As the last week of summer wraps up, I’m also wrapping up my tribute to the summer films of ’82 with one of the most high profile releases of that year – Steven Lisberger’s TRON. Promoted to the hilt by Disney, TRON was to be the ultimate summer blockbuster. It featured state-of-the-art special effects, talented actors, and a concept that tapped into the country’s obsession with video games. Incredibly, this sure-fire hit fizzled at the box office (grossing a modest $33 million), but has remained a part of the vocabulary of pop culture, and become a sci-fi classic. Perhaps no other film from that summer better serves as a time capsule for the era, as well as a harbinger of things to come.
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, Disney was a studio trying to redefine itself for a new generation. In the wake of Star Wars, audiences were rabid for the space operas and fantasy films proliferating at the nation’s multiplexes. Furthermore, moviegoers were looking for entertainment that had a little more bite to it than the traditional films Disney was known for. Perhaps this caused a bit of a panic at Disney, because the studio decided to launch its own campaign to win the hearts and minds of teen/adult audiences. The first salvo came in the Christmas season of 1979, in the form of The Black Hole – the first PG-rated Disney film (a point that caused quite a stir). The movie was a blatant effort to cash in on the success of Star Wars, but in many ways it was far more subversive (featuring a climax that actually showed the film’s villain condemned to a pit of fire). The film’s juxtaposition of cute, Disney humor with very dark subject matter (including a graphic death or two) left audiences confused and cold. The end result was a box office failure.
Not to be deterred, the studio soldiered on with a batch of PG-rated films that continued to target older viewers. These included titles such as The Devil and Max Devlin (a religious comedy a la Oh God!), Condorman (a superhero misfire), and The Watcher in the Woods (an appeal to slasher/horror fans). Each of these proved to be unqualified failures (financially and artistically), and by the early 80’s the studio was reeling. So what did they do? They went completely for broke with a mega-budgeted science-fiction film! To really up the ante, it would even employ state-of-the-art, computer generated effects mixed with live-action. Say what you will about the final product, but you have to admire the gutsy individuals who greenlighted such an ambitious project at a perilous moment for the studio.
In the months leading up to its release, there was an outright media blitz promoting TRON. Perhaps most significant among the marketing tools was the initial TRON arcade game (others would follow) that popped up in malls across the country. Players could do everything from drive tanks and fight computerized spiders, to getting behind the wheel(?) of the film’s popular light cycles. Teen arcade dwellers couldn’t get enough, and poured in the quarters (this writer included). What I remember most about the game, was that had an intriguing cabinet with lots of design elements, and the graphics were outstanding in comparison to its competitors. It was rather difficult, and I stank at it, but it certainly was successful at working me into a frenzy to see the movie! There had been a few other game/movie tie-ins up to that point, but TRON was the one that showed how successful the proposition could be . . . at least on the gaming side. As it turned out, the film itself was a financial disappointment.
I remember vividly going to the local twin cinema on a Saturday evening, amidst the crowds, to see TRON on its opening weekend. Truly, I believe I was as psyched about TRON as I have ever been before or since to see a genre movie. The poster was great, the trailers showed off amazing special effects, and as already pointed out, the game had kept the film in my awareness on a near daily basis! Nevertheless, after seeing the final product I couldn’t help but be a bit under whelmed . . .
The problem with TRON, upon that initial experience, was that it did not conform to the sci-fi epic template that was prominent at that time. Movies like Star Wars, Battle Beyond the Stars, Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Flash Gordon, etc., were all about larger-than-life heroes and swashbuckling action. TRON on the other hand, while featuring strong performances from the likes of Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, and David Warner, is a more distanced affair. Sure Bridges’ Flynn is cocky, and Boxleitner’s TRON heroic to a fault, but they lack a certain flair possessed by the heroes in the aforementioned films. Part of this has to do with the writing (which doesn’t develop their characters all that well), but I believe the main problem is that they are overwhelmed by the effects.
When one thinks about a film like Star Wars for example, memory conjures up strong impressions of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Lando Calrissian, etc. As a young moviegoer, I wanted to be Han Solo! I took part in numerous discussions about the coolness of these characters, and still have fond memories of those films. And while I thought the effects were amazing (still do), it was the characters that made the films special. That being said, I never found myself daydreaming about being Flynn or TRON. They just didn’t make much of an impression. So, while I was awed by TRON’s images, it failed to connect on an emotional level.
This brings me to my primary point about the film, and perhaps highlights the most important role it would play. TRON, to my knowledge, was the first film to use computer generated images in any significant way. Indeed the film was about computers, so it makes sense that it would highlight effects created by computers. However, because the actors were working primarily on non-descript sets, with no scenery to react to, it could be argued that their performances suffered. In all fairness, it must be pretty difficult to convey the thrill of piloting a light cycle when you’re just sitting on a cardboard box! Furthermore, because of the perfectly clean nature of the effects, they come off looking . . . false. Sure they’re really pretty, but one never feels it’s a “real” world. All of these elements combine to make TRON a visually interesting experience, but one without much depth . . . a problem even more glaring in a summer with thoughtful genre films such as Blade Runner, Star Trek 2, The Thing, etc.
Flash forward to the present, and audiences are now bombarded with blockbusters that feature predominantly computer generated effects. It is all too rare that Hollywood genre pictures utilize old school models and rubber creature effects that gave earlier films such a “realistic” feeling. When watching horror/sci-fi films of the 70’s and 80’s, there’s much more of a connection to the proceedings because viewers know that everything on-screen took place in the real world (albeit through visual trickery). Even when effects appear fake, there’s still something about their tangible nature that makes them more successful. If nothing else, the actors have something to play against, and therefore are more likely to give “natural” performances. One need only look at films like The Phantom Menace to see how acting can be compromised, and characters sidelined, in favor of making things “look pretty.” While I can still appreciate the artistry of these endeavors, they don’t make for films I’m likely to care about a year from now.
So, in the final analysis, what does this mean for TRON? For myself, I’ve come to appreciate the film quite a bit over the years. There’s still an emotional connection missing, but I do enjoy the nostalgia it evokes (mostly the experience of playing the various video games). Additionally, I always love villainous performances from David Warner (and his Sark is great), and there are some exciting moments in the film to be sure (e.g. the light cycles). But TRON had the benefit of being the first out of the gate, making it somewhat special. In the current climate, it would enjoy no such advantage and would likely become lost among the glut of CGI blockbusters. Perhaps my feelings about the film are best expressed by the experience I had the evening I saw it. When we returned home from the theater, there was a sci-fi double-feature on cable of Alien and Outland. I sat up late watching both, and by the end TRON (for the most part) was a fading memory . . .