80s Movie Challenge Week 18: Tron (1982)

Greetings 80s Fans!

This time in #80sMC we’ve fired up the Light Cycle and sent Rebecca Aulburn to the Game Grid to report back 1982’s Tron.

TRON is widely regarded as one of the best science-fiction action cult films of the 80s. They are mistaken. It’s really languid and the action sequences are minuscule compared to the run time. It is, however, one of the best magical reality romances of the 80s.

For those that need a brief rundown, here it is.

Flynn programmed one of the great games of the decade “Space Paranoids”, and was stiffed out of the residuals by ENCOM. He set up his own arcade, and one night attempts to hack into ENCOM to get the original. He slams into the new security system which shuts him down. Meanwhile, Alan and Lora, part of Flynn’s old team, find out they’re also being locked out. Alan goes to the CEO but Dillinger says it’s a security measure against hackers.

Later that night, Dillinger asks the newly installed MCP what it’s doing and it brushes him aside. When he pushes it, the MCP says it will blackmail him if it’s not allowed to continue.

Lora, who was Flynn’s ex-girlfriend, drags Alan along to see Flynn and warn him of his hacking. Flynn admits to it but convinces the others that they need to find out what’s going on. They break in late at night, but the MCP notices and tells Flynn to stop or else. Flynn brushes the MCP’s threats off and so it uses a laser to digitise Flynn and throws him into the Grid.

On the Grid are hundreds of programs that are made to fight for their memory space or they will be derezzed. Flynn sees that every program contains essences of their programmer, and Lora’s program Yori, looks just like the girlfriend he left behind…

Back in the early 80s, there was a new era of colour. Along with the optimism of a new decade came a new world and a new language. Programs and Bits were still unknown to most of the world and would be as out of place as Horcruxes and Corona.

From the studio that had brought us space horrors such as The Black Hole, this was a new territory to tell stories in. A world that was close to ours but different. A place that contained photos and images of ourselves that we had left there. Facebook for an earlier time, and with this new digital frontier, there was talk of joyful exploration. Star Trek and Doctor Who had already touched on the future of computers and robotics, but Disney were about to touch upon the near future.

However, there was one problem: In the early 80s, there was no computer power. Future books talked of the time where we would have computers to navigate between stars using their full 12 Kilobytes of memory.

This presented a problem far beyond simply drawing a light cycle. They would have difficulty activating a light with that much processing power. Luckily the image of the green cathode ray tube projectors were reaching the consciousness of the public via Space Invaders; and with Japan suffering a yen shortage from people shooting the lime-green Invaders, Disney knew they needed to push ahead.

As with Star Wars, some liberties would need to be taken, and no computer was yet mobile enough to be on the set.

Flynn (Jeff Bridges) with Yori/Dr. Lora (Cindy Morgan) and Alan/Tron(Bruce Boxleitner)

All of the scenes were filmed with the characters in white/black jumpsuits, and the film then packaged off to Korea where it was neon-painted and matt-drawings added to the background. From this came the image that the Director had first realised watching PONG, back in the 70s. Bright neon lines that mixed in with the Disco era that was shuffling to Synthesizers.

Being the 80s, the suits were still rather tight and unwieldy, so a lot of the running about looks more realistic. Yori did a few scenes without her helmet, not for character development but because she was really sick of the sheer weight. And it’s some of these scenes that were stripped from the cinema release, much to the director’s future regret.

You see, this was a story where the magical world inside the computer mirrored the world outside. Flynn and Lora had been together before the release of Space Paranoids (which no-one has been able to do a good version of that game since) and Lora/Bruce was just starting to be an item. When Flynn steps inside the machine, he kisses Yori and she feels something – but not enough to be with him. Yori still loves Tron, and while Tron uses his disc to fight, Yori uses hers to disobey the MCP by decorating her house in her own memories and forming her new virtual self. Flynn understands that while he once loved Lora/Yori, she has moved on – and he is inspired to help Tron and escape to stop Dillinger and the MCP in a final, fatal game.

The final fight versus the MCP touches on the horror that Disney used to produce before the Princesses came, but in the end Flynn escapes to the real world while Tron and Yori watch their digital world come back to life.

In the real world though, it did not equate into success. Like many films ahead of their times, it was not well received – but there was a fandom that grew on it. The neon stripe suits were just looking for the technology to recreate them, and Wendy Carlos’s OST has many stings that will instantly rez any memories of Light Cycles or Disk Wars. While the film made a pitiful (!) gain of 3 times its budget, it has inspired waves of copies through Family Guy and Saint’s Row to Daft Punk, who created the masterpiece that is the album for the second film.

Sadly, the second film focused on the computer battles, which – while lovingly crafted – were simply world-building in the original, and of Yori there was no sign. Even Olivia Wilde could not save it from stagnation.

For a Sunday hangover film though, there are few as visually melodic as the original TRON . The love triangle works better than any YA romance as all three have their own arc. The de-rez scenes are still disturbing enough to make you believe they can die, and Flynn bringing Yori back to life is Neo and Trinity thirty years previous.

Watch it. The MCP requires you to. It’s on Disney+.

Join us again next week as Paul Childs turns his amp up to eleven to look at 1984’s Monster of Rock,  This Is Spinal Tap!

Join the fun - leave a comment below!