Saturday, July 09, 2022

40 Years Ago Today: Tron (1982)

Steven Lisberger's Tron arrived in American theaters during the magical, unmatched summer of 1982.

This was the golden season that gifted to cineplexes Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, John Carpenter's The Thing, Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist, Steven Spielberg's E.T., Nick Meyer's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and Clint Eastwood's Firefox.

And much like Blade Runner and The Thing, Walt Disney's Tron received largely negative reviews from film critics. They judged that the film -- while a technological wonder -- failed utterly to connect on some basic human level. This was an easy conclusion to draw since Tron involved, predominantly, computers and computer programs.

Writing for The New York Times, critic Janet Maslin opined that Tron's "technological wizardry isn't accompanied by any of the old-fashioned virtues - plot, drama, clarity and emotion - for which other Disney movies, or other films of any kind, are best remembered. It is beautiful - spectacularly so, at times - but dumb. Computer fans may very well love it, because ''Tron'' is a nonstop parade of stunning computer graphics, accompanied by a barrage of scientific-sounding jargon. Though it's certainly very impressive, it may not be the film for you if you haven't played Atari today."

Well, Maslin was half-right...

The visuals of Tron are indeed utterly spectacular...and trail-blazing. 

But there also exists encoded here a powerful human dimension. Specifically, Lisberger's narrative carries an undeniable subtext concerning the devouring nature of 1980's corporate America. It was a corporate America, in fact, unleashed (and virtually unregulated...) by the laissez-faire policies of the new American President, Ronald Reagan.

Impressively, Tron even seems to position itself as a critique of the "new" Walt Disney Disney. It thus bites the hand that made it, so-to-speak. For Disney is a company, the film indicates, where the computers and the bean-counters have seized control.

Contrarily, one might also cogently argue an opposite point with some validity; that Tron is actually a jingoistic Cold War statement against Communism; one depicting a battle for personal freedom against a "Red"-hued assimilating enemy, the Master Computer Program.

Beyond these intriguing and debatable sub-texts, Tron continues to fascinate new generations of viewers on the basis of the intricate, visually-complex fantasy computer world it creates with such aplomb. This is a dazzling alternate universe where all the main characters of the human world -- in the spirit of The Wizard of Oz -- boast an identity "double," -- a computer program doppelganger. Given the contemporary  popularity of MMORPG games, Tron's notion of electronic counterparts or computer avatars acting as our alternate identities in a man-made photoelectric landscape remains timely four decades after the film's release.

Greetings, Programs!

Tron depicts the story of a rogue computer programmer named Flynn (Jeff Bridges) who was fired from his job at the mighty corporation ENCOM when a fellow programmer and now executive-senior-vice president, Dillinger (David Warner) stole his design for several blockbuster video games, including the popular Space Paranoids.

Dillinger has also all-but-ousted the company's original president, the gentle and elderly Walt (Barnard Hughes) -- who created ENCOM in his garage.

Dillinger has turned Walt's creation into a devouring machine bent on the acquisition of smaller corporations and companies so as to seize a bigger market share. Assisting him in this dedicated raiding effort to control all commerce (international and domestic) is the monstrous MCP -- Master Control Program.

Flynn is zapped by a matter-transformer controlled by the MCP and "digitized." He thus enters the world of the MCP and other computer programs. There, he attempts to re-claim his cstolen reations and destroy Dillinger's machine servant. Flynn is assisted in this matter by a regulatory program, Tron, created by another information-seeking ENCOM programmer, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner). The MCP attempts to destroy Flynn -- a man the other programs revere as a god-being called a "User" -- using his right-hand man, the villainous Sark (also David Warner), to do it.

I Programmed You To Want Too Much: Big Business Unfettered in Tron

An excavation of the context underlining Tron is important to any understanding of this unique fantasy film.

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.

Forget a chicken in every pot, by the mid-1980s there was a PC in every American house. 

Accordingly, terms such as BASIC, DOS, RAM, "user friendly" "disk drive," "program" and "memory" (not to mention "crash...") entered our lexicon as we accommodated a new and useful device into our daily lives.

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.

In focusing on the bottom-line of profits (and the pirate-like acquisition of more businesses/programs), however, Dillinger makes a mistake. He neglects the human spirit. Thus the computer world as run by the MCP is cold and harsh...and a rebellion and a religion are born there.

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" 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

For all the visual bells and whistles, Tron is a fairly deep, fairly substantial genre film. In fact, you can interpret Tron in an entirely different fashion than I've enumerated above. 

Specifically, in a Pro-Reagan way, for my conservative friends.

The MCP -- quashing religious freedom, assimilating businesses, and lording it over innocent programs -- may be an allegory not for big business amok; but for the Soviet Union.

The MCP's color of choice/identification is scarlet red (think red scare...). And as far back as Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the 1950s, communists have been associated with non-human evil; either alien or machine. The MCP -- the emotionless computer -- fits perfectly the bill of Cold War Era jingoism. Especially under the President who joked that he had "outlawed Russia" and planned to "begin bombing in five minutes..."

If you study the arguments of the aggrieved programs in Tron, that "the high and mighty master control" has: restricted movement of programs on "the micro-circuits," (think interstate travel between Eastern Bloc countries), conscripted a vast army, and assimilated control of all individual programs (essentially nationalizing them), then the Cold War metaphor holds as strongly, perhaps, as does the film's anti-corporate streak. 

The desire for a "free system" is the American desire for the CCCP to adopt freedom and liberty overy tyranny. And the key to the MCP's destruction is getting in behind his force field, a protective, impenetrable wall. Tron "tears down that wall," and brings down the MCP in the process.

On the Other Side of the Screen, It All Looks So Easy

Tron illuminates late 20th century issues of technology, humanity, contemporary politics, perhaps even foreign affairs, in the setting of an amazing, richly-visualized fantasy world. The film's major set pieces are gorgeous, and remain amazing to behold. It is for this reason, indeed, that the film entertains so mightily.  

There's the Game Grid, where Flynn is forced to engage in a life-and-death game of electronic jai lai. There's the light-cycle race and break-out, an adrenalin-inducing action sequence and visual trademark for the film itself. There's a recognizer tank out-of control...disassembling itself a layer at a time as it crashes into the staggered technological landscape. And, perhaps most impressively, there's the digital beam transport -- a butterfly-like light ship, crossing "unprogrammed space," a kind of computer world wilderness.wasteland. The MCP itself is a great villain: a computerized Devil, part Wizard of Oz and part Darth Vader. Both heir to Forbin's Colossus and antecedent to War Games' WOPR.

I hasten to add that all these amazing and imaginative visuals and characters serve an important purpose in Tron. Because the computer world is a twisted reflection of ours; the landscapes tell us something about ourselves, and about our world. How we shunt aside the old and obsolete seemingly without thinking (Walt/Guardian). How we seek purpose through a belief in the divine. And how we all create God in our own image (the "Users" of the programs

And finally, the gorgeous, artistic last shot of Tron punctuates the film's carefully-crafted connection between the computer world and the world of the human Users (the builders of that computer world).

It's a simple, long-view shot of a contemporary American city; of a skyline.

But as day slides irrevocably into night, something unusual happens. The substance of this brick and mortar metropolis changes. All the roads, the buildings, and the moving cars seem to transform into the very raw, blinking "data" we have come to associate with Tron's glowing computer world. 

Beacons in the dark; searching for meaning...leading us into the technological future and limitless possibility.

It is an image that connects man's natural world and his technological one, and reminds us, visually, that we inhabit both. 

To our detriment or to our glorification.

End of Line.

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