I Programmed You To Want Too Much: Big Business Unfettered in Tron
The first significant trend to discuss here is technological advance: the evolution of arcade video games into home based game systems (like the Atari 2600) in the late 1970s; and then the lightning-fast, subsequent replacement of those game systems with home computing devices like the Commodore VIC-20 in the early 1980s.
Tron expresses, in fascinating terms, the sense of uneasiness some Americans felt with the rapid growth of this new technology. On one hand, humans were still at the top of the food chain in Tron: "Users" sending "programs" to do their bidding in an invisible (to our eyes...) electronic universe.
However, on the other hand, the electronic world of our helpful programs had been (secretly) co-opted by a hungry, assimilating devourer that put the food-pellet-gobbling Pac Man to shame: the MCP. This fear of insidious technology in our homes finds voice in much of Tron's dialogue. "The computers will start thinking and people will stop," warns Walt Dumont (Hughes) in one critical scene.
At other points, however, Tron expresses the desire for a "free system" in which Man and Program ally in beneficial unison. And the film's brilliant climax is not entirely unlike that depicted in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) a sort of religious communion/fusion between Man and machine. As in that cinematic case, man here is the deity, shepherding his sense of traditional human values to the "cold," "intellectual" machine. In Tron, Flynn dives into the MCP (in a Godly beam of blinding light...) and briefly joins with it. His decency -- his humanity -- transforms the outward shade of evil (a crimson, coruscating red) into the film's shade of rebellion and liberty; blue.
The second important element of Tron's context involves the Walt Disney Company and the policies of Ronald Reagan (though in fairness to Mr. Reagan, his predecessor in the office, Jimmy Carter, had begun the process of deregulation well before he took office...).
However, Reagan was important because it was he who oversaw the de-regulation of the financial industry on his watch. He not only made regulation far less less stringent (which eventually led to a housing bubble.), but also expanded the powers of Savings and Loans to diversify -- with a keen eye directed towards profits. This move essentially eliminated the distinctions between commercial and saving banks. As a result, interest rates rose, and so did rampant real estate speculation. Merging companies in the 1980s became titans...monopolies. And they soon grew...too big to fail (thus requiring financial bail-out from tax-payers).
Now consider the troubled history of the Walt Disney Company during this same time period; the time period leading up to Tron. Walt Disney had passed away in 1966, and the company floundered through the 1970s. Walt's nephew, Ray Disney, left the company in 1977 after vocally disagreeing with the company's creative direction. In 1979, Don Bluth, Gary Goldman, and John Pomeroy -- the creative brain trust of the Disney animation family -- also walked away. The general feeling at the time was that Disney had lost its way creatively. The answer, according to some business-minded voices, was assimilation.
Now consider that in the years since Tron, Disney has assimilated independent characters and franchises such as the Muppets and Winnie the Pooh. (And more recently, Star Wars and Marvel). In MCP-like fashion, it has also "acquired" TV networks such ABC, Fox Family, Capital Cities, and production companies including Saban Entertainment and Pixar. It owns 20th Century Fox.
Tron arrives in the very early days of this new and aggressive corporate policy. Corporate raider Dillinger has "acquired" (illegally...) a variety of video games from Flynn, while his alter ego in the computer world, The MCP acquires (legally, but through force), every computer program he comes in contact with, making him a more formidable opponent.
Daringly, the film even provides us a Walt Disney surrogate in the person of the amusingly named "Walt Dumont," a flannel-shirted, avuncular-type with a heart of gold. Uncle Walt was with ENCOM when the company's motives were not purely commercial; when it tended first to people, to customers -- to "user requests."
By explicit contrast, Dillinger -- a surrogate for the Reagan-Era, laissez-faire CEO -- states that "doing business is what computers are for," and tells Walt that "the company you started in your garage doesn't exist anymore." In other words, Walt Disney was rolling in his grave and the company he created just didn't care.
The old school contingent, led by Walt Dumont and his avatar, the Guardian, believe that "our spirit remains in every program we design for this computer." But the MCP isn't interested in personality or individuality, and in the film's climax, we register him attempting to absorb all the "individual" rogue programs he has captured; in the film's lingo, "snapping them up."
Merging, acquiring and re-purposing the landscape for raw material and (thus wealth), the MCP is thus the Reagonomics financial model set loose in the computer world.
Tron's coda even suggests further particulars of the Walt Disney Company. After Dillinger's ouster, the family-friendly, old-school Flynn becomes CEO -- flown in a helicopter to his corporate office. In real life, this sort of restoration happened in 1982 (Tron's release year). Walt Disney's son-in-law, Ron W. Miller became CEO, at least before big business won out again and Michael Eisner took over.
So, in telling fashion, Tron comments directly on the corporate raiders of the early 1980s and warns about what might come next if these 1980s laissez-faire economic policies were to continue unabated. It even predicted a move by big corporations "beyond operations" into...world domination. The film's video-game titles highlighted in Flynn's arcade -- and brightly lit in neon, -- seem to warn of an impending disaster, with names such as "ZERO HOUR," "THE END" and "INTRUDER."
In 2022, we must wonder the MCP has reached finally achieved his dream of conquest: reaching "inside" the Pentagon...and deciding national policy. Corporations are people, right?
Red, White and Blue: Communism vs. Capitalism in Tron