Monday, January 26, 2009

Tron

When Tron came out in 1982, it was intended to be a visually stunning parable against the abuse of powers by computers and technology. More than twenty years later, the film plays more like a nostalgic ode to the early 1980s, than a simple good vs. evil morality tale. Tron evokes the heady days when video games like Pac-Man, Defender and Centipede ruled the arcades and when it seemed like everyone owned a Commodore 64 or an Atari 2600 – the eight track of personal computing. It also anticipated the proliferation of CGI special effects and was not a big hit back in the day but its influence is widespread – it enjoys a small, but loyal cult following today.

Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is a hot shot computer programmer turned computer hacker after being fired three years ago by ENCOM corporate big wig, Ed Dillinger (David Warner). To add insult to injury, the executive stole a series of video games that Flynn created and transformed them into wildly popular and profitable products, chief among them Space Paranoids – much to the young programmer's chagrin. Flynn can prove true authorship of the games but only if he can gain direct access to ENCOM's mainframe. Enter ex-girlfriend Laura (Cindy Morgan) and her current beau, Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) – both disgruntled employees at ENCOM – who give Flynn the access he needs to find out the truth. However, the corporation's artificial intelligence, the tyrannical Master Control Program, discovers what Flynn is doing and uses a high tech laser to digitize the troublesome hacker and transport him inside the computer world.

This is where Tron really begins to get interesting as writer/director Steven Lisberger creates a flashy, neon-drenched world, a cybernetic version of Social Darwinism where lowly computer programs must participate in gladiatorial battles against the Master Control's ruthless minions. These involve games where opponents throw glowing discs at each other or, in another game, hurl a ball of energy at one another. If either one of these things hits someone, they are killed or de-rezzed – slang for deresolution. Even though the computer effects are primitive by today’s standards, back then they were considered ahead of their time. There is a certain clunky charm to the effects that makes Tron all that more endearing to its fans. The look of the computer world is all blacks and dark blues, which is in nice contrast to the vivid neon red and blue of some of the characters and vehicles that inhabit it.

Undeniably, the coolest sequence in the film is the light cycle race where Flynn, Ram (Dan Shor) and Tron take on three of the MCP goons. It involves futuristic vehicles made out of energy and that leave behind a solid trail that one uses to block in their opponent and destroy them. The action is fast-paced and exciting to watch with dynamic visuals. The computer world is beautifully realized in vivid detail that immerses one fully and is obviously a large part of the film’s appeal. Lisberger adopts a pretty simple color scheme of predominantly primary colors. Tron is one of those rare examples where style over substance works. The computer world that Lisberger and his team worked so hard to create is rich in detail. It also plays on our romantic notions of what really goes on inside our computers – not a collection of microchips and circuit boards but a vast world where programs fight each other for survival. It's no wonder that visionary science fiction writer, William Gibson once commented in an interview that the cyberworld in Tron is how he envisioned the cyberspace in his own novels.

The film’s genesis began in 1976 when Lisberger, then an animator of drawings with his own studio, looked at a sample reel from a computer firm called MAGI (Mathematical Applications Group, Inc.). At the time, he was researching technology in the late 1970s. Shortly afterwards, Atari came out with Pong and he was immediately fascinated by them. He wanted to do a film that would incorporate these electronic games. According to Lisberger, "I realized that there were these techniques that would be very suitable for bringing video games and computer visuals to the screen. And that was the moment that the whole concept flashed across my mind." He was frustrated by the clique-ish nature of computers and video games and wanted to create a film that would open this world up to everyone.

Lisberger and his co-producer Donald Kushner borrowed against the anticipated profits of their 90-minute animated television special, Animalypmics to develop storyboards for Tron. They moved to the west coast in 1977 and set up an animation studio to develop Tron. Originally, the film was conceived to be predominantly an animated film with live-action sequences acting as book ends. The rest would involve a combination of computer generated visuals and back-lit animation. Lisberger planned to finance the movie independently by approaching several computer companies but had little success. One company, Information International, Inc., was receptive. He met with Richard Taylor, a representative, and they began talking about using live-action photography with back-lit animation in such a way that it could be integrated with computer graphics.

Lisberger and Kushner took their storyboards and samples of computer-generated films to Warner Bros., MGM and Columbia – all of whom turned them down. Lisberger spent two years writing the screenplay and spent $300,000 of his own money marketing the idea for Tron and had also secured $4-5 million in private backing before reaching a standstill. In 1980, Lisberger and Kushner decided to take the idea to Disney, which was interested in producing more daring productions at the time. However, Disney executives were uncertain about giving $10-12 million to a first-time producer and director using techniques that, in most cases, had never been attempted.

The studio agreed to finance a test reel which involved a flying disc champion throwing a rough prototype of the discs used in the film. It was a chance to mix live-action footage with back-lit animation and computer generated visuals. It impressed the executives at Disney and they agreed to back the film. The script was subsequently re-written and re-storyboarded with the studio's input. At the time, Disney rarely hired outsiders to make films for them and Kushner found that he and his group were given a less than warm welcome because “we tackled the nerver center – the animation department. They saw us as the germ from outside. We tried to enlist several Disney animators but none came. Disney is a closed group.”

One the reasons why the cyberspace in Tron is so striking is because of the creative brain trust assembled to help realize it. Futuristic industrial designer Syd Mead, legendary French comic book artist Jean “Moebius” Giraud, and high-tech commercial artist Peter Lloyd served as special visual consultants. Mead designed most of the vehicle designs (including Sark's aircraft carrier, the light cycles, the tank and the solar sailer). Moebius was the main set and costume designer for the film. Lloyd designed the environments. However, these jobs often overlapped with Moebius working on the solar sailer and Mead designing terrain, sets and the film's logo. The original Program character design was inspired by the main Lisberger Studios logo, a glowing body builder hurling two discs. CGI had been used in films before, most notably in Westworld (1973) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), but was it used much more extensively in Tron. In order to pull it off, four of the United States’ foremost computer graphics houses produced the computer imagery for the film. They invented the computer techniques and created the visual effects in approximately seven months. More than 500 people were involved in the post-production work, including 200 inker and hand-painters in Taiwan.

Jeff Bridges brings a playful energy to the film both in the real world – like when he breaks into ENCOM – and in the computer world, like when he gets acclimatized to his new surroundings. Tron is the no-nonsense hero while Flynn provides comic relief. We are introduced to Flynn in his environment – the video arcade that he owns, beating the world record score for Space Paranoids, one that he invented but was stolen from him. Now, he plays the game and the only profits he sees from it are the quarters that kids put in it. Bridges brings an engaging, boyish charm to the role as is evident in the way he gleefully circumvents ENCOM security and then proceeds to sneak in so that he can find and use an unattended computer terminal. There are the little touches, like when Flynn sneaks on ahead and hides from Laura, that keep the mood light and fun, just before our hero is zapped into the computer world.

In the real world, Tron’s alter ego, Alan is a bespectacled, slightly bookish programmer who is frustrated by the lack of access he has to his company’s computer system. Bruce Boxleitner plays these two contrasting roles quite well. He knows he’s the straight man to Bridges’ charismatic goofball Flynn. We meet his character as he tries to access a high level of security so that he can run his Tron program, an independent security program that would act as a watchdog to the company’s MCP computer. There is a cut to a long shot and we see that Alan’s cubicle is one of hundreds – impersonal and he is treated as an insignificant cog in a massive corporation. Interestingly, the corporation’s name is ENCOM, which eerily foreshadows another evil empire, but in the real world – Enron.

After several Wall Street investment analysts attended a screening and were largely unimpressed with what they saw, Disney stock dropped $2.50 in active New York Stock Exchange trading. This put something of a damper on the studio’s prediction that there would be at least $400 million in domestic sales of merchandise, including an arcade game by Bally Midway and two Mattel Intellivision home video games. Tron was released on July 9, 1982 in 1,091 theaters grossing $4.8 million on its opening weekend. It went on to make $33 million in North America, moderately successful considering its $17 million budget but still regarded as a financial failure based on the studio’s expectations.

Audiences stayed away and critics savaged the wooden dialogue and simple story. In his review the Washington Post, Gary Arnold wrote, “Fascinating as they are as discreet sequences, the computer-animated episodes don’t build dramatically. They remain a miscellaneous form of abstract spectacle.” Jay Scott of the Globe and Mail concurred: “It’s got momentum and it’s got marvels, but it’s without heart; it’s a visionary technological achievement without vision.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin felt the same way. “Its visual effects are wonderfully new. They are also numbing after a while. And how could they not be? They’re loud, bright and empty, and they’re all this movie has to offer.”

However, not everyone felt this way. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and described the film as "a dazzling movie from Walt Disney in which computers have been used to make themselves romantic and glamorous. Here's a technological sound-and-light show that is sensational and brainy, stylish, and fun.” Near the end of his review, he noted (in a positive tone), "This is an almost wholly technological movie. Although it's populated by actors who are engaging (Bridges, Cindy Morgan) or sinister (Warner), it is not really a movie about human nature. Like [the last two Star Wars films], but much more so, this movie is a machine to dazzle and delight us.”

Amazingly, Tron wasn’t even nominated for a special effects Academy Award because “the Academy thought we cheated by using computers,” Lisberger remembers. However, his film and the world he and his team created captivated a small group of moviegoers. A loyal cult following developed around Tron over the years. The film may have not captured the public consciousness when it first came out but it has since developed a loyal following that loves it dearly. In many respects, Tron is a snapshot of the early '80s when video games were just starting to take off, but it also was a harbinger of things to come. It paved the way for the elaborate computer graphics we see in movies like The Matrix (1999) and the new Star Wars trilogy. However, Tron warns that we cannot rely totally on computers to do everything because in doing so we run the risk of losing our humanity. I always imagine Flynn going on to become Bill Gates or maybe Steve Jobs.

4 comments:

  1. Can't say I've ever been a big TRON, but I appreciate its influence even more now that I've read your article.

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  2. Ned Merrill:

    Thanks for the kind words. Yeah, it is kinda scary how influential the film has become, for better or for worse.

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  3. Hey J.D. Great write-up on this film. It's been ages since I've seen it. I think it was in the mid-80's. I didn't quite understand it back then. I need to give it another shot. What do you think of the new one that's been done?

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  4. Keith:

    Thanks for the comments. As for the upcoming sequel... I remain cautiously optimistic. I really wish the original director, Steven Lisberger was helming this one but he appears to be out of the loop. At least Bridges and Boxleitner will be returning.

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