Directed by Steven Lisberger
Visually, Tron hasn't weathered the past 29 years all that well. But it still stands as a landmark in filmmaking and the film's new high-def Blu-ray presentation makes it look better than ever.
Tron was originally released in 1982, the same year as E.T. The Extra-terrestrial and Blade Runner. In some camps, Tron is regarded as a classic, mostly for its groundbreaking use of computer animation. One of the things that held Tron back from wider popularity, though, was a goofy story that starts out about a guy getting zapped into a computer while trying to retrieve data proving he wrote a slew of the world's most popular video games. That part's cool. It's an intriguing idea. But the goofiness sets in when the story degrades into nothing more than a Star Wars retread. And, regardless of its innovations, Tron hasn't aged nearly as well as E.T. and Blade Runner. It's like an Atari 400 program; fond memories of a low-memory system.
Revisiting the movie now, on Blu-ray, naturally what was a problem then is still a problem now. But the supplemental materials included on the disc do a terrific job of documenting the challenges the filmmakers faced. After all, Tron was made at a time when nobody had a personal computer, everything was on a mainframe, laptops were an unheard of technology, and mobile phones were enormous bricks. Putting it another way, director Steven Lisberger comments that modern cell phones probably have more computing power than he had access to while making the movie.
It also doesn't hurt to have John Lasseter, the mastermind behind some of Pixar's biggest hits, say that without Tron there'd be no Toy Story.
Life on the Grid
As for Tron's story, the movie scoots along well enough with computer programmers and hackers setting the stage for an early-'80s corporate conspiracy flick that ultimately finds its resolution deep within the computer system wherein they all work.
Thankfully Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, Heaven's Gate) wasn't a financial software programmer. His thing was video games. And that occupation provides all the excuse that's needed to make the dangers of life on the grid boil down to gaming skills.
The light cycles racing game is an attention grabber that proved to be an addictive gaming experience in the real-life Tron arcade game. The disc fighting game transcends the Frisbee source material (the discs were, literally, Frisbees) and took on all the coolness of the lightsaber duels in Star Wars.
But dissatisfaction sets in when the resolution winds up being a knock-off of the attack on the Death Star, with one little window of opportunity presenting itself to right all sorts of cyber wrongs.
The theme of a man-made computer program becoming smarter than its creators is a clever spin on the old man versus machine theme, but the threat posed by the Master Control Program never rises to a level of gravitas that makes for a compelling situation for the casual viewer. After all, talk of users, programs, and a free and open computing system holds appeal only to a very select audience that already spends too much time tinkering in the world of bits and bytes.
Disney earns kudos for making a nice package out of this groundbreaking film. The new supplemental features exclusive to this Blu-ray release are well done. And one feature in particular hits a sweet spot for father/son relationships.
The Tron Phenomenon is a good look at the nearly 30 years since Tron was released and it serves as the basis for justifying a sequel three decades later. (10 minutes)
Photo Tronology is a unique featurette that involves Steven Lisberger and his son visiting the Disney archives and reviewing long unseen photos, with Lisberger the elder relating filmmaking stories to his son while they examine these classic materials. It's an interesting look at the film and the era in which the movie was made, but it's also an interesting take on Lisberger's relationship with his son, a guy who has grown up in the shadow of Tron and his father's envelope-pushing youth. The ending is something of a calling for the son to find his own inspiration and seek out his own envelope to push. Excellent stuff. (17 minutes)
Given the comprehensive nature of the supplemental materials produced for the DVD release 9 years ago, it's to Disney's credit that these two featurettes have been added to provide an up-to-date context in light of Tron: Legacy's release.
The Blu-ray ports over all of the supplemental material from the 20th Anniversary DVD release. It's an exhaustive look at the technological challenges the filmmakers faced and it earns the movie a renewed sense of respect for working through some significant technical barriers.
The cornerstones of this material are The Making of Tron, a feature-length behind-the-scenes documentary, and a running commentary with Steven Lisberger, Donald Kushner, Harrison Ellenshaw, and Richard Taylor.
The commentary is chock full of information. A personal favorite revelation is a little quirky, though: There's a priceless bit about Peter O'Toole desperately wanting the lead role, to the point where he says he wants it on his tombstone: Lawrence of Arabia and Tron. But the documentary somewhat contradicts that, with Kushner saying O'Toole was cast as Sark and bailed after he realized the tanks were going to be added later, with computer animation.
The Making of Tron is an 88-minute documentary that is an all-encompassing look at the entire production cycle, from initial concepts right on through the final film. There's a great observation from Harrison Ellenshaw: Technology does not equate to creativity; after all, Shakespeare didn't have a word processor and word processors haven't yielded more Shakespeares. It's also incredible to hear recollections of where Disney was in the early 1980s; it was a studio most actors were avoiding. Tron was released 2 years before Tom Hanks and Darryl Hannah hit it big with Splash and decades before Johnny Depp became Jack Sparrow. Included are enlightening interviews with all of the lead actors, including Bruce Boxleitner, Jeff Bridges, and Cindy Morgan. The only absentee is David Warner.
A section of featurettes entitled Development covers early concepts and video tests. This includes an early interview with Lisberger explaining how we are all inside the computer right now, whether it be by our drivers license, Social Security ID, or other pieces of information. (8 minutes)
Digital Imagery is an interesting look at the disparate effects shops put to work on the computer animated effects. The segment entitled Beyond Tron includes a little something called "Synthavision" that's a cheesy little piece of computer animation. There's also Triple I's 2-minute demo reel starring a computer-animated magician. (11 minutes)
The Music section includes a light cycle game scene with an alternate music track by Wendy Carlos (the theatrical version works better) and end credits with music by Carlos that was ultimately replaced by Journey's Only Solutions. (8 minutes)
Publicity contains a 5-minute demo reel created for the National Association of Theater Owners, a "work in progress" trailer, and four theatrical trailers. It's interesting to watch the trailers and see how they play up a dangerous, dramatic element that doesn't really exist in the movie. Trailer 4 is possibly the coolest as the tagline boasts, "Trapped inside an electronic arena where love and escape do not compute!" (13 minutes)
The Deleted Scenes are introduced by Lisberger and feature an odd love scene with Tron and Yori and a brief, incomplete "morning after" scene. There's also an unnecessary opening text prologue. (5 minutes)
Design focuses on the light cycles and comments from Lisberger and Syd Mead. There's also some test footage of the light cycles and recognizer footage from Space Paranoids presented in both full screen and letterbox formats. (5 minutes)
Storyboarding takes a look at the storyboards used in planning the primary light cycle contest. It's quaint. The storyboards are presented on a parquet-ish table top and the hands of Bill Kroyer, Computer Image Choreographer, page through each sheet of illustration. Also on view are Moebius' storyboards for the opening title (a quick 16 seconds). (9 minutes)
Given how each of the sections is broken down into small clips, a "Play All" option would've been nice.
Completing the program is a comprehensive gallery of 216 images that covers storyboards, marketing materials, and concept art.
Picture and Sound
Tron, presented in the original 2.20:1 aspect ratio shot in 65mm, has never looked better, but it's still, in some ways, hard to watch simply because the technology employed to make it all happen is now so dated. There's something about it that simply hasn't aged as gracefully as other technological leap-froggers such as the original King Kong and Gone with the Wind. A good portion of the problem, no doubt, simply lies in the movie's dorky storytelling sensibilities.
It's tempting to want to see the characters' neon outfits fully, properly illuminated, touched up with a little bit of modern CGI magic, but that type of change veers into the territory of film history tampering that is best left to George Lucas. One rewriter of cinema's heritage is enough.
In addition to the visual remastering the audio's been upgraded as well. The new English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is terrific, with all those chirps and Pac-Man munching sounds fleshing out the track. Most impressive is the MCP's all-surrounding voice in his scenes with Sark. Cool stuff.
Also available are 5.1 Dolby Digital tracks in French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Subtitles are available in English, English for the Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Here's a side note about the presentation quality of the supplemental materials. Pulling out the original DVD from the archives, one thing is worth commenting on: In this new release the materials are primarily presented in full 1.78:1. The source material was 1.33:1. In some respects, this unnecessary reconfiguration does the material a disservice. The supplementals actually look sharper on that 10-year-old DVD.
How to Use This Disc
Enjoy the remastered marvel that is Tron. Then get a thorough understanding of why it's earned its place in film history by watching The Making of Tron.
• Originally published at MovieHabit.com.