You knew this was coming, didn't you?
Suffice to say that in the past two years I've made no secret of my affection for either 'Tron: Legacy' or its predecessor, 'Tron.' But the thing about a movie or franchise that begins during one's childhood or some impressionable stage of one's moviegoing life is that often nostalgia overwhelms any sense of objectivity, such as is possible, regarding its merits. At the same time, a generational divide emerges between viewers who loved it when it was first released, and who didn't see it until their older counterparts assured them emphatically that the damn thing was nothing short of a masterpiece. And the question is: who's right?
The answer is both and neither. It's as impossible to relinquish that subconscious attachment to a text or film as it is to ignore the expectations one gets from hearing something's good. (This is also why I recommend that anyone interested in 'Tron: Legacy' ignore Twitter, Facebook, or other social media until the film comes out so that they can judge the film for themselves.) But all of that's also why 'Tron' seems like one of the most worthy candidates for a "Shelf Life" column – namely, because its pedigree remains as controversial today as when it was first released.
The Facts: 'Tron' was first released on July 9, 1982, during what has subsequently been described as one of the darkest times in the history of Walt Disney Studios, both in terms of the subject matter it was exploring, and the resultant commercial success that came from such an exploration. Costing $17 million to make, the film eventually went on to become a box office success, earning $33 million in receipts during its theatrical run, and received two Academy Award nominations, for Best Costume Design and Best Sound. Meanwhile, the film hovers at 70 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes' Tomatometer.
What Still Works: Looking at only a handful of exchanges in the film, it's obvious that creator Steven Lisberger conceived a visual and conceptual (not to mention spiritual) world that almost demands further exploration, and he does an admirable job introducing and establishing many of the ideas that give its story greater substance than "dude gets sucked into a computer." Along those lines, 'Tron' is cohesive and smart, providing at least a foundation (if admittedly not an entirely accurate lexicon) for the fantastic journey that Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) experiences. Rather than merely chronicling a guy's attempt to hack into a computer to retrieve the files that would vindicate his talent and creativity, Lisberger throws him into a universe of computer terminology and ideas and challenges him to fight his way out.
Visually, the film remains pretty stunning. Although some of the mattes are slightly uneven, or suffer because the black-lit photography occasionally reveals the backgrounds behind the characters, the conception of the landscape is truly beautiful, and artists Syd Mead and Jean "Moebius" Giraud do an amazing job translating the ideas of the time about computers and programming into multi-dimensional worlds, vehicles and characters. And even though some of that visual style remains anachronistic, in many ways it seems more faithful to the computer universe because it was created at a time in which computer artistry and technology was still restricted to geometric coding – at least to laypeople of that period.
In this regard, I also think that the special effects not only hold up but remain spectacularly groundbreaking. Contrary to some criticisms, the light cycles and vehicles and landscapes were never designed to be photorealistic, and as such they brilliantly represent our idea what these objects might look like if interpreted through the eye of a computer.
Finally, I think most of the performances are also great. Bridges' palpable joie de vivre permeates every scene in which he appears, and he seems to be having the time of his life shuffling from one oddball scenario to another; he really is this fascinating sort of free-spirit hippie programmer with more grandiose ideas than just the construction of a new or more efficient program. Meanwhile, Bruce Boxleitner is not only a study in polished, leading-man heroism as Tron, but he provides the right amount of naïve integrity to make that salvation program of Alan Bradley's an essential but somehow not central component of the story.
And watching Cindy Morgan, who is even bit as gorgeous in a day-glow bodysuit as she was in a tennis skirt in 'Caddyshack,' it's a real shame that she didn't have more success on the big screen. Although her work on TV was equally terrific, she communicates an incredibly attractive sense of empowerment and confidence (her voice is steady and calming, especially against Bridges' explosiveness and Boxleitner's stalwart heroism), and gives Yori a depth and presence that allows her to be more than the "love interest," both in the real and computer worlds.
What Doesn't Work: Well, mostly the fact that the movie isn't really about Tron, per se. As indicated above, he plays a pivotal role in the story, but ultimately the story is Flynn's, and to that end he serves primarily as a supporting character.
Beyond that, the film has some pacing issues, occasionally marveling at its own creativity a little bit more than it probably should, and allowing set pieces to go on longer than necessary. And also as highlighted above, the film's limited budget, along with its (admirably) ambitious visual breakthroughs sometimes produced images that seem incomplete or unfinished; several of the backgrounds literally drop off into blackness and don't match alternate angles of the same location, or the juxtaposition of black and white footage of the actors with these CG landscapes seems occasionally wonky or unclear.
What's The Verdict: Independent of my personal affection for the film, I think 'Tron' holds up remarkably well, although I understand why a lot of younger audiences may find it uninspiring or boring. Many films released since 1982 have covered at least vaguely similar territory, and of course refined storytelling rhythms and narrative momentum, and its effects, while indisputably groundbreaking, I'm sure seem primitive at best in comparison to the worlds and creatures created seemingly effortlessly today.
Overall, 'Tron' is an exciting kind of film, as much as it is entertaining on its own merits: it comes up with a great ideas, explores it in interesting ways, and leaves enough ideas on the table to arouse the curiosity and passion of its audience. And even if those shortcomings sometimes undermine its technical or conceptual achievements, Steven Lisberger's film will always be a source of inspiration and a technological landmark, earning it a deserved place in the pantheon of the industry's most memorable works.
[Editor's Note: 'Tron' is currently unavailable on DVD as Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment took it off the market several months ago. Although no official word has been announced about a potential Blu-ray or DVD re-release, you might be able to find the film at your local video store, or in major cities, being screened theatrically in anticipation of 'Tron: Legacy.']