TRON was directed by Steven Lisberger (Hot Pursuit, TRON: Uprising), written by Lisberger and Charles S. Haas (Over the Edge, Gremlins 2: The New Batch) and stars Jeff Bridges (R.I.P.D., Starman), Bruce Boxleitner (Legion of the Dead, Scarecrow and Mrs. King), David Warner (In the Mouth of Madness, Cross of Iron), Cindy Morgan (Galaxis, Bring ‘Em Back Alive), Dan Shor (Ghoulies Go to College, Black Moon Rising), and Barnard Hughes (Midnight Cowboy, The Lost Boys). It’s about a computer hacker who attempts to return to reality after being transported into a video game world.
The Plot: Since TRON is more focused on bringing to life its unique world and ideas, it doesn’t have a very complicated story, but what’s here is passable enough although it doesn’t exactly impress. Kevin Flynn (Bridges) is trying to hack into the company he used to work for via Clu, his personified program and gets stopped by Dillinger and his avatar Sark (Warner). Current employees Alan (Boxleitner) and Lora (Morgan) are shut out of the machinery; now going to Flynn to warn him about Dillinger’s efforts to shut him down.
The three try to find proof of wrongdoing but are stopped and transported into the game world at the behest of the MCP which is trying to make itself a super-duper computer (a trope that somehow predates the movie). The trio, forced to use their programs (Clu, Tron, and Yori) to compete in life-or-death games, meet Ram (Shor) and Dumont (Hughes) and they must escape before the MCP becomes an all-knowing, all-controlling machine.
The Characters: To make up for the flat story, TRON plays up the characters, making a peculiar bunch out of the humans and the programs alike. Kevin makes video games after being burned by his former employer and now, barely getting by, has a score (get it?) to settle. He’s an unconventional hero initially introduced as a man solely focused on getting his money flowing again but becomes an endearing protagonist thanks to his lightheartedness and child-like sensibilities. Alan’s a charismatic computer genius much like Kevin but has more on his mind; striving to create better security for programs to limit the MCP’s power, unknowingly working against his employer.
He’s much more serious and only wants to get into the machines to get back to work, but still has his more out-there moments. Lora is a good go-between for the men since she had a romantic history with Kevin and is now with Alan. She’s just here because she wants to be but gets sidelined. Dillinger is a slimy villain that just wants money, if he has to bow to a machine, so be it. He’s simple but fits with the story exceedingly well, as does everyone else.
The Action: While TRON doesn’t quite fit the action movie profile, it does provide more stunning sequences of games, chases, and escapes than it does anything else; and on that level, it’s a success. The world inside the computers provides intriguing obstacles for Kevin to overcome, such as the “Ball Game” which takes Pong to a new level, pitting Kevin against other programs and users as they attempt to remove the standing platforms from beneath each other until one is derezzed.
Any world as complicated and hostile as the one in these machines (to the programs residing inside, not so for the audience) has threats, and the Recognizers (towering machines that hover along and zap whatever they deem to be malevolent into nothing) are ever-present and intimidating to the characters and the audience; which lights a fire under the heroes to keep the stakes high and the movie chugging.
Lightcycles and the games they’re in are great creations that, again, take the simple ideas of older games to an extreme and provide some edge-of-your-seat action in a movie more than willing to slow down and ruminate about its ideas. All of these moments build to an admittedly disappointing final showdown combined with some vacant stretches. Dated and flawed the action may be, but the threat is still real.
The Technics: For the time, TRON is a marvel of movie making. Its world goes deeper than the movie is allowed to venture but what Lisberger did get to show is captivating, its costumes are still recognizable in no small part to the simple design of wiring on top of a full-body suit which contrasts the rigid, neon-laden geometry of the world that perfectly illustrates 80s arcade games in an up-close fashion.
The lighting is rough but never less than endearing because of the unique methods the filmmakers used that involved shooting the computer world sequences in black and white and colourizing them later. Any little missteps in this area are easily overlooked when the level of passion is clearly so high. Despite the more action-oriented approach, the movie does ask some heady questions that were way ahead of their time about humans being subservient to tech and the concept of a God. Asked in no subtle manner, but asked nonetheless. All of it has aged but the talent involved is clear as ever.
This is a unique experience to this day, creating an instantly iconic world and characters while paving the way for effects as we know them now. As a show of lights and sounds, TRON is still entertaining despite its simple plot.
TRON is available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital platforms via Disney.