Released 40 years ago this month, Tron is another influential film from an important year in popular culture. While it might not have enjoyed the success on its initial release of 1982’s big hit, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, it was a significant attempt by Disney to capture the excitement of the first generation of video games. These were being lapped up by gamers in the arcade and watching Tron today is like accessing a time capsule. Moreover, it anticipated Disney’s future success in marrying computer graphics with traditional animation.
Released at a time when a live action Disney movie looked like Herbie Goes Bananas and its animations were yielding diminishing returns, Tron has aged remarkably well considering how rooted it is in the moment. The beginning of the film, set in the bustling arcade run by Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) and the corporate headquarters of tech giant ENCOM, seems immediately more contemporary than other Disney efforts. The casting of Bridges doesn’t hurt either, or David Warner as the appropriately slimy executive, Ed Dillinger. They’re two charismatic actors (unusual for early 80s Disney) who carry the film.
Director Steven Lisberger had originally been inspired by 1972’s Pong, the most basic of games and a reminder of the flight of fancy that Tron represented. In 1982 the 8-bit worlds of Space Invaders and Pac-Man were still state of the art (both games get Easter eggs in the film). The games depicted in Tron were far beyond the capabilities of Atari or even the arcades, but their origins are clear enough. Its Space Paranoid flying machines recall Space Invaders and the light cycles and tanks any number of simplistic 2D arcade shooters. The gladiatorial combat that Flynn discovers on the game grid mirrors the simple interactions of these games. This was a time before NPCs, open worlds, or even the ability to save progress beyond the details of a high score and a player’s initials.
Tron is successful in anticipating the communal nature of play and that in the future games would increasingly be for adults. In Flynn’s Arcade most players are in their late teens or twenties (the current highest demographic for gamers). The popular console of the time was the Atari 2600, although games were still associated with the arcade in 1982 – a shared experience where high scores and spectating was part of the fun. This lived experience of gaming at the time informs Tron’s imagined world.
In Tron’s cleverest conceit, the computer users of the real world each have their digital equivalent in the grid. It leads to some smart jokes about accounting programs being made to fight in the arena, anticipating the all-encompassing appeal of games in the future – from kids to office workers. The corporate suit Dillinger is a digital killing machine called Sark on the grid. The double of the decent but boring ENCOM programmer Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) is Tron, who heroically fights for freedom like his user’s programs. Looking back from a time when we comfortably switch between IRL and digital identities, Tron seems prescient.
Lisberger may have been inspired by computer games, but the film is also a modern take on Alice in Wonderland, with Flynn falling into a fantasy realm where the act of playing defines a person. Being one of the first generation of gamers required quite a bit of imagination. Often, the dynamic and colorful images of tanks and dragons that adorned the boxes of our game cartridges didn’t quite represent the pixelated reality of the gameplay. Gamers in the late 70s and early 80s needed imagination to buy into the combat depicted by blocks firing at other blocks. Lisberger captured that inner imagined world, as well as the suggestion that greater excitements were just around the corner.
The film’s most engaging scene is also the one that best uses computer graphics. The light cycle sequence utilizes computer effects to capture extreme speed and precision, as the bikes execute 90 degree turns to cut one another off. The cycles were designed by visual futurist Syd Mead (who also worked on 1982’s Blade Runner) and they’re a piece of beautifully fluid design in a world of straight lines. The light cycles alone were worth the price of entry, providing a glimpse of the game everyone so desperately wanted to exist.
It’s an oddity of Disney’s live action films of the time that they frequently had adults as protagonists rather than kids or even very young people. They lack the child’s view of the world that Spielberg achieved so successfully with E.T., although Tron comes closer than most. (Ironically, it was the disastrous video game version of E.T. that dealt a massive blow to the industry and changed Atari’s fortunes.) Seeing Tron in 1982 still didn’t compare to the excitement of two hours spent in the video arcade or on an Atari, but it acknowledged the experience of gamers for the first time in a major movie. Its attempt to create a digital world via a mix of computer and traditional animation sometimes leads to a flat experience, particularly with the limited color palette of blues and a lot of black. However, Tron is still a great watch compared to the computer game adaptations to come.
By imagining its own world, Tron avoided the problem of films such as Super Mario Bros. that tried to make games fit into a Hollywood format. It was clearly made by people who played and loved games, and that makes all the difference. Until only recently, with more successful efforts such as Sonic the Hedgehog, game developers were much more effective at borrowing from film. In the 1990s, the live-action cut scenes of Command and Conquer and Duke Nukem 3D’s paraphrasing from John Carpenter’s They Live (“I came here to kick ass and chew bubblegum…”) suggested that players wanted to live out their Hollywood fantasies through games, not vice versa. Perhaps it’s only now, where The Quarry can be as satisfying as a horror movie or Top Gun: Maverick can be as exciting as a game, that we’re beginning to see a coming synthesis of the two entertainments.
Looking back, Tron’s greatest influence is being the first film to recognize just how present the digital world would become in everyone’s lives. The fight for freedom in the grid may anticipate future arguments over ownership of the internet by corporations, but it’s the potential to access different worlds that rings most true from the film. It was certainly ahead of its time, which is a lot more than can be said for Disney’s other products from a period when it just didn’t have the pulse of popular culture. Tron’s enduring legacy resides in the great successes of Pixar and Disney’s 90s revival, for which its technology paved the way. It’s an important film, perhaps best regarded as the first game adaptation (although it adapts no single game) – rather, it captures a moment in video game history that is immediately familiar to anyone who was there.