Movie: Tron (1982)

The new movie TRON: Legacy (2010) is going to be released very soon and the marketing machine is geared to make it a Big Thing among geeks, and here I still hadn’t seen all of the original Tron from 1982.

I remember seeing some of it as a teenager and not being able to take it seriously. And then for the next twenty-odd years I kept hearing how people liked it, and I tried to see it a couple of times more. I know I recorded it off the TV a couple of times, but I never watched it. But then this week I decided to make the effort and force myself to see the whole thing, and finally I was successful.

Movie poster for Tron (1982)
Movie poster for Tron (1982).


The boss of a big company is centralizing things, removing computer access from some staff, and firing a particularly troublesome hacker dude who claims that he’s behind some of the company’s biggest selling game software. The boss, it turns out, has stolen the hacker dude’s programs and in this and other dastardly deeds he’s been helped by a computer program Master Control Program which has grown sentient and independent of the boss, and is now gobbling up the computer resources from other companies and government institutions to become even more powerful.

All of this happens in the real world, but there is also a world inside the computer where programs function under more or less direct control of Master Control Program. In here, all programs seem to be self-aware to some degree, and some are taught to fight to the death in tournaments for the pleasure of MPC and his favorite lackeys. And everything has neon edges and webbing and looks really futuristic. And a lot of computer jargon terms are used.

The troublesome hacker from above gets digitized by a prototype teleportation system (yep, the company’s also making one of those, mostly as a hobby project to keep the old founder occupied, it seems), and now the hacker has to fight in the gladiator games inside the computer and help a couple of other rebel programs beat the evil MCP. And hopefully in the end escape back into the real world and become a real boy again.

Scene from Tron (1982)
Scene from Tron (1982) – Black and white film frame hand-colored with lots of neon. Note the woman’s body language.


Tron set the standard for its time in terms of “computer” graphics… even though most of it was done manually by people who hand painted the neon elements and other colors onto individual frames of film. A process that was so expensive and time consuming that it was never used again at the same scale.

Good and Bad

The list of things that bug me about this movie hasn’t changed a lot since I first saw (some of) it as a teenager, I think:

  • Overall, the computer use and terminology is naïve, nay, just plain wrong/incorrect in many places. Not as in “hey, that hasn’t been invented yet“, but as in “when you’re logging in to a system, you just supply your credentials (username and password), you don’t write three lines of prose trying to convince the computer that you have admin rights on the system“.
    • Programs are ascribed intentionality (“All programs have a desire to be used“)
    • The little floating comic relief thing they call a “bit” and that they say has only two states (yes, no) – it obviously has three states (yes, no, quiet), so it’s not a bit = binary digit. (Gawd!)
  • The physics are inconsistent in the computer world: Small bumps and fisticuffs have inertia, while high speed 90 degree turns on lightcycles have no inertia
  • Speaking of the lightcycles, it doesn’t make sense that the drivers of the lightcycles are driving based only on their first-person perspective
  • That’s not how lasers work! Yes, I know lasers are cool and they make nice straight lines that the dozens of animators in the Chinese studio can make look cool in post-production… but lasers can’t do that!
  • The symbolism with the relationship between programs and users being parallel to the relationship between humans and gods is laid on a little thick. (A wounded program cries out “Oh my user”)

Some of the things I’m OK with:

  • The idea of a self-aware computer program. Hey, it could happen. I’m sure we’re only a few hundred minor scientific and technological breakthroughs away from that goal.
  • The graphics are fine. By modern computer graphics standards, it’s outright laughable to look at, of course. But this is a historical piece from the early ages of graphical computing. As the movie poster says, it’s “a world inside the computer where man has never been… never before now”, so how were the designers to know that that’s not what electronics look like. 🙂
  • The outdated portrayal of women. Again, the movie gets a free pass for its age. This movie is, after all, a contemporary of Cannonball Run (1981). And while the women generally appear as subservient supporters of the men (note the identical body language in the two pictures above, and remember those two female programs in one scene who were just passively standing around waiting to be picked up by a resourceful male program?)), the main female character(s) is also shown as a capable engineer, and she/they do help solve the crises. (Maybe I should give the movie a free pass on the symbolism of the relationship between programs and user, too? I’ll reserve judgment on that until I’ve seen the sequel)


Yay, I made it through Tron! Now I guess I’ll be able to more fully enjoy the new, visually updated (eye candy) version of the Tron world in the new movie. Who knows, I may even start to appreciate some of the symbolism and deeper meaning that some of the reviewers on IMDB rave about, like the use of the same actor for many characters to show parallels or layers or something.

As a stand-alone movie, Tron gets a loud and clear “Meh!” from me.

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