Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Tron

Here we go again on Fishing in the Discount Bin, watching a movie I own and blogging about it.  This time out, we take a look at Disney's 1982 classic Tron.  This is in my notes at May 15, 2017.

As I said not too long ago, the thing with re-arranging my Blu-Ray shelves to accommodate for a new unit has caused me to grab some old movies off the shelf and go, “Hey.  It’s been a long time since I’ve watched this.”  When I grabbed Tron, I thought, “Dude, I’ve wanted to do Tron for Fishing in the Discount Bin forever.” 

As I’m pretty sure I’ve blogged before, the late-70s/early-80s was a strange time for Disney.  When Walt passed away in the late 1960s, the studio was left without a guiding vision.  By the mid-70s, they’d run out of the projects that Walt was developing before he died.  So they were left floundering a little bit.  And while they were floundering, they started...experimenting.  This was also when Star Wars was making major mint at the box office, so everyone wanted to get in on the sci-fi trend.

Enter an enterprising young animator named Steven Lisberger.  Lisberger had a thing for a technique called backlight animation.  It’s widely used in animation to create glowing effects.  Lisberger had a dream to make a film using nothing but backlight animation.  Since this was also the era when video games were starting to catch on, and arcades were popping up in malls across the world, he figured that backlight animation would be the perfect medium to tell a story about the world inside video games.  He pitched the idea to Disney, as they were the big name in animation, and the rest is history.  Backlight animation is seen in the finished film, as that’s how they added the glowing energy stripes on everyone’s bodies.

Tron hit theatres in 1982, and it’s one of those movies that’s just part of the background noise of my childhood.  I mean, the design of the film was so striking.  You saw those images, and they were burned into your brain.  Hell, I think the first prize I ever got out of a cereal box was a Tron disc...just a mini-frisbee.  But still, that was enough to spend an occasional summer afternoon, throwing around a Frisbee, pretending I was Tron. 

I finally saw the film for the first time in the second grade.  My principal at the time, Mr. Stelter, had a tradition.  At the start of the school  year, he would bring the entire school into the gym and treat them to a screening of his favourite film, The Apple Dumpling Gang.  But in the second grade, he stood before the school and said that we would not be watching The Apple Dumpling Gang that year, as he couldn’t get it.  Instead, we’d be watching another Disney classic, Tron

Pretty sure I never watched it again until I picked up the super-special edition DVD in 2002. 

The film opens with our brief glimpse into the world of a video game, where we watch a guy playing an arcade game.  We zoom into the screen, and see the two glowing lines on the video screen are in fact high-tech motorcycles, and the lines behind them are walls they’re creating.  It’s a great way to introduce us to this world.  We also meet one of our main villains, Zark, who’s been piloting one of the motorcycles. 

Back in the real world, we meet our hero, Kevin Flynn, played by Jeff Bridges.  We see him trying to hack into some remote computer system.  Inside the computer, his hacking attempts take the form of a computer program named Clu who’s piloting a tank.  However, Zark captures Clu, thus cutting off Flynn’s hacking attempt.  Clu is interrogated by Zark, and Zark’s commander, our main villain, the Master Control Program, or MCP for short.  When Clu refuses to talk, he’s deleted (killed), and the MCP demands to speak to his user, Dillinger. 
In the real world, Dillinger is high-level management at a computer company called ENCOM.  The MCP is his magnum opus, which runs the entire company’s computer system.  This being the “computers = magic” 1980s, the MCP is a fully sentient AI.  Turns out, Dillinger got where he is by thievery, and one of the MCP’s main functions is to hack into rival computer companies and steal their programs.  If it’s a good program, the MCP assimilates it into its own programming.  Turns out Flynn’s hacking threatens to expose Dillinger and MCP’s machinations, so they beef up security access on the network. 

But this increased security access freezes out programmer Alan Bradley.  He’s developing a security program called Tron that would monitor the MCP’s communication with the outside world.  Turns out this was also part of the MCP’s plans, as inside the computer, Tron is starting to become quite the threat.  Frustrated at this, Alan goes downstairs to chat with his girlfriend Laura.  She works in the R&D department, and her current project is a high-powered laser to be used for teleportation.  Because, you know, I’m sure every computer company is working on one of those.  Google Transporter, coming in 2055.  Anyway, as Alan and Laura talk about all the shit going on in the company ever since Dillinger took charge, they realize that their old pal Kevin Flynn had the security clearance that’s now been frozen out of the system.  They figure out that Flynn is up to something and go have a chat with him. 

They find Flynn on the other side of town running a video arcade, racking up the high score on the hottest arcade game in the land, Space Paranoids.  Flynn actually lives above the arcade, so they go to his apartment/office to talk.  As it turns out, Flynn was one of ENCOM’s most gifted programmers, but he was fired under mysterious circumstances.  Flynn finally tells his two friends what went down.  Flynn started heading back to work after-hours to work on some personal projects...video games, mostly.  He was getting ready to take his new video games and strike off on his own, when he came into work one day, fired up his computer, and found all his work was gone.   Three months later, Dillinger pitches five new arcade games to the board...all five were the ones that Flynn was developing, including Space Paranoids.  When Flynn confronted Dillinger about this, Flynn was fired.  So yes, Flynn has been hacking into ENCOM’s systems, because he knows that buried somewhere deep on a file server, is the evidence of his true authorship of Space Paranoids

It doesn’t take Alan very long to figure out that Dillinger must have gotten where he is because he’s using the MCP to swipe other programs and pass them off as his own.  If Alan could get Tron back online, that would shut down the MCP, help Flynn get his evidence, and end the reign of Dillinger.  As Flynn would have better luck with a direct terminal rather than dialing in remotely, Laura proposes they sneak Flynn into the building, and set him up at the terminal in her research lab.  United by their common enemy, they go charging into ENCOM. 

I’ve got take a minute here to talk about the relationship between Flynn, Alan, and Laura.  Alan is with Laura, but it’s made clear pretty early on that Flynn and Laura are exes who have successfully made it to “just friends.”  They still playfully flirt with each other, much to Alan’s annoyance.  But there is one moment where it appears that Alan lets his guard down a bit, and shows that he understands they’re just friends and he’s just playing along. 

Flynn:  Tell me, does she still leave her clothes all over the bedroom floor?

Laura:  Flynn...

Alan:  Yup.

Laura:  ALAN! 

I dunno.  Just that little exchange always made me think that Alan is secure in his knowledge that he’s won Laura’s heart, and he only feigns jealousy because it amuses Laura.  And that, deep down, they’re all friends.

Flynn gets to work at Laura’s terminal, and the big gigantic teleporting laser is pointing straight at it for some reason.  The MCP and Flynn go head-to-head, but Flynn quickly gets the upper hand.  Needing to level the playing field, the MCP fires up the laser and beams Flynn into the computer.  And now we get to the good stuff. 

Flynn materializes into the glowing world of computers, himself now adorned with the glowing stripes that everyone one wears.  Computer programs are people, and the MCP is the brutal dictator of all.  The MCP’s stormtroopers haul Flynn off to the Gaming Grid, our gladiatorial arena where programs that are of no use are made to fight to the death.  The MCP hopes that this will eliminate Flynn once and for all, however Zark is leery.  After all, the users are like gods to programs.  And Flynn is a user.  Zark has never gone up against a god before. 
However, Flynn soon proves to be just as adept as playing video games from the inside as he is from the out.  And in the Gaming Grid, he soon encounters the most skilled of the warriors, the one fighting for freedom, the one who still maintains faith in the users...Tron.  Flynn identifies Tron as Alan, to which Tron snaps, “How do you know the name of my user?” and Flynn quickly comes up with a story about how he was sent in by Alan to assist Tron.  Not quite the truth, but true enough.

Oh, and there is a line to explain why programs look like their programmers.  One of the minor characters, one of the founders of the company, tells Dillinger that “There’s a piece of the programmer in every program they write.”  So, there ya go. 

Flynn, Tron, and the red shirt are soon sent to the lightcycle game to up against Zark and his two flunkies.  And we get the legendary lightcycle chase, made with the finest computer animation that 1982 had to offer.  Man, watching this, I’m always amazed at how far we’ve come when it comes to computer animation.  Fun trivia fact:  back in 1982, Tron was disqualified from the Oscar for Best Visual Effects.  The reason?  The makers had cheated by using computer animation.  What was originally a cheat is now how everything is done. 

A damaged lightcycle blows a hole in the wall of the arena, so Flynn, Tron, and cannon fodder make their break for freedom.  They hideout in this really cool cave with a spring, which is pure electricity, and it recharges them.  Our heroes formulate their plan.  They need to get Tron to the nearest I/O Tower – where programs commune with their users – so Tron can get the data he needs from Alan to defeat the MCP.  Our heroes set out, but Zark’s forces find them.  Tron and Flynn are separated in the battle, and good-bye, expendable, we hardly knew ye. 

Tron continues on to the city, where he reconnects with his girlfriend Yori, the program version of Laura.  Together, and with Zark’s forces on their tail, they head to the I/O Tower where Tron communes with Alan and gets the data he needs to take down the MCP.  Meanwhile, being a user, Flynn starts discovering he’s got some godlike powers, when he reconstitutes a Recognizer (the aircraft in Zark’s fleet) out of a debris field, and takes down one of Zark’s troops and takes on his appearance in a variation on the old “take out a bad guy and steal his uniform” ploy. 

With the info in hand, Tron and Yori swipe Yori’s ship, a magnificent solar sailer that riders on a beam of light.  This truly is one of the more beautiful moments in the film, as the design of the sailer is just gorgeous.  Tron takes down some of the soldiers that made it on to the sailer, and recognizes one as Flynn.  And again, we get another kind of weird threesome moment with Flynn, Tron, and Yori.  Flynn recognizes Yori as Laura, and starts circling her, taking her all in.  A somewhat creeped out Yori retreats behind Tron, Tron takes the whole high school jock “stay away from my woman” body posture, and Flynn backs off.  But Yori, still kinda intrigued by this newcomer, coyly peeks out from behind Tron.  I just love the whole body language/non-verbal acting in this moment, as it helps clearly define the relationships between these three.  

They’re almost at the MCP when they’re attacked by Zark’s command ship.  Flynn and Yori are captured, and Tron is missing, presumed dead.  Zark leaves Flynn and Yori to their fates, as his command ship, and all on board, will be deleted when they report to the MCP.  But, Flynn uses his mighty user powers to keep Yori alive and the ship functional. 

Tron makes his way to the MCP on foot, but finds Zark guarding the entrance.  Tron and Zark throw down with their flying discs in a battle royale, which Tron eventually wins by running his disc down the middle of Zark’s head.  Seriously, with the sparks that fly off, it looks like Zark’s brains are flying out.  But, the MCP revives Zark as a 10 foot tall zombie Zark to resume the battle!  Tron gets away and begins his assault on the MCP. 

But the MCP is too heavily fortified!  Flynn and Yori, watching from above, get an idea.  Flynn has Yori maneuver the ship towards the MCP.  Flynn decides to leap into the beam that the MCP uses to communicate with the outside world.  That will probably distract the MCP long enough for Tron to take his shot.  The plan works, Tron defeats the MCP, and Tron and Yori celebrate the system being free again.

This also kicks Flynn back out into the real world.  The ol’ dot matrix printer begins spitting out the original source code to Space Paranoids...complete with Flynn’s seal of authorship.  Not only did the printer spit it out, but with its dying gasp, the MCP broadcast it to every terminal in ENCOM headquarters.  Dillinger comes into work the morning, sees it on his desk terminal, and sits down, defeated.   Flynn gets Dillinger’s old job, and with Alan and Laura’s help, begins shaping ENCOM into a friendly, creative computer company once again.  The end. 

And that’s Tron.  Man, I still dig this movie.  My main gripe with it is, it introduces a lot of great sci-fi concepts, but never really does anything with them.  The one that always gets me are the discs.  When Flynn is given his disc, he’s told it’s his identity disc.  Anything you say or do is recorded on that disc.  If you lose your disc, or it is destroyed, you’re toast.  So, of course, they devise an entire system of ritualized combat using these discs as the primary weapon.  Just never made sense to me.

But I am glad that Tron has been rediscovered over the years as a cult classic.  It has so many good ideas, and such a good design, that it’s a shame that it never really did anything with it. 

But maybe they’ve finally do something with it, in its 28-years later sequel. 

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