*. In the forty-plus years since it was released Tron has become a sort of talisman, for some good reasons and others that are distortions of perspective.
*. As an example of the latter, Tron is often touted as one of the first CGI movies, but computer generated animation was quite limited at the time and there’s little of it in the movie. It’s mainly a product of more traditional techniques mixed in with backlit animation that gives everything a warm and fuzzy glow (and makes the actors look like silent film stars). This gives the movie a visual texture that’s very different from any CGI as we know it today. That’s not a bad thing, as I’d rather look at the animation here than at the lightshow at the end of The Abyss, a real CGI milestone from later in the decade. But this is more a movie about computers, or how we imagined their inner lives in 1982, than one made by or on computers, as they are today.
*. In other words, the look of the film is a throwback rather than anything prophetic. Where Tron did open a door on things to come had more to do with its basic premise of someone being sucked into a virtual or alternate reality video game. I don’t think this plot had ever been introduced before (in part because being stuck inside Space Invaders wouldn’t have looked like anything special), but it would go on to be the backbone of such books and films as Ready Player One and Space Jam: A New Legacy. And The Matrix franchise would pretty much be the same thing, except reversed, where the virtual reality turns out to be the real one.
*. But it’s a plot that is a throwback too, in that it’s basically a recycling of The Wizard of Oz. Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is swept away by a digital-processing tornado and ends up in Oz, where he meets various friends and enemies who are played by the same actors we’ve already met in the real world (Bruce Boxleitner, Cindy Morgan, David Warner, Barnard Hughes) on his way to the Emerald City and the mighty Oz himself, or Master Control Program (MCP). There’s even a cute little non-verbal tagalong creature named Clu to be Flynn’s Toto.
*. At the time it came out I was definitely in the target audience, pounding pocketfuls of quarters into the machines at various downtown arcades, and I remember being keen to see it. I also remember being disappointed by it, though not as disappointed as I’d be by the video game. This wasn’t because the visuals underwhelmed, but because the story was so weak. There was nothing to cheer about, and I think even as a teenager I realized the whole thing was just a flimsy excuse to showcase a lot of hard work being done by the animation team. Sure it looked good, and the design elements here — from the tanks and lightcycles to the uniforms and the modular terrain — were first rate. But none of the characters seemed real, either as people or avatars, and the plot was just the usual weary quest.
*. Sticking with this theme of looking forward and back, here’s how Roger Ebert signed off his review back in 1982: “It’s brilliant at what it does, and in a technical way maybe it’s breaking ground for a generation of movies in which computer-generated universes will be the background for mind-generated stories about emotion-generated personalities. All things are possible.” Oh, Roger. Possible? Sure. But it didn’t quite turn out that way.