Review: Tron (1982)



Steven Lisberger
Steven Lisberger, Bonnie MacBird
96 min.
Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner, Cindy Morgan, Barnard Hughes, Dan Shor, Peter Jurasik, Tony Stephano
MPAA Rating

Buy on DVD

Buy on Blu-ray



If it weren’t for the unique and interesting artistic style, this film would look far too dated today to be of much merit to audience. Tron was one of the earliest films to use computer-generated effects and while it’s not hard to tell that now, then it was a revolution the likes of which none had seen.

The story itself might seem as if it has little consequence today, but despite being released nearly 30 years ago, the concepts are distinctly modern. At the time, console games weren’t at the forefront of technology, but arcades were gaining in popularity. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is a talented young computer programmer whose contributions to electronics company ENCOM were indisputable. Yet, instead of honing his skills at the tech giant, he decides to work on his own projects while operating his own video game arcade. There, he quietly works his way into ENCOM’s systems, searching around for a game patent design that he had lost to them in hopes of making it his own again.

ENCOM CEO doesn’t want Flynn meddling in his computer network and creates the Master Control Program, an artificially intelligent program that guard’s the mainframe. Undaunted by this turn of events, Flynn continues his work by injecting his own consciouness into the game code where he can manipulate the virtual reality environment he helped create and enable himself to outwit the Master Control. It’s not your typical sci-fi plot, or at least it wasn’t back in 1982. Computer design was in its infancy and while many corporations were adopting them, they were still looked at as a niche market capable of great potential but too expensive to be sold en masse.

Jeff Bridges was already in his ’30s when this film was released to the theater, but his boyish looks helped convince the public that he was at least ten years younger making the film seem more like a testament against the old in favor of the new. His performance is a bit flat in places, but he has the charisma to carry the film. David Warner, a popular villain of the ’80s, doesn’t disappoint as Ed Dillinger, ENCOM’s head of network security. His character may not have much depth, but he’s so fun to watch that you almost forget that fact. Bruce Boxleitner, as Kevin’s friend and still an ENCOM employee; Condy Morgan, as Flynn’s ex-girlfriend, now dating Kevin; and Barnard Hughes, as ENCOM’s founder and mentor to Kevin; make little impact on the film, even though both Boxleitner and Hughes appear inside the network, each yielding assistance to Flynn’s hacking avatar Clu.

So much of the film foreshadows modern computer warfare, security and hacking and may yet be more advanced than anything heretofore created. Tron tells a story that would work equally well in today’s more advanced medium, yet hasn’t been reasonably attempted (even the sequel Tron Legacy released last year dumbs down its plot too much to do its predecessor justice). However, the story would be nothing without the visuals and, for many, is hardly what made the film last in the memories of all those who’ve seen it.

The visual effects, performed on computers that were infinitessimally small compared to today’s machines (Back then, they worked on machines with 2MB of memory and 330MB of storage. Today, the standard home computer, not a state of the art machine, runs on 4GB of memory {that’s 4,000 MB} and over 500GB of storage {500,000 MB}, which is about 2,000 times more powerful than those 30-years-removed devices), were revolutionary. Combining a process called back-lit animation, actors in costume were filmed on a sound stage and the images important onto computer-generated backgrounds. Because of space restrictions, many of the images in the film have very limited foreground elements and blank space beyond. These limitations were worked into the effects to create a jaw-dropping world that might look a bit dated to some, but is revolutionary to anyone familiar with the process. This is the kind of film that CGI monsters like Transformers must pay their respects to for without Disney’s multi-million dollar gamble, their films might not be made in the same way to day.

You can look for flaws in a film like Tron and find many. You can find incredulity in the plot. Yet, when you look at what they had to work with in 1982, you’ll realize how much of a wonder the film was. Some may see it as only a historical tchotchke, but for many film lovers, that’s enough.
Review Written
August 15, 2011

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