Tron was created by a visionary.
In 1982, 29-yearold writer-director Steven Lisberger was cranking out animated adverts when he somehow convinced Disney to cough up $17m for a story about some guy who gets sucked into a parallel electronic world and has a fight with a computer’s brain.
Hidden away in the revised, platitude-heavy Making of extras, check out the waxy, early ’80s footage of Lisberger, dropping concepts like “the digital frontier” and evangelising about how computers will eventually colonise our work, our play, our entire culture.
Tron isn’t a great film. Portentous acting, scruffy structure, at least half an hour too long… but it does have a thrilling sense of unshakable momentum.
It’s a bright, shining big Idea, propelled by Lisberger’s prophetic confidence. the job was gigantic: craft a convincing digital world into which wise-ass programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) could be transposed as a virtual gladiator, crusading against the copyright theft of his successful videogame by bond-villainous corporate spook Dillinger (David Warner).
What would this world look like? How could it be realised at a time when creaky animatronics and awkwardly overlaid models were the height of FX elegance?
“We used hand-crafted methods to make a movie that looked like it was created by a computer,” says Lisberger. “There is more computing power in a modern cellphone than we used in making Tron.”
Grid is good
So, with conceptual-art dreamweavers Syd Mead and Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud, Lisberger shot the whole thing in monochrome and painted on the futurist fluorescence later, the costumes’ luminous arterial outlines foreshadowing commercial motion-capture.
As with other high-contrast, light-and-model- based effects movies (Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Blade Runner), the remastered print dazzles in high-def: precision vectors, laser-sharp grids, ember reds, yolkish yellows, midnight blues… an audacious hybrid of live action and animation – almost 30 years before Avatar.
The audio commentary is a little heavy on fast-forwardable reminiscence, but with Lisberger heading it up, it’s a fascinating, fan-level run-through of the film’s inception.
Best, though, is the dewy-eyed mini-doc where Lisberger takes his adult son back to the Disney archive. This rummage through old photo albums is a lot more than empty nostalgia.
Lisberger Sr and Jr scope out the time-stained images of specky-beardy crew members and plot their post-Tron CVs – this guy ended up at Pixar, that guy went to ILM… the point is clear.
As a movie, Tron may be flawed, but as an inspiration, it’s pretty much Movie Zero for today’s generation of mainstream creatives. And it isn’t just influential in terms of technique and technology.
Most films that attempt to surf on a vogueish techno-wave often feel faddish and dated by the time they’re released: see the absurd view of ‘virtual reality’ as accelerated evolution in The Lawnmower Man; the sub-Orwellian piffle of Sandra Bullock’s The Net.
Like the best sci-fi, Tron extrapolated the present into the shape of things to come: online aliases, parallel digital lives, anarchic hacker culture, networked videogaming.
Tron: Legacy is neither as resonant nor as remarkable; an abstract action movie with all the tropes diligently ticked (good guy gone bad, double-crosser, sexy new girl, spunky new guy, cynical sequel set-up, annoying cameo from Michael sheen…).
The base idea is solid: 20-odd years after Kevin Flynn’s disappearance, grown-up son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) follows his dad onto the Game Grid, which has been rebooted into a digital dictatorship ruled by ‘Clu’, a ruthless copy of original Flynn (Bridges’ computerised Tron-era face disturbingly imprinted onto an acrobatic actor’s body).
Olivia Wilde is the lust interest – decanted into the standard curve-clinging fetish-wear and excelling in the role of exposition Deliverer-In-Chief (“Their vehicles aren’t designed to go off-grid. They’ll not function on this terrain!”).
But, after a lively first hour, it skitters off said grid and slowly de-rezzes into some guff about Good Flynn’s foiled plan to use the virtual world’s “bio-digital jazz” to rejuvenate the non-virtual world.
Despite mostly likable performances – particularly from Bridges and Wilde – the real star is the look. Director/architecture professor Joseph Kosinski has re-sculpted Lisberger’s landscape to enhance the organic integrity. It now has meteorology and topography; crystalline seas and grumbling skies breathing heat and life into a cool but sterile environment. But it’s still a $170m design brief in search of a film.
Tron: Legacy may be a visual delight, but Tron was a vision. Star Wars took sci-fi into outer space, while Tron was all about inner space and what was possible down here on earth; a neon-blueprint of how technology would transform science fiction into fact.
While Tron now plays as a clear-sighted premonition of the present, Tron: Legacy is already receding into the past…
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