17 December 2010

Retro Review: Tron (1982)


1982, 93mins, PG
Director: Steven Lisberger
Writer (s): Steven Lisberger, Bonnie MacBird
Cast includes: Jeff Bridges, David Warner, Cindy Morgan, Bruce Boxleitner, Dan Shor
UK Release Date: 21st October 1982

“Tron” is just as flawed as it is interesting. In 1982 the film was a notable box-office disappointment, underperforming both critically and financially for an expectant Disney. That isn’t particularly surprising. Nowadays the value of “Tron” is in its eerily accurate predictions concerning the future of computing technology; one must remember the picture was sculpted in an era before terms like “internet” or “Playstation” had moved into the general zeitgeist. In 1982 the movie was just an oddly designed and sporadically entertaining sci-fi affair, starring Jeff Bridges, an actor who was then just beginning to sow the seeds of his now immensely successful career. It suffers from a pedestrian script, lots of cardboard characterization and both a running time and plot which slightly outwear their welcome. Still none of that was ever really the point, “Tron” today is a must see article because of its pitch perfect prophesising and intriguing special effects.

The set-up is fairly simple, but the intricacies of the story are a little more complex. Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is a skilled hacker and disgruntled ex-employee of ENCOM, a successful and ruthless software company. ENCOM is now overseen by Dillinger (David Warner), a man who found glory by thieving several videogame ideas of Flynn’s design, and selling them as his own. Flynn has been desperately trying to break into the ENCOM mainframe called MCP (Master Control Program) to extract evidence of Dillinger’s misdeeds, but has thus far had no luck. Flynn decides to team up with Alan (Bruce Boxleitner); a computer technician who has devised his own program called TRON, one that would help disfigure the MCP and help extract the information Flynn needs. However after breaking into ENCOM headquarters they find the MCP unwilling to comply with their mission, the powerful program utilizing a piece of experimental scientific equipment to digitalize Flynn and bring him into cyberspace. On arrival Flynn teams up with TRON (also portrayed by Boxleitner) to help dissolve the MCP once and for all.

The special effects in “Tron” contain minimal CGI, and what’s there isn’t very impressive. Instead the majority of the picture was crafted with more traditional animation techniques like rotoscoping, invention and creativity trumping detail or lavish set design on this occasion. The picture signalled an important bookmark in the development of computer based effects work, even if the results haven’t stood the test of time particularly well. The picture’s action sequences are very basic in visual conception; instead it’s the compelling colour scheme and otherworldly cinematography that impose upon the viewer most favourably. Director Steven Lisberger concocted something important with “Tron”, a film which laid vital groundwork for the future of CGI in filmmaking. It is very possible that without “Tron” today’s blockbusters wouldn’t be infused with the same digital excesses they’ve now become famous for.

Both Bridges and Warner are adequate, but the rest of the cast are fairly poor. Bridges brings a likable roughish attitude to his performance that helps overcome some of the substandard writing, whilst all Warner’s various roles (he plays Dillinger and a few other nefarious characters in the cyber universe) demand are that he be consistently menacing. The screenplay isn’t bothered with meaningful character conception, a handicap in itself, but troubling matters further are a group of mediocre thespians filling out the supporting cast. Cindy Morgan is spectacularly attractive, but terminally bland from a dramatic standpoint. Similarly Boxleitner’s performance lacks flair or innovation, the actor instead resorting to the sort of stoic woodenness that results in yawns rather than cheers. Other figures filter in and out of the picture with no real impact, leaving the actors stuck in these roles with little of note to do.

The various set-pieces weaved into the movie are enjoyable enough, providing a nice electrical buzz to a story teetering on the brink of tedium. Lisberger doesn’t have a problem with capturing momentum when the film demands it; the key areas of distress reside in the moments between the action beats; mounted with inert relationships and heightened degrees of exposition. “Tron” is actually pretty in sync with the event pictures of today, delivering in the realms of bombast and high octane blockbusting, but struggling when it comes to a compelling narrative or emotional sincerity. Obviously when viewing the picture from a critical standpoint this is a major problem, but when judging the product for its historical worth in the pantheon of cinema this facet actually increases the movie’s value as a visual artefact. Some of what makes “Tron” fascinating today is the foreshadowing it provides on the future of multiplex fare.

The production makes some incredibly astute observations on the futures of technology and gaming, indeed in many ways “Tron” subtly predicts the very existence of the internet. This in itself makes “Tron” a film worth pursuing; it’s pretty mindboggling to consider that something so perceptive concerning the development of modern computing was made 28-years ago. The picture also alludes obviously to the themes of creation and religion, the reverence with which the programs inside the cyber world bestow upon their creators is cleverly interspersed within the feature. As “Tron” progresses the character of Flynn also grows to become a sort of god amongst men given his previously human condition, something that Lisberger explores satisfactorily in the last act. Ultimately it’s these assets that really make “Tron” worth tracking down, and also go heavily towards compensating for some of its more fundamental flaws.

The film feels unevenly paced (although it only runs for a relatively average 93 minutes), but at least it never becomes moribund in seriousness, “Tron” displaying a deft comic touch from time to time. Much of the credit must go to Bridges’ playful performance on this front, but the screenplay also provides a few knowing jokes of its own. Ultimately “Tron” is an utterly imperfect slice of film, but in its own peculiar way it marks a rather pertinent entry in the medium’s history. I doubt it will ever be considered a classic of the genre, but for true film enthusiasts I’d say “Tron” is a picture at least worth dabbling in. It might also be worth noting that the movie’s long gestating and mega budgeted sequel “Tron Legacy” arrives in theatres this weekend. I doubt that Lisberger and company ever considered an expensive follow-up as a remote possibility three decades ago, but hey sometimes even Hollywood can surprise you.

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2010


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