Its retina-burning visual makeup and gaudy SFX instantly made Tron the stuff of cinematic legend, but is Disney’s 1982 cyber SCI-FI deserving of its status as a classic?
The special effects have held up over time about as well as the original version of Pong looks juxtaposed alongside the latest 3D television. Tron’s dated look can be justified to some extent by arguing that the technology at the time was not nearly advanced enough to realize the movie’s atmospheric ambitions, which is true. On the other hand Star Wars opened half a decade earlier and still holds its weight visually.
The tired look of Tron can also be partly excused due to its central setting. Much of the action transpires in a computer world made in the 80s, and computer simulations tend to age very quickly and drag the movie’s that depict them (The Lawnmower Man, Disclosure, Hackers, etcetera) into early nostalgia. Representations of virtual reality one year tend to look dated the next. A quarter century down the track and, boy, how the times have changed.
There is a whiff of semi-alluring electro kitsch to Tron’s hyper-coloured mise en scene, and some respect needs to be given for its ambition. There is no escaping, however, that it looks pitifully awful, and it’s hard to believe that — even in ’82 — this was cutting edge cinema.
The story, clumsily established by writer/director Steven Lisberger, centres on hacker Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and the consequences of him busting into a massive corporate network.
The movie’s principal villain is an ultra smart HAL-inspired Frankensteinian computer program bored with playing the corporate numbers game and well past the intellect of its inventor.
The computer warns Flynn not to break into its system. Flynn ignores the warning and is zapped by a device that transforms him into the belly of the VR beast: the now infamous ‘The Grid’. Inside The Grid, Flynn is mistaken as a program — no human has treaded here before — and is trained, with other ‘programs,’ to complete in weird Gladiators-esque battles often involving bolts of light hurled hither and thither. Flynn and this cyber comrades are each given a disk that stores their learnings. They are told if the disks are lost they face “de-resolution.”
Tron arrived at a watershed period in computer history. The first IBM PC was released in August 1981, only months before the movie hit cinemas. Concepts like computer memory (one of the characters is named RAM) data and operating systems were far from widely understood and still in the embryonic stages of entering public consciousness. So too was the idea of virtual reality.
In this context, Tron arguably broke some new ground, or at least raised ideas seldom if ever raised in the cinema before. There’s no denying that the movie looks crummy, and this where overriding factors — an interesting story, a zippy pace, good characters, fun editing — should have come into play and clicked it into a higher gear that could have withstood the test of time.
Instead the plot line is ridiculously disjointed, the pace and tempo all over the shop, the dialogue a conflation of gibberish and interpersonal relationships laughably contrived. Lisberger’s rudderless story slithers like a mad mutilated snake in search of excitement and fails to find it at every turn.
The grating SFX are elements that can be excused, to some extent, by history and context. But, unforgivably, Tron is a dreadful bore. A movie that stinks now as it would have stunk thirty years ago.
Is Tron a classic or a clunker?
No ifs or buts. It’s a clunker. Big time.