Summary: An innovative milestone and the father of many philosophical tangents, ‘Tron’ is valuable, aesthetically intriguing science fiction.
Review: Science fiction is at its best when it permits us to review — literally, “see again” — the real world. It’s not always about illuminating philosophy. Sometimes it’s about challenging us to believe, just as long as we may, that there is an unseen world that coexists with our own. It’s not necessarily that this supposed world is supernatural, but by contrast it seems incredible. For Disney’s bomb-turned-classic ‘Tron’, the tagline sums up this conceit magnanimously: “A world inside the computer, where man has never been — never before now.” Chalk that up as one of my favorite taglines in cinema history, just as provocative as “You will believe a man can fly”. Does the movie measure up to it?
To my delight, yes. It is a successful example of intelligent conceptualization and world-building. The best word I can use to describe ‘Tron’ is iconic. It revels in its imagery, visual and conceptual, to the plot’s degradation. The story is good, but it meanders, if only to allow the audience the privilege of seeing all the CGI that 1982 could muster. Yes, today, the film looks dated, but this isn’t a bad thing. It adds a layer of nostalgia to the cake. What’s great about the primitive CGI, in itself, is that it lets us see the naked architecture. Lines are all-important in ‘Tron’s aesthetic. This is, after all, “The Grid”, the combat zone of arcade games of yore. There’s a distinctive spirit to vintage arcades, and ‘Tron’ may be its definitive cinematic incarnation.
I said the story is good, and not just because it complicates and untangles satisfactorily. ‘Tron’ is philosophically complex, yet it doesn’t explore every question raised, sparking mental tangents which I’m sure have contributed to the film’s growing popularity. The world of ‘Tron’ is populated by programs, each of whom has a relationship with its human user, which the programs perceive from afar as gods. This has sobering implications in real life, with computer technology evolving at an incredible rate, and a growing number of scientists assuring us that true artificial intelligence, nay, artificial life is just around the proverbial corner. How will we respond to a thinking being that recognizes us as its life-giver? ‘Tron’ doesn’t answer this question. Raising it may be enough. But I digress. In ‘Tron’, programs are created in the user’s image, literally. They act as the user’s avatar, yet think of themselves as distinct persons, perhaps unaware of their resemblance to the humans they idolize. The film’s plot centers on the Master Control Program, or MCP, who rebels against his user and seeks to extend his control beyond his system. To this end, the MCP cuts off all contact between programs and users, calling the vital relationship an obsolete superstition. He even goes so far as to pit rebel programs against each other in gladiatorial combat. Jeff Bridges’ character, user Kevin Flynn, tries to confront the MCP and gets digitized into the computer world for his trouble. He is now a user incarnated as a program, and indistinguishable from any other except in his power to manipulate data. He fights to defeat the MCP and restore the programs to their users. The film is, quite obviously, heedlessly unsubtle in its use of religious concepts.
‘Tron’ is an exciting, bizarre, surreal and innovate piece of celluloid. It’s a milestone in CGI development and our popular conception of cyberspace. It may have been, if you’ll pardon the expression, ahead of the game in its first release, but it’s plain to see that ‘Tron’ is not just another pleasant diversion. It helps us review our world. That’s why we go to the movies.