In light of some of these 80s films being revisited, I thought it might be nice to go back and review one of the most ground-breaking special-effects-driven films ever made: “Tron”. I’m a big geek of the 80s: that was a fine time for movies and a lot of those movies hold great influence over me. I remember seeing this movie for the 1st time and I was just blown away by the clever storyline. But first, allow me to explain the atmosphere of that time period.
Back in the 80s we all played our video games in the arcade. Yep, that’s right. There were these places where you went with a handful of quarters and you sampled a visual buffet of the latest video games. A lot of kids today have no clue what that was like. For me, it was like a haven. It was a place to test your skills against a machine. There were rows upon rows of multi-colored boxes with big splashy names like “Joust”, “Rampage”, “Altered Beast”, “Gauntlet”, “Galaga”, “Pac Man”, “Asteroids”, “Mercs” and “Smash TV”. Occasionally, there were strange rare new ones that popped up and demanded to be played. There was always a line for these, 5 or 6 deep at prime hours. The sounds filled the place, with all manners of space noises, bells, whistles, explosions, and strange voice-overs. The change machines were strategically placed throughout the place. There would be your banks of the “old” games, mostly skee ball and pinball games. Often there was a basketball shooting game tucked away in a corner, and typically an air hockey table situated in a large open space. There would be 1 dude working behind a counter to make change for larger bills, and he would either be some old curmudgeon or some hippy with a tie-dyed shirt on.
Ah…those were the days.
Heck, I can remember people hosting birthday parties in arcades. Parents used to drop their teenagers off at the arcade with some money and they would be occupied for hours. That’s why they used to ALWAYS be in shopping malls. The one I remember most was called the Fun Factory at the FSK Mall. It even had a cool circular doorway that you walked into the place through! Of course, the Fun Factory had “tokens” as opposed to simple quarters. Those tokens were a pain in the neck, but kids were developing ways to “beat the system” – usually involving foil-covered washers.
I was actually at the Boardwalk in Ocean City, MD one year and I ran across a new game that nobody was playing. I couldn’t believe my luck! I grabbed a handful of quarters as fast as I could and I grabbed my spot at the machine. It was strange box, very unusual in its design. It had 4 letters on the side and a bunch of lines. It said: Tron. I knew nothing about it and I had to jump right in to investigate! Before I knew it, I was immersed in the world of Tron. The game was actually several games in one. There was a tank game, a motorcycle game (called “light cycles”), and some weird Frisbee game where you tried to knock your opponent off these rings. I was baffled. Why would anyone create a game that had so many games within it? Don’t they want their money?
Not long after that encounter, I started seeing movie posters with those same 4 letters. I couldn’t believe that Disney of all people was making a movie about video games. I had no idea how that story would work. I was curious, and my curiosity drove me into the theatre one night with a friend. “Tron” is not about the video game at all. The video game was meant to introduce you to the world of the MCP (that’s Master Control Program)! What a stroke of genius! I had played the game and knew how the games operated, and I recognized the look of the “game world”. Now, I don’t know if the movie was out already and then the video games in the arcades came, but I discovered them in reverse order.
“Tron” is a 2-part story. The 1st part is the real world, where a computer game designer has his ideas stolen by some corporate suit who then fires said designer from the company. The designer is Flynn. The suit is Dillinger. Get it? It’s a joke. Dillinger is referencing John Dillinger, an infamous bank robber. Flynn is referencing Erol Flynn, the famous swashbuckling actor of such great films as “Captain Blood”, “the Sea Hawk”, and “The Adventures of Robin Hood”. The ex-designer Flynn has become a hacker, trying to break into the company computer system to find evidence that his work was stolen by Dillinger.
The 2nd part of the story is what is going on inside the computer system. In that world, the MCP (the Master Control Program) is stealing other computer programs and using them to grow smarter. As it grows smarter, it begins to blackmail Dillinger in the real world to do its bidding. It constantly tries to block Flynn from hacking into the system, and when he gets too close, the MCP uses a laser to zap Flynn into the computer system! Here, Flynn makes contact with Tron, a security program created by another designer at the company. Together, they must try to stop the evil MCP!
The film was a revolutionary movie because it was the 1st to use computer imaging and design elements. The result is staggering, because the effects have held up so well after all these years! Keep in mind that “Tron” debuted in 1982. The storyline seems to puzzle some folks and I think this is because you have actors playing 2 roles each: the real people and the programs they have created within the computer. You have Bruce Boxleitner playing Alec as well as Tron himself. It really doesn’t confuse me, but I can see how that could trip people up. I personally find the dual roles to be an exquisite element of the film.
The story of “Tron” is really about the threat of AI and how susceptible our technological world has become. The surprising part about the movie is that the story was written really to open up the world of computers and video games to a larger audience, and what I got from it is the danger of computers and their susceptibility to being “hacked”. Now, here is a film released in 1982 and people were already aware of such a danger. Thank goodness computers like the MCP haven’t evolved yet! This film opened the door for other films like “War Games” (another 80s classic!) and “the Matrix”. Before “Tron” though, I don’t think anyone had really looked at computers and artificial intelligence as “dangerous. I really admire this film and I recommend it to all of my fellow movie geeks and 80s arcade-goers!
I leave you with Flynn’s most important question: “How are you going to run the universe if you can’t answer a few unsolvable problems?”
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…and that’s it for this edition of THE REEL VOICE
- TRON – Released this week 31 years ago (adafruit.com)
- Tron Legacy… (breakrulesnotnails.wordpress.com)
- The Lost Arcade (jasondubin.wordpress.com)