs seldom in film. Sure, Indiana Jones can belay to most any nearby ledge with his whip and it inspires gasps, but Tron’s battle with a light disc (among other noteworthy scenes) is truly exhilarating in its visual prowess.
In first-generation video games, innovation was frequent. Despite their blocky graphics, games seldom bore even a hint of resemblance to one that came before it. In turn these games were about the game whereas modern games are about the graphics, sound or popular character.
This comment is a metaphor related to Tron’s place in the history of film (and only coincidentally does the film have to do with these games). To say that Tron was before its time is unbiased, and to say that it has a time is inappropriate. Tron, simply, is such a complete vision absent any references, both forward and past (contrary to Lisberger’s admittance of Star Wars as an influence), that it stands alone. The film garners further appreciation twenty years later, because of the growth of the media it is drawn from.