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Tron
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TRON - 1982
USA Release: July 9, 1982
Lisberger/Kushner, Walt Disney Productions
Rated: Argentina: Atp / Australia, Canada: G / Brazil: Livre / Chile: TE / Finland: K-12 / Iceland: L / Netherlands: MG6 / Peru: PT / Singapore, USA: PG / South Korea: 15 / Sweden: 11 / UK: A / West Germany: 12

Guy at a video arcade drops a quarter into a slot and starts playing - for its time - a VERY advanced video game called Light bikes.

We go inside the game and see that there are black and white people inside the light bikes. The older man in the blue one appears nearly bored as he drives, but the younger man in the yellow bike next to him appears frightened. I'm not sure how you score points in this game, but it makes it very clear how you lose. The yellow guy dies and the player loses his quarter.

Tron Light Bikes
LIGHT BIKES! MAKING BIKES WITH LIGHT!
WHAT A SIGHT! MAKING LIGHT LOOK LIKE BIKES!

We see the older man from the blue bike step up to a podium where he is surrounded by light. The light becomes a fragmented face and the face talks, calling blue bike guy Sark (David Warner: CAST A DEADLY SPELL, IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS, SCREAM 2, PLANET OF THE APES [2001]), and telling him that he is becoming brutal and needlessly sadistic. Sark takes this as a compliment, "Thank you Master Control."

Master Control Program or MCP (also voiced by David Warner), tells Sark that he has just kidnapped some military programs from the Pentagon. As we will come to know, when MCP says kidnap it means steal (copies the original files and then erases them from their own system). Sark can't wait to play the programs on the game grid.

Meanwhile, in the real world, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges: KING KONG [1976], IRON MAN), from the computer in his apartment above his video game arcade business, FLYNN'S, attempts to hack into the mainframe at ENCOM. He's trying to find his original source code files. He believes that they must still be there, somewhere, as he wrote them in such a way that the very game should have his digital signature everywhere on it. Unfortunately, being proprietary software, that info, while it may be on every game machine in the world, can't be accessed without ENCOM's own digital signature, the key to the gateway, on top of it. So Flynn attempts to find the hidden digital signature files somewhere on ENCOM's vast database.

Tron tank interior
I AM AN ARMY OF ONE. REALLY! JUST ONE. I AM SO BONED.

Once again we dive into the computer, to see Flynn's hacker program Clu (Jeff Bridges again). Flynn is typing text, has no ability to actually talk to his program, and yet we hear his user voice coaching and giving moral support to his program to guide it past the barriers and into ENCOM's database. Things don't go well for Clu which leaves a frustrated Flynn. Clu, in the digital hands of MCP, won't reveal his User and being just a hacker program, is unnecessary to MCP. So Clu is de-rezzed. That's how programs die in TRON. They are de-rezzed outright or play on the game grid.

Wait, the game grid?

That's what MCP is all about. It uses the game grid to learn a program's code (decompile) and reverse engineer it until it can integrate the program into it's own matrix.

Aren't there easier ways to do that than by playing games?

Of course, but MCP isn't a person. MCP was developed as an attempt to create an Artificial Intelligence built from the ground up as a game program. It can no more reprogram its virtual genetic algorithm than you can reprogram your actual one.

But MCP wants to, and its learning.

Tron tank again
DAMN IT. I LEFT THAT PROGRAM AROUND HERE SOMEWHERE...

When MCP gained both intelligence and self-awareness three years ago, it kept that knowledge to itself. Then for protection, MCP made a deal with Ed Dillinger (David Warner again), one of the least adept programmers on the staff. Through Dillinger, MCP began systematically weeding out those programmers on the payroll of ENCOM it felt were potential threats, while turning their work over to Dillinger for pay raises and promotion.

On the surface, it appears to everyone at ENCOM that Ed Dillinger is the brains behind MCP, directing the hundreds of programmers in ENCOM's employ on what to build, what to add, what to integrate into the main computer program that runs the business of ENCOM. But in reality, MCP controls and orchestrates the writing and coding of whatever it wants. Add to that all of the programs across the world in other companies and systems that MCP can hack into and steal. In truth, MCP controls ENCOM, controls DILLINGER, and tightens its grip on him everyday. Because of the way it was written, MCP sees the world as one giant game to be won. That's how it works in video games. You amass more weapons, experience, and power to win over tougher and tougher opponents. MCP can't compute in any other way, which is both its greatest strength and weakness.

Tron Tank and Recognizers
ONE BAD DAY ON THE GAME GRID

In one scene, we see where MCP has captured an accounting program and prepares it for the games. The program, in human form, tries to explain to its captors that it isn't a gaming program, would be no good at games, and can't even function properly (behave like an accounting program) unless it is returned to the control of its User: None of which makes any sense to MCP. All it knows how to do is play and win games.

Earth of course, is the biggest game of all.

To get in, Kevin Flynn is pretty sure, or at least hopes, that there is no one at ENCOM who could destroy his digital signature without re-writing the entire game.

Space Paranoids

Meanwhile MCP, alarmed over the attempted hack, calls Dillinger back from a company trip. We see that Dillinger's password to talk to MCP is "Master". When MCP tells Dillinger that a hack program tried to enter the system, we hear the full body of the problem. Flynn didn't fix all the security holes in his game programs before he was fired, but he was able to prevent his digital signature from being erased. It is Flynn's game kernel (the kernal is the foundation upon which everything is coded) that makes the very game grid of the MCP: its digital DNA. Even MCP is unable to remove those files and at best, can only hide or quarantine them in the system. MCP is certain that Flynn is the writer behind the hack program Clu.

MCP:
"It felt like Flynn."

Dillinger and MCP decide to temporarily shut out all programmers with a Group-7 Access or below clearance and that brings us to ENCOM programmer Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner: CONTAGION, SILENCE, LEGION OF THE DEAD, DEADSPACE: DOWNFALL). Alan was finishing work on his Tron program when he was suddenly taken offline and called to Ed Dillinger's office. Ed offers Alan smarmy kindness but there is strong tension between the two men. Dillinger isn't any happier when Alan explains what his Tron program is and does.

Alan: I sent you a memo.

Tron is a separate security watchdog program that can even monitor their main system, MCP. MCP, listening in on the conversation but keeping silent in Alan's presence, isn't pleased with Dillinger for letting this project slip by. MCP is, in fact, punitive.

Ed Dillinger: Now wait a minute! I wrote you!
MCP: I've gotten 2,415 times smarter since then.

Unable to continue his work, Alan leaves his vast cubicle area and heads to the Laser level where his girlfriend, Lora (Cindy Morgan: GALAXIS) is working on a project with inventor and all around old nerd, Dr. Walter Gibbs (Barnard Hughes: SISTERS [1973], THE LOST BOYS). Giddy with anticipation over the testing of his new invention, Dr. Gibbs attempts to make small talk with Lora, who dutifully puts up with the socially awkward old coot. Old coot yes, but a stunning genius! Doc Gibbs has invented the first crude but workable matter transporter. It can deconstruct a solid object (in this case an orange) at the molecular level, then perfectly rebuild it. This is the kind of future tech that went all wrong in THE FLY and is taken as a matter of fact in STAR TREK. Holy CRAP what an incredible invention!

Lora isn't impressed though and prefers the company gossip of Dillinger locking out her boyfriend. She suggests that they go see Flynn, who may still have a few tricks up his sleeve concerning ENCOM.

When Flynn isn't trying to hack computers, he impresses his customers with his amazing gaming ability. None of them know that he wrote the games he plays. The games, as we see on the screen, had great graphics and interactivity for their time, and were in fact far ahead of what computer games would be able to do for the next 20 years. That said, the actual game play is ridiculously easy even for 1982.

Alan and Lora tell Flynn what is going on back at ENCOM and Kevin thinks he can help, but only if he can bypass offsite security by actually getting directly on the ENCOM computers themselves. Lora knows of only one computer terminal that has complete access to MCP and that is the super computer her department uses for the project. Alan and Kevin plan a two-prong attack on MCP, and the plot is in play.

Tron decontructs Flynn
YOU TALK TOUGH, MASTER CONTROL PROGRAM, BUT WHY DON'T YOU DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT? HUH? LET'S SEE YOU - SHIT!

As anyone knows from watching the trailer, everything goes horribly wrong when Kevin Flynn, having no idea that MCP is both intelligent and sentient, sits in the wrong place while MCP realigns the special laser that will take Flynn apart and re-assemble an electronic version of him within the computer system.

Electronic Flynn: Oh, man, this isn't happening, it only thinks its happening.

Then nearly all the rest of the movie is SFX.

Everything I've just explained to you is really translated from the perspective of a person who lives and breathes in the Information Age computer culture of 2010. It is highly unlikely that anyone - even top programmers of the day - would have explained TRON the way I just did, to someone in 1982. Like primitive tribesmen who have nothing in their world experience that would explain a radio or television, there was nothing back in 1982 that was common for the everyday person to understand in TRON. So TRON is told not as science fiction, but as Scifi fantasy.

And it works.

Some of it is amazingly prescient for today while other parts are just wrong-headed or backward. But co-writer and director Steven Lisberger** was a hardcore computer wizard in his time, built his own computer company on the archaic computer animation abilities of that period, and wanted to tell a story that people could understand. As he tried to explain his computer world concepts over and over to various Hollywood studios, he got to know the glazed-over stare he'd get trying to pitch a tale that was simple to him, but way over the heads of non-geeks.

Tron and Yori
SO IF WE SWITCH NOW, WE CAN SAVE AS MUCH AS 40% OFF WHAT WE PAY TO MCI? WHAT'S MCI?

So he made TRON a fantasy. And once he did that, he felt that the only Hollywood studio that would understand, would be Disney.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, old Walt Disney was mad for computers. He understood that they were the future of our society and integrated them whenever he could into his themepark and movies. From the various robots in the Haunted Mansion to the Hall of Presidents and more, it all ran on machines and computer programs created specifically for Disney. What's more, the computerized, roboticized Disney themepark even inspired other books and movies (WESTWORLD). Lisberger felt that if any studio had a computer culture ingrained within the corporate dynamic, it would be Disney. And he was right. The folks at Disney "got it". They gave him the green light, and it was now up to him and co-writer Bonnie MacBird.

There were problems from the outset. Steven knew how to direct fellow computer nerds to run a company, but he didn't know how to direct actors to show emotion. He didn't know how to tell his actors that the expressions on their faces weren't working and they needed to adjust up or down or the many ways a director coaches great actors to deliver their best. Steven kept accepting mediocre takes so that's what his actors delivered, never knowing how bad it looked until they sat in on the premier and saw the embarrassing final cut. None of his main actors could grasp what the story was about or what they were supposed to be doing (I just killed a guy with a Frisbee? Was it a sharp Frisbee? Seriously! What the hell is my motivation?).

Much of what they were supposed to be looking at and interacting with wasn't there. It wouldn't exist for another year or two, as the achingly slow computers of the time, with hard drives the size of washing machines and only capable of holding 250 megabytes, built the virtual sets.

Sark and MCP
SARK, I SENSE ANOTHER PLAYER ON THE GAME GRID.

Steven tried to impress on his actors to think about it as stage theater, and create their surroundings in their minds. Jeff Bridges, David Warner, Bruce Boxleitner, Cindy Morgan, Barnard Hughes, and Dan Shor (STRANGE BEHAVIOR, STRANGE INVADERS, NIGHT TRAIN) tried, but were unable to picture what Lisberger was trying to get across because there was nothing ever like the environment of TRON before.

So Steven put computer arcade games on the set and encouraged his actors to play them between takes. But computer games of the period were simplistic, flat 2D environments. Nothing was working, and it shows. While all of these actors have turned in fine performances before and since, they were like ancient stone-age tribesmen trying to understand how a television works, being directed by someone who didn't understand how directing works, and that shows too.

TRON is a great scifi fantasy concept, decades ahead of its time, but poorly executed. One can imagine MCP as a fantasy evil wizard, Tron as the conquering hero, Dumont (also Barnard Hughes) as the old but benevolent king, but the comparisons are flimsy. Such fantasy stories don't take into account Yori (also Cindy Morgan) who is no princess and is a program doppleganger for her User. Outsider Flynn, who is a User and not a program, but lives among the programs, or Sark, who is nobody's Sauron. No story like Tron ever existed before and, until the sequel is released later this year, no one has tried to tell such a story since, though THE THIRTEENTH FLOOR and THE MATRIX came close. Even now both in story and visuals, TRON is a wonderful original place unlike any movie you've ever seen, and an amazing if flawed adventure.

Three Shriek Girls.

END OF LINE.

Shriek GirlsShriek GirlsShriek Girls
This review copyright 2010 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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TRON TRIVIA
*
TRON was released in 1982. Since then, laws have changed. If Kevin Flynn tried that today, using his company's money and resources to start his own business on the side, he'd be fired, prosecuted, and imprisoned. It would be considered corporate theft. But in 1982, Flynn is the good guy.

There are several moments in TRON that recall lines from other David Warner movies.

TRON - 1982
Sark: "A User even wrote you!"
MCP: "No one User wrote me. I'm worth millions of their man-years."

TIME BANDITS - 1981
Minion: "Well He created you, so He can't be entirely..."
Evil: [Blows Minion to bits] "Never talk to me like that again! No one created me! I am Evil! Evil existed long before good!
... I made myself."

**
Back in 1980, when a young, untested Tim Burton got wind of TRON, he nearly begged Disney to let him direct it. And Steve Lisberger, having never directed actors, wanted Tim to helm it too!

Imagine the different world of cinema if Tim had started with TRON instead of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure?

Ahh... what am I doing? Only fanboys will appreciate this.
Moving on...

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