Tron Review: The Humanist Machine

Tron’s in a very weird position when you think about it in terms of computer movies. On the one hand, it’s caught in the ‘60’s, ‘70’s and early ‘80’s spot where all computers are evil and are going to take over the world. And in another – largely thanks to the internal workings of the world of Tron, you can see the focus of computer movies slowly shifting to more amenable territory: computers can work for us, but only if we’re careful.

This particular movie is prescient on a whole lot of levels: for example, we learn – quite early on – that a young programmer has lost his work to an older, rather lazier executive who – essentially – changed the credits on his work to turn that work into his own. Something like what ended up happening with the computer game industry – and rather early on, too, when it turned out that Atari didn’t actually like their programmers being “responsible” for the games they made. [this particular conceptual strand flowed all the way into the modern era where we’re now more aware of publishers than we are of actual game developers.]

There’s lots of thematic ideas that would later get cemented in other movies – for example, the world of “the grid” is vast and generally a neonscape of primary colours. Lots of other movies would realize that the actual mundane tasks performed on a computer are really pretty dull, so they would dress their computer worlds up to make them look a lot like this.

Then there is the idea that the hacker is basically an oddball who isn’t really out to do any particular harm. He’s just hunting around the system for interesting stuff. What’s especially interesting is that the makers of Tron didn’t really know how to deal with this on a policing level. The concept was so novel at the time that there are no police officers involved at all throughout the entire proceedings.

My point, really, is that as odd as this movie was, it fed a lot of movies after it. It fed a lot of computer culture, too. Early speculative fiction about the internet often called the idea of the internet “The Grid” or “The Matrix.” Hacking was often the domain of maverick programmers who could figure out systems and their layers of protection.

In the movie, Flynn ends up owning an arcade.  In this shot, he is with his best friends Lora and Alan discussing how they can maybe get the credit he is due for the games he's made.
Flynn, Alan and Lora scheming together.

So, having dispensed with it’s place in movie history, let’s talk a little about the story. Flynn, a guy who’s the maverick programmer, used to work for Encom, a giant conglomerate. He would go in after hours and write video games, because back then, no one had a home computer, so he had to do this at work. Unfortunately, he’s on a networked system – the Encom system – and one of the lazier higher ups spots [and steals] his work. This guy is Dillinger. Dillinger’s a bit of a creep, we learn, pretty early on, so none of this is surprising.

Dillinger wrote a [surprisingly good] artificial intelligence program called the Master Control Program which – as happens with most of these sorts of movies – has slowly been gaining sentience and power over the space of about three years. As the story moves along, it turns out that Dillinger [in a twist that should surprise exactly nobody at all] ceases to have effective control over the MCP and the MCP is hell bent on world domination.

The MCP doesn’t like the idea that Flynn’s snooping around, still looking for evidence of Dillinger’s tampering, so he shuts down access to some of the Encom employees. Remember, this is the dawn of the computer age, so when the MCP does this, it basically means you pack your bags and go home. There’s nothing useful you can do. Flynn and Friends [Alan and a lady who’s an old love interest] decide that this is bad for everyone in general and hack in to Encom so that they can get Flynn’s evidence and – if possible – shut down the MCP.

From here, things go a little awry and Flynn ends up actually inside the computer – a concept that was quite novel for back then.

And this, ladies and gentlemen – is exactly what you came for when you went to see this movie in 1982.

In much the same way as The Matrix would – in 1999 – define cinema with its visual themes of stark black leather and glowing Matrix code, so the world of Tron comes absolutely alive in 1982 through its rather clever use of computer rendered imagery.

Inside of the computer world, things are more saturated with colour and light.  Everything has a kind of glowing outline, from streets to people to objects.  It is astounding to look at.
The computer world of tron. Such beautiful and colourful style.

The folks in 1982 realized a couple of things really early on: They couldn’t digitize humans, so they didn’t bother trying. The graphics would have taken forever to render if they did anything other than simple matte shapes, so nearly everything is austere in terms of it’s simple blockiness and effective shading, but most importantly, they needed a distinct layer between the real world and the computer world, so they surrounded everything in the computer world with lights of varying shades. And here, in 2015, it still looks amazing.

There are problems, of course. The visual artistry on display here is stunning, but it’s let down by occasional wonky acting and some very classical-sounding music that is the score. In fact, this is the most jarring thing about the movie. High speed chases are punctuated by slow moving musical arcs that feature strings and instrumentation that wouldn’t sound amiss if I were attending an old-style classical concert.

But that sense of visual style has had me wishing that computer systems – on the inside – looked exactly like that for nearly thirty years.

Should you watch this?

Oh God, yes. If you’re into old computer movies, this should be so high on your list, your list should break. If you’re into movies that feature computer games, then – while some of the computer game ideas here might be old-school and a little painful to watch [but not the Light Cycles – which has always been a visual treat] – you should watch this movie just for what it brings to that particular table. If you love movies with particular visual styles and you’re very much into minimalism, then this movie will blow you away with its particular vision of a computer-based world.

But don’t – whatever you do – go in expecting it to blow your mind. That worked in 1982. But we know far more about computers now than we ever did, back then. And a lot of that mystery is – alas – gone.

But that aside? It’s a fun movie, and you should go see it.