It’s 1982, and the first golden age of videogames is in full swing. Atari is still at the height of its powers with the world’s most popular console, the 2600. The infamous critical and financial disaster that was the E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial tie-in has yet to be programmed, and the ruinous video game crash of 1983 is yet to occur.
Over in the UK, Clive Sinclair has just released the ZX Spectrum, the computer that continued his goal of placing an affordable microprocessor in every household.
Writer and director Steven Lisberger’s Tron was released against this backdrop, and his film tapped into the era’s emerging fascination with computers, videogames and amusement arcades. Set inside a fantasy universe within a computer program, his film was to be a Star Wars for the 8-bit age of Atari.
But making a movie set inside a computer wasn’t the comparatively simple proposition it would be today. When Lisberger envisioned a movie that used then cutting-edge CGI, the systems we now have in place didn’t yet exist. There were no computer graphics programmes – no After Effects or Maya – and rendering even one frame of footage was time-consuming and expensive.
Looking back on Tron, its conception sounds like a fool’s errand. Its luminous live-action sequences used a technique called backlight compositing, where each individual frame was blown up and actors’ faces painstakingly matted out, and each glowing element seen in the finished film isolated on its own layer of celluloid. Every frame of Tron comprised seven layers, meaning that just a single minute of completed footage took a staggering two months to complete.
Despite the effort and potentially huge sums of money that Tron would require to make, Disney was impressed with Lisberger’s initial pitch, and even though it didn’t entirely understand the concept, was convinced it had a family hit on its hands to rival George Lucas’ Star Wars.
When Tron appeared in 1982, its visual effects were a remarkable sight. While concept artists Syd Mead and Jean ‘Mobius’ Giraud had to limit their concepts to work around the meagre processing power of early-80s processing, their ship designs remain as svelte and seductive as the were almost three decades ago.
So distinctive and memorable is Tron’s imagery, it’s easy to forget that there is a plot beneath the psychedelic visuals.
Jeff Bridges plays Kevin Flynn, a former programmer at electronics corporation ENCOM who, after his videogame code was appropriated by the villainous Dillinger (David Warner), ends up running an amusement arcade in an attempt to claw back a little money from his own stolen concept.
Embittered and determined to prove that his game, Space Paranoids, was his own, Flynn spends long evenings attempting to hack into ENCOM’s computer mainframe.
In Tron’s surreal parallel universe, hacking isn’t achieved through mere typing, but by communicating with a digital doppelganger, or Program, in the mainframe’s virtual reality. Flynn’s Program is called Clu, played by Bridges himself, who is captured and abruptly murdered (or, as the movie puts it, “derezzed”) by ENCOM’s malevolent Master Control Program (MCP).
The MCP has reached such a dangerous level of intelligence that it threatens its real-world master, Dillinger, and makes plans to take control of the Pentagon’s military systems.
Meanwhile, Flynn is zapped into the virtual world of the Grid by a digitising ray, and soon finds himself coerced into taking part in a series of deadly gladiatorial games by the MCP and its grim-faced henchman, Sark (Warner).
With the help of Ram (Dan Shor) and Tron (Bruce Boxleitner), Flynn escapes the Grid during a spectacular Light Cycle duel. The pair make their way to an input/output tower, where they plan to put a stop to the MCP’s despotic reign once and for all.
Tron could be seen as a computer age reworking of The Wizard Of Oz, where characters in the real world have their analogues in the virtual, a realm governed by an apparently god-like being who ultimately proves to be far from infallible.
Watched in 2011, it’s remarkable just how artistic, abstract, and downright trippy Tron is. Its visuals are no longer cutting edge, but time has been unusually kind to what should, in theory, be a mere time capsule from a bygone age.
The weird, high-contrast world that Lisberger and his huge team of artists, designers and animators created has the look and tone of an indie movie in places – in our interview with director Gaspar Noe earlier this year, he cited Tron as one of the visual touchstones for his head-trip drugs and death movie Enter The Void, and there are moments in Tron which are almost that movie’s equal, such is their hallucinogenic quality.
The sequence in which Flynn is digitised and blasted into a kaleidoscopic gateway to the digital domain is extraordinary, despite the antiquity of its effects, and cries out to be seen on the biggest screen possible.
Then there are the gorgeous, exotic designs from Mead and Mobius, including the former’s simple yet deliciously organic Light Cycles, the latter’s ethereal Solar Sailer and outlandish costumes, including Barnard Hughes’ exotic, bishop-like outfit.
Above all, Tron is a movie whose technical limitations gave rise to remarkable feats of creative ingenuity. A mere 15 minutes of the movie was actually rendered by computer – the rest was achieved via traditional animation techniques and liberal use of an airbrush.
The result is, as Lisberger himself has since pointed out, Disney’s most ambitious movie since Fantasia. The director also stated that “Our studio was artistically, not commercially inclined,” a mindset that survived on the big screen, and a sentiment that Walt Disney himself would have appreciated.
To add insult to injury, Tron’s remarkable visual achievements weren’t even considered for an Oscar – its use of computer technology was so new, and so ground-breaking, that it was considered by the Academy to be cheating.
In the years after its release, however, Tron’s popularity has spread like a veritable computer virus. This could be in part because it taps so well into the self-referential geek culture that is now a common sight on the internet – there are loving homages and Easter eggs everywhere for the eagle-eyed movie buff, from the classic incantation “Klaatu Barada Nikto”, to blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos from Pac-Man and Mickey Mouse.
A film very much keyed into its time – its despotic AI premise was later played out to similarly satisfying effect in WarGames and The Terminator in 1983 and 1984 respectively – Tron nevertheless remains entertaining and surprisingly relevant almost 30 years later.
The film’s belated successor, Tron: Legacy, pushed the technological envelope to a similar degree in the 21st century, with its digital recreation of a young Jeff Bridges, and the world of the Grid evolved and expanded into mesmerising 3D.
It’s remarkable, in fact, that while Legacy updates Tron’s landscape for the post-iPod age – its Light Cycles are more svelte than ever, its Recognisers now eye-pleasingly semi-transparent – it still looks like the exotic place Steven Lisberger and his team of artists created in the 80s.
Years before the internet became ubiquitous, Tron envisioned a virtual world where we could reinvent ourselves as new characters in cyberspace. We may not be wearing glowing spandex and throwing deadly Frisbees just yet, but whether we like it or not, we’re all plugged into the Grid now.
Tron and Tron: Legacy will be available to buy on DVD and Blu-ray from 18th April, and can be pre-ordered at the Den Of Geek Store.
Follow Den Of Geek on Twitter right here.