Tron (1982)

(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2017) I approached a much-belated second viewing of Tron with some apprehension. While I remember being awed at the first one sometime in the mid-eighties (not to mention being aware of much of the promotional material upon the film’s release), I feared that the hype and subsequent cult-following would be detrimental to the movie. As steeped in then cutting-edge special effects, would Tron have aged gracefully? As it turns out … it’s not as bad as I had feared. Tron definitely has its rough edges. Never mind the special effects: just the script itself is full of clunky dialogue, badly-integrated elements, a tone that can’t quite figure out whether it’s addressing kids or adults, and insignificant tangents. The plot structure is a mess with characters being introduced (or removed/ignored) at odd times. It feels messy rather than complex, and the silly dialogue will make anyone itch for just one more script rewrite. Fortunately, plot is among Tron’s least important qualities. It’s far more interesting to talk about its visual design, relationship to socio-technological history and fantasy world-building. Tron has aged rather well as a special-effects showcase: While technology has evolved far beyond the simple CGI available at the time, Tron does have its own style and works best when it exploits the limits of this style. Reading about the film’s production history explains why the colour scheme is inconsistent (basically: they changed it during production), but much of it still impresses even thirty-five years later. Unfortunately, the world-building is inconsistent: while it’s really good in setting the story in 1982 and occasionally in creating a society within the computer, it quickly turns embarrassing in some of the ways it tries to develop the cyber-world aspects: Part of it is due to writing a cutting-edge film for young audiences, but part of it is also due to viewers’ greater familiarity with computing technology that would have seemed magical in 1982. For amateur techno-historians, Tron is a fascinating look at how society viewed computers early in the consumer electronics era, with a suspicion that there was more under the hood than we suspected. (Ah, if they only knew! Nowadays, computers can host rivalling bots, in-between automated update agents, organized crime botnet clients and intelligence agency backdoors…) I’ve got a vague idea in my mind for a retro-computing mini-film festival featuring Wargames, Tron and Superman III… [Oh wow, I’m only thirty-three years late to this grouping] Still, getting back to Tron itself, it has aged more gracefully than I expected. Style and audaciousness can help forgive plot and structure, then as now. It helps that Jeff Bridges had a charismatic screen presence, but even he would probably admit that Tron has enduring cult appeal not based on his looks as much as the fantastic images around him.

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