(I consider myself a pretty serious movie fan. But the simple fact of the matter is that I miss stuff. Famous and interesting stuff. But not for long! Welcome to the column where I continue my film education before your very eyes. I will seek out and watch all of the movies I know I should have seen by now. I will first "review" the movie before I've watched it, based entirely on its reputation. Then I will give the movie a fair chance and actually watch it. You will laugh at me, you may condemn me, but you will never say I didn't try!)

The Film:


Tron (1982), Dir. Steven Lisberger

Starring:

Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner and Cindy Morgan

Why I Haven't Seen It Until Now:

I grew up on a steady diet of Indiana Jones, James Bond and Marty McFly. 1980s live-action Disney films couldn't have felt less appealing to a kid like me.

Pre-Viewing:

Tron is a fascinating but tremendously dated and ultimately boring film that hit a specific generation at the exact right moment to have a lasting impact. Like The Goonies, this is a film that coasts on nostalgia and rose-tinted childhood memories and those who loved it as children have yet to realize just how bad it really is.

Jeff Bridges stars as an adventurous computer programmer who enters the computer world known as TRON, where he engages in a bunch of lame video game challenges, culminating in the famous light cycle sequence. There is little plot to speak of and what is there feels like filler to connect the various special effects sequences, which may have been impressive in 1982, but are borderline unwatchable today.

Ultimately, I can see how Tron was a major step forward for visual effects, but outside of that, it's an empty, plotless mess with little to offer me and I'm only watching it because the trailer for Tron Legacy looks pretty nifty.

Post-Viewing:

Okay, put those stones down. I was way off.



I'm not going to declare Tron a masterpiece and it's definitely aged strangely (not going to say badly), but I was genuinely won over by the film and shocked by how little I really knew about it. The stuff that's permeated our culture, namely those light cycles, actually have little to do with what really works about the film.

I can say this, though: If I saw this when I was 7 or 8 years old, it would have blown my mind. Blown it right straight out the back of my head. Comparing this to The Goonies is wrongheaded. A more accurate comparison would be the original Clash of the Titans, which rides on waves of nostalgia and isn't all that great, but is impressively made, well directed and consistently engaging.

First off...Tron is a guy. Oh my. All this time, I thought Tron was the name of the computerized world where the story takes place. Secondly...there is a real, honest-to-User story going on here!

I loved the scope and imagination at work here. The e-e-evil computer programmer Dillinger (Warner) steals the work from super-cool programmer Flynn (Bridges), gets promoted, fires Flynn and invents the Master Control Program to operate the company's computer systems. When Flynn tries to prove that his work was stolen, the super-intelligent MCP transports him into the computer system, where he must escape certain death in gladiatorial "video games" and assist a security program named Tron (Boxleitner) in defeating the MCP and re-establishing contact with "the users."

The world of Tron was built using computers that were just one step above punch card machines the size of gymnasiums, so it would be easy to "forgive" the dated effects. If you ask me, though, there is nothing to forgive. This is a beautifully realized world that takes full advantage of the fact that they were simply incapable of creating a "realistic" effect. This blocky, geometric world, filled with the tanks and ships and landscapes that look like they were built out of the most basic shapes imaginable, is by turns, terrifying, beautiful and by the time the story reaches its epic conclusion, kind of awe-inspiring.

The combination of early CGI and rotoscoping still looks stunning. Fact.

My favorite aspect of the film is the mythology at work. I love how each program within the computer system exists as an individual that reflects its creator and his function. I love how the MCP is trying to gain control by going after "religious" programs who believe in almighty Users, who control and create the world around them. I love the transplantation of fantasy and science fiction archetypes into a setting that represents, although somewhat simplistically, the workings of a computer.

And I love how Flynn is pretty much Neo. Or Jesus Christ. Or both. Maybe.

The film remains tremendously flawed, but none of that has to do with the technology. It has everything to do with screenplay, structure and pacing...you know, the kind of stuff that STILL plagues big special effects movies.

This thing movies slowly. Even when action is happening and things are exploding and there is much running and shouting, the movie never stops moving beyond a crawl. Is it the continuously static camera, set in one place for visual effects purposes? Is it the confused motivation of many of the characters late in the film? I'm not sure. Maybe a little bit of both? This does not feel like it is 96 minutes. It feels at least a half hour longer.

The fully live action bookends are even worse, with stilted dialogue, boring characters and a general sense of "let's pad this thing out because we can only afford so many visual effects sequences for the bulk of the movie." Thank the movie gods for the ever-reliable Jeff Bridges, who is obviously having a blast in every scene, whether he's sitting at a computer or engaging in life or death struggles. Bridges has a habit of bringing an infectious enthusiasm to all of his roles and he's a lifesaver here.

A more nitpicky qualm is the introduction of the computer world. We visit it briefly at the start of the movie with almost no introduction and then leave for a good 30 minutes in the "real world" before returning. As dull as the live action stuff is, this completely diminishes the impact of Flynn's 2001: A Space Odyssey-styled journey into the system. The initial, ahem, shock and awe of this incredible world is neutered. It would have been a far more dramatically effective choice to not see the computer world until Flynn sees it.

I promise I'm taking off my tweed sport coat now. No more dramatic structure complaints.

Do I want to rush out and buy Tron on DVD and experience it again soon? No. But I'm glad I watched it. That may be a lower-tier form of praise, but considering my expectations, this thing really managed to create a compelling mythology in a visually stunning world. It's not deep science fiction and while it's popular, it's definitely not a classic, but it's a fine piece of entertainment.

(What should I view next? Vote in the comments below! I'll also listen to persuasive arguments if your film of choice isn't winning the popular vote. Or suggest something else entirely. I'm giving YOU the chance to control the direction of this column.)

-Soylent Green

-Forbidden Planet

-Strange Days

-Logan's Run

-2010: The Year We Make Contact
CATEGORIES Features, Reviews, Sci-Fi