Why Tron was ahead of its time

In the run-up to the release of Tron and Tron: Legacy on DVD and Blu-ray, we look at just how ahead of its time Steven Lisberger’s 1982 Tron actually was…

It’s hard to imagine, now we’re all living in the future with our smart phones and wi-fi connections, that the 1982 film Tron was once on the cutting edge of what was possible in filmmaking. The technical accomplishments of what director Steven Lisberger, along with his team of computer programmers and artists achieved in Tron is well documented, and something we touched upon in our retrospective a few weeks ago.

What is less often appreciated about Tron, however, is just how much of what we now take for granted in computing was anticipated by Lisberger’s film. It would be wrong to describe Tron as prophetic, but through his understanding of what computing could bring to society, Lisberger succeeded in tracing a line from where the computer and games industries were in the early 80s, and made several good guesses as to where that line would head in the coming decades.

It’s easy to miss, for example, that David Warner’s boo-hiss villain, Ed Dillinger, is seen interacting with a touchscreen computer terminal near the beginning of the film. While touchscreen technology had been in development more than a decade earlier, it would have been an invention almost unknown to most audience members at the time – while many of us now carry a touchscreen device in our pockets, such technology has only become prevalent within the last decade.

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Tron’s frequent use of technology and terminology that wasn’t yet in common use may have been a part of the reason for the film’s initially tepid reception at the box-office. Although videogames were enjoying a golden age in 1982, wider audiences were perhaps ill prepared for a film that threw around references to Input/Output towers, bits and programming.

In many ways, Tron served as an excitable advertisement for a world of mass computing that, at the time, was just around the corner. In our interview with Lisberger last year, he told us about his evangelical attitude toward technology.

“This very idealistic idea came to us, which was that if we could all access the information in computers, if we could all communicate, wouldn’t the world be a much better place?” Lisberger said. “It was hopelessly idealistic, and actually as I think back on it, we were telling the audience, ‘You’ve got to get your hands on a computer, and you’ve got to get connected to cyberspace!’”

Except, of course, the concept of the Internet wasn’t commonly understood at the time. Communication between computers had been taking place since the 60s for the high-tech US military, but for the public at large, it would be many years before the idea of globally interconnected computers took hold.

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Tron envisioned a virtual world stored inside a computer, where real-world programmers (“Users” as the film calls them) have digital analogues called Programs. Hero Kevin Flynn therefore has a glowing, innocent version of himself called Clu, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) has a digital twin called Tron, while Dillinger has an equally evil analogue called Sark.

In a modern videogame industry now dominated by online multiplayer games, we now fully understand the concept of the avatar, an idealised version of ourselves that we use to interact with the world behind our computer screen. Whether in a first-person shooter or an MMO like Second Life or World Of Warcraft, the idea of Users and Programs makes more sense now, you might argue, than it did almost 30 years ago.

It’s also worth noting that Tron arrived in cinemas at almost the same time as William Gibson coined the now familiar term cyberspace in his short story, Burning Chrome. Published in 1982, the story was, like Tron, keyed into the possibilities of what mass computing might bring, relating the exploits of a pair of professional hackers.

In an era when publicly available computers were only capable of displaying the crudest of graphics, both Gibson and Lisberger envisioned a future where computers are advanced enough to hold an entire world full of information that can somehow be jacked into, or transported to via a digitising ray.

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As Joseph Kosinski, the director of Tron: Legacy, put it at the San Diego Comic-Con last year, “I think conceptually this notion of a world where we have digital versions of ourselves that exist in an online space, in 1982, people didn’t quite grasp that concept. It was literally a decade ahead of its time.”

With Tron, Lisberger also foresaw the growing influence that games and software developers would have on the world at large. At a time when Microsoft hadn’t yet written its colossally successful operating system, Windows, and when games industry giants such as Nintendo and Sony hadn’t yet launched themselves onto the world’s stage, Tron depicted a version of reality where a software company was already a global corporation.

Despite Tron’s flaws in terms of narrative and characterisation, its enduring cult appeal is at least partially due to its understanding of how important computers would be in the years to come. Even though its once pioneering visual effects don’t startle as they once did (though, as we said in our retrospective, they still exude an artistic, psychedelic charm), its fanciful depiction of a living, breathing world that exists among a computer’s zeroes and ones is still as compelling as it ever was.

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