This review was written a few years back for In the Mouth of Dorkness. I find revisiting “Tron” every few years is always a fun journey. A movie very much ahead of its time, yet very much of its time.
When you look back on this film, of course, there are elements that can’t help but be dated. Much of the technology was cutting edge, or looking forward to what might be right on the horizon. But it was 30 plus years ago, and the cutting edge has cut a long way since then. Nor did technology go in the directions we expected (as usual). But it’s more than a time capsule of an era when arcades were still popular, when Jeff Bridges was clean shaven, and when the internet was little more than a dream in the heads of scientists and science fiction writers. Yes, this is a kid-friendly film. But like a lot of Disney films before it, that didn’t mean condescending or simplistic like so many since. And like a lot of science fiction films, it’s got more than its fair share of fantasy dressed up in scientific trappings. But it’s also concerned with issues that are still with us, and it still challenges us to look at our technology, what it means to us, and how we should relate to it. Essential questions like what it means to be alive and what it takes to stand against evil. We still wonder about machine intelligence, what it will look like, what it will want, and even if it’s possible at all.
The look and feel of the movie is unique and strange. In some ways, it’s almost an animated film, and not just because it uses a great deal of early CGI, but because much of the movie was hand tinted, with lighting effects and colors made like you would in animation, frame by frame. It lends the whole a strange, unreal element that helps you know you’re in another world. The actors, in the weird, tinted black & white look kind of like silent film stars. The world created is a fantasy realm, where Programs secretly worship Users as gods. Where bubbling brooks of pure energy trickle through jagged caves of shining data. Video games exist as dangerous regions of a digital country, ruled by a powerful Master Control Program, which intends not only to control all of the computer world, but the world of flesh and blood as well. There is the obvious religious parallel between programs and users (worshipers and gods), and the subversive realization that gods are nothing more than other beings we don’t understand, powerful perhaps, but not really all that different. Flynn shakes the core of the programs’ faith by simply being. Reality rarely lives up to the imagined. This spiritual concept will be explored to a greater extent in the long delayed sequel.
It’s a work of grand and far reaching vision. And though the virtual reality world foretold in movies like this never really came to be, echoes of its warning still sound in the then only dreamed of internet, the world of corporate espionage, game design, artificial intelligence, and more. Amazing sets, even more amazing animated extensions, strange design, beautiful use of color. Sometimes the script isn’t as good as it could or should be. The pacing is a bit wonky in that 70s Disney kind of way. But it is a real achievement. And a cool, entertaining science fantasy adventure.
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