Wikipedia informs me that Tron was created on a computer with “only 2MB of memory, with a disc that had no more than 330MB of storage.” That’s pretty hilarious. You couldn’t play a QuickTime trailer for Tron on that. I just bought two memory sticks of 1GB each for my Mac; imagine what Steven Lisberger and his cadre of early-’80s programmers could have done with that.
Watching this 1982 visual game-changer through 2010 eyes brings a few things to mind. The world it creates blew a lot of young minds back then, and I wonder if viewers in 2037 will break out Avatar and chortle at how quaint it is, how endearingly clunky the technology James Cameron had to use. Cameron, though, used fancy brushes to paint a world and society that wouldn’t have understood the brushstrokes. The tech that created Tron seems inseparable from the tech in Tron. How futuristic is the movie supposed to be? I’ve found no answer online; what we see in the real-world scenes appears to be 1982 amped up a little bit. There are still arcades, and the night exteriors are awash in neon, as though the vivid palette used by gaming programmers had seeped outside the consoles and stained reality.
It might be instructive to compare Tron to the big Disney sci-fi film that predated it by three years. The Black Hole was dramatically inert; its elaborate special effects seemed divorced from the dreary scenes of actors conversing endlessly next to control panels. But it had moments of real grandeur and awe. Tron‘s effects are more organically integrated thematically and narratively, but at heart it’s, well, dorky. It’s every programmer’s epic wish fulfillment, a user-created universe where a more heroic and skilled avatar of yourself can compete in gladiatorial combat and rage against the machine. (If The Black Hole was 2001 for kiddies, Tron was Altered States for kiddies.) The images are trippy-colorful, weightlessly zesty; there’s little grandeur. But dorkiness can be fun, and Tron has a geek’s enthusiastic streak. The movie’s two programmers, Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and Alan (Bruce Boxleitner), may respectively resemble Steve Jobs and Bill Gates at the dawning of the age of Apple/Microsoft, but the film’s tone and heart — excitable, drunk on the need for speed — evoke the grinning bear-guru Steve Wozniak.
All the glow-stick pizzazz is in service of a laughably mundane plot. Flynn is mad because his former colleague (David Warner) stole Flynn’s ideas for games, passed them off as his own, and rose up the corporate ranks while Flynn got stuck managing an arcade. So Flynn tries to hack into the company computer — sternly, fascistically guarded by Master Control Program — and is instead sucked into it, where he meets many programs represented by avatar likenesses of the users who created them. This leads to an ineffable image of elderly programmer Barnard Hughes reflected in-computer as something resembling John Tenniel’s Caterpillar with a giant yellow dildo on his head.
Jeff Bridges floats through this stuff light-heartedly; he realizes it’s a nerd’s fantasy, yet he pulls off the trick of enjoying himself within the goofiness without losing his essential relaxed cool. I have to say, though, the funniest performer in Tron is a Votrax speech synthesizer, which gives voice to a “bit” Flynn encounters. The bit can say only “yes” or “no,” and it does so with a flat-affect urgency that is genuinely bizarre. If Tron: Legacy can find no space in its memory for the bit, I’ll be sad and disappointed. Otherwise, the movie gives itself over to light-cycle chases and lethal frisbee matches and guards who trundle across bridges as klutzily as did the robots in The Black Hole. In this phantasmagoric universe where events and physics are limited only by a programmer’s imagination, these guards can still be deactivated by the simple American language of a fist in the chops. As an unstable mix of traditional adventure beats and Atari 2600 whiz-bang, Tron is obliviously clunky and, as a result, often lovable.