Well, hello, Mr. Bridges…
Timing is a funny, funny thing. As I’m sure a lot of you have heard by now, the YouTuber world is in an uproar over COPPA, or the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (If you haven’t, here are a few of the details). Suffice it to say, content creators may see their livelihoods go up in smoke. Or not. Some creators are choosing to delete their videos or make them private rather than risk a fine. It’s all kind of up in the air, because who knows what YouTube will look like come January first. It stinks. It’s not the idea of protecting childrens’ privacy that people are angry at, but the stifling of creative freedom.
In light of this, 1982’s Tron seems really timely, even though it’s from a time when home computers and CGI were still in their very nascent stages. The Web was barely a twinkle then, let alone smartphones or artificial intelligence. Then, as now, though, creation of computer systems and content was a very personal matter, so much so that developers feel as though they put themselves into their work. Tron took this literally, as each of the major characters have counterparts within the virtual world.
For those who haven’t seen it, the film opens at an arcade called Flynn’s. An unseen gamer plays a lightcycle game, and the camera zooms in on the screen. We see the action from the game’s point of view, where a man named Sarc (David Warner) is chasing a runaway program. Both race along a blue grid in a plain black background, leaving trails of color behind them. Sarc misses, and the runaway zooms to freedom.
Sarc is the right-hand program of the Master Control Program and the computer-generated version of Ed Dillenger, Senior Executive Vice President of Encom, a catch-all tech company that seems to have developers for everything. The only projects we’re interested in are a program called Tron and a certain digitizing laser beam, but more on that later.
One former employee, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) keeps trying to hack into the Encom system because he’s a programming genius who wrote several video games in his off time, and he suspects Dillenger stole them. Dillenger’s Master Control Program, or MCP gets wise to what Flynn is trying to do, and keeps de-rezing Flynn’s programs. He finally cuts off everyone at Encom with Group Seven access.
The developers are frustrated, Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) in particular. Everyone knows the MCP is too intrusive and controlling, tying up banking and insurance systems with seeming impunity. The MCP also has an eye to hacking into the Pentagon and mining the information. Alan is working on a program called Tron that would watchdog the system, including the MCP and shut down any activity that’s unscheduled or unlawful. It’s basically what we would call a firewall.
Dillenger throws Alan a bone by telling him it’s just a temporary setback because Encom is trying to crack down on a possible security breach.
Since he’s got nothing to do, Alan goes downstairs, where his girlfriend, Lora (Cindy Morgan) is working on a digitizing laser with Walter (Bernard Hughes). Alan arrives just in time to watch them digitize an orange before complaining about the MCP stifling his project. Walter is sympathetic, and tries to use his weight as a founder of the company to get Dillenger to budge, but it’s a no-go.
Lora and Alan go see Flynn at his arcade, where they decide to set Flynn up at Lora’s computer. Flynn will try to disable the MCP while Alan connects with Tron. Getting in is easy enough, and Lora leaves Flynn to do his thing after warning him to be careful with the laser she’s been workng on: “Don’t spill anything.”
Flynn logs into Lora’s computer easily and the MCP immediately gets on his case. Flynn banters with him for a bit before the MCP starts threatening him, because what can a computer do to a human being?
The MCP uses Lora’s laser to transport Flynn into the virtual world, where he is put into a concentration camp-like setting. Each program has a disc that records everything they do, and the MCP forces everyone to play each other in sporting matches, where the loser always gets de-rezed. Right away, Flynn notices Tron, Alan’s MIA program, kicking butt in the games. Tron, he’s told, fights for the users.
The MCP wants Flynn to play the games until he dies trying, but he doesn’t know Flynn very well. Flynn being Flynn, he and Tron, along with an actuarial program named Ram (Dan Shor), bust out of the MCP prison in their light cycles.
Outside the MCP’s compound, Flynn and his two buddies find a world stifled by the MCP. No one can move around the system without the approval of the high-and-mighty Master Control. Flynn also finds a few familiar faces and colorful NPCs, including the very helpful and breviloquent Bit.
Above all, Flynn has to remember his mission: To take out the MCP and restore freedom to the virtual world. Part of that includes helping Tron get to the one remaining input/output tower to communicate with Alan.
Will they succeed? Well, it is a Disney movie, so things can’t wind up too badly.
The beginnings of Tron came in the late seventies when the Lisberger Studio attempted to create a Kodalith-esque, backlit character done on a black background, which they nicknamed “Tron.” The character had two lit disks that he threw in the air, and when the disks collided, they exploded in a shower of sparks. They sold the character to a couple of radio stations to use in TV spots.
Lisberger moved the company of twenty people to Venice, California, because the market was bigger. The idea of making a film of backlit characters was already there, but the studio was contracted to make cartoon spots for the 1980 Olympics. When America pulled out of the Olympics, the Lisberger Studios started shopping their film concept around to various film companies. They had the main story outlined and storyboarded; they just needed a major studio to put up the money and distribute the finished product.
Tron was a complicated film to make, and not just because it employed new technology. The live action sequences are composite shots, because each element, from the actors’ faces to the costumes to the lines on the costumes to the scenery around them, had to be exposed differently. A single shot could be anything from six or seven layers of composite to around twenty-five.
During principal photography, the actors would have known or seen none of this. In fact, they were told to wear colorful clothing to work because their world had suddenly become black and white. Jeff Bridges remembered leaving the set every day and being assaulted by color.
The set may have been black and white, but the cast and crew had a blast. Since the actors were working in a digital setting to be filled in later, they had to use their imaginations, which turned out to be freeing for them mentally. In between shots, there were arcade games set up all over the place, and Bridges admitted to getting caught up in playing, even after it was time to shoot.
It’s probably a good thing that the games were there, because the actors’ costumes were such that they really couldn’t sit down. Well, the guys couldn’t, anyway–their outfits included a dancer’s belt, which made sitting painful.
Tron met with good reviews, although the New York Times called it “gloriously puerile“, but lackluster box office. This was probably because a lot of moviegoers didn’t know what to make of a movie that was that unique. However, it was huge with teenagers and younger. This included my husband and I–I remember the movie being a big deal with many, many Gen-Xers. It was even the theme for the PeopleMover in the 1980s and early 90s. Sure, the movie does have a few issues with story and dramatic punch, but we were dazzled by so much of it having been made on a computer. It was truly unique and groundbreaking.
Plus, Jeff Bridges was so cool. He was like Han Solo with a light-up Frisbee instead of a blaster but with the same cocky quips. The other characters were basically types, which they had to be, since they were programs, but as the human in the midst of them, Flynn brought the most personality. Jeff Bridges is very proud to have participated in the film, and has said it was fun to have been a part of it.
For us today, Tron is easily a cautionary tale of what happens when control becomes too centralized and rules too arbitrary (China and North Korea say hi). I don’t know what the future holds for content creators and those of us who populate cyberspace, but I hope we can maintain the freedom that is to be found in the virtual world.
The Dude abides at Thoughts All Sorts, where Catherine has more Jeff Bridges for you. Thanks for hosting, Catherine! Thanks for reading, all, and hope you’ll come back tomorrow for the new “Page To Screen.” Hasta la vista…
“The Making of Tron.” Dir. Robert Meyer Burnett. Perf: Steve Lisburger, Harrison Ellenshaw, Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, Cindy Morgan, Barnard Hughes, Roger Allers, Andy Gaskill. Walt Disney Studios, 2002. Film.