Steven Lisberger’s 1982 cult Science Fiction adventure, TRON, is a fun exercise in visual storytelling. It is the fantastic tale of a man who is beamed into the electronic world of the computer, where he is forced to survive against the villainous Master Control Program by playing video games against other enslaved programs. On the level of the computer world, the programs look like people with glowing circuit covered tracksuits and helmets. Lisberger was aiming to make a searching statement about the spiritual relationship between humans and the machines we create. By employing the most state of the art computer generated and hand-rotoscoped animation techniques of its day, TRON explored the theme of the interpenetration of the human spirit with our technology. Something of us is in each program we create, but conversely, our technology reaches out to transform and shape the society we live in, and the individuals who make it up.
Although it suffers from shallow plotting and occasionally juvenile dialogue, TRON is buoyed by a charismatic leading performance from Jeff Bridges, and most of all, from a clever design sense that pervaded the art direction in both the “computer” and “real world” scenes. Since it was Lisberger’s goal to demonstrate the ways in which these realms influence each other, he employed the Wizard of Oz scheme of casting actors to play parallel roles in both settings. The fantastic score by Wendy Carlos reinforced the permeated duality of technology and humanity through a deft blending of synthesized and acoustic sounds in the orchestration. Lisberger also made use of visual cues to demonstrate the connection in a visual, cinematic fashion. In fact, Lisberger used strikingly similar imagery to another film from 1982, Godfred Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, (translated as “life out of balance”) in a genre adventure rather than in an expreimental documentary. But TRON‘s ambitious visual sensibility is often the equal of anything from Reggio’s acclaimed “Qatsi trilogy.” TRON was released in a year which also included Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, and E.T. the Extraterrestrial, and has certainly suffered in comparison with those genre masterpieces. Nevertheless, I think some tribute should be paid to the extraordinary visual artistry with which Lisberger’s team managed to integrate backlit mattes, rotoscoping, traditional effects animation, at least 3 incompatible computer graphics design systems, live action, traditional painted mattes, and in-camera effects, to bring to life the futuristic designs of artists like Moebius and Syd Mead.
This post is belatedly submitted for Blog of the Darned’s Blogathon from Another World. be sure to check out all the other Sci-fi posts from the Blogathon hosted by Chris Sturhann!
6 thoughts on “TRON – for The Blogathon from Another World”
Great post. I haven’t seen Tron in a lot of years. It’s weird. Tron falls in that period where cutting edge computer graphics became very dated very quickly as the technology evolved. Still, I try to look beyond that, and from reading this, Tron definitely seems to warrant another look.
Thanks for being the first one to jump on the bandwagon.
Thanks Chris. The graphics are dated in the sense that they are primitive compared to today’s technology, but I think that they actually did an amazing job of integrating several distinct computer graphics generation systems to create an artistically unified vision. I’m not denying that there’s a certain hokeyness to some of the visuals, but if you put yourself back in the mind of what the overall fashion and design aesthetic of the early 1980s was, it is certainly appropriate. People talk about it being “ahead of its time,” but I see it more as an exact reflection of its time, including a MacGuffin about corporate greed, a setting drawn from the contemporary video game craze, and a neon-saturated design sense in both the “real” and “computer” worlds.
I think Lisberger’s themes were profound, even if the transmission of them is ultimately pretty shallow, due to the “standard sub-standard” dialogue, and a by-the-numbers adventure plot. Ultimately, I think at this remove of time the dated graphics work in the film’s favor, because by not attempting a super-realistic look for the computer world, you can accept the visual stylization as the metaphor that it is.
I love techno-paranoia Sci-Fi, it is pretty frightening when we consider how much we rely on technology. It is unfortunate Tron suffered from a poor release date, it is a fun film, and certainly groundbreaking in terms of special f/x.
Thanks for shedding some light on an under-served sci-fi classic!
In the meantime, did you catch the Koyaanisqatsi/Koyaanistocksi video? http://www.avclub.com/article/koyaanisqatsi-recreated-just-watermarked-stock-foo-235160
Yes, I did see that!
I’m a big fan of KOYAANISQATSI, and recently showed it to my daughter for the first time. I was surprised on reviewing TRON how similar some of the imagery was, and found it fascinating that they were released the same year. Another reason I think TRON was really tapping into something in the Zeitgeist of its moment.
This is the most positive review I have read of “Tron”. I’ve never seen the film, but it appears that so many people have nothing but disdain for it. You’re right about the images being compelling – visual storytelling, indeed! It may be time to finally watch this one!
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Honestly, I’m not trying to say that it is a great, or even good film. The plot is formulaic, and the dialogue is about on the level of the Star Wars prequels.
Much of my appreciation for this film goes back to watching it endlessly on a VHS recording from TV when I was a kid.
However, I don’t think that the overall visual design gets enough credit, nor the technical achievement of successfully blending so many filmmaking and animation techniques, beyond a certain perfunctory acknowledgement that it was “groundbreaking” in the use of computer graphics.
And I’m not the only fan. There was enough appreciation out there to merit Disney making a sequel over 2 decades after the original.
All that’s to say, if you go in with low expectations and an open mind, you might enjoy it. Personally, I think anything with Jeff Bridges in it is worth at least a single viewing.