Running time: 96 min.
Release date: July 9, 1982
Disney's TRON is a film that quite easily can tear a person into two halves: one half will enjoy the then-groundbreaking and amazing visuals, while the other half laments that the story suffers because of the overwhelming visuals. Merging the two halves to find some common middle ground is difficult because both sides make strong cases. However, after viewing the film and taking some time to carefully consider the arguments, I believe it's safe to say that TRON is indeed a visual masterpiece that suffers from a confusing plot.
Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is a software engineer who runs an arcade called Flynn's, which appears to be highly successful as it is always filled with kids. He is a former employee of the corporate giant ENCOM, having left after the sneaky Dillinger (David Warner) stole several video game designs from him and passed them off as his own. Dillinger is now the Senior Executive VP of ENCOM and he has designed a program called Master Control Program (MCP for short) that has swallowed up other, smaller programs from outside and has gained an artificial intelligence that has gotten dangerously greedy for more power. MCP wants to subjugate the Pentagon and the Kremlin and also has plans for China as well, apparently. Flynn attempts to hack into ENCOM's system, searching for evidence of Dillinger's deviousness, but is stonewalled by MCP. This is all visualized by bringing us inside the computer system, where the visual effects dazzle us with computerized avatars for the real-world characters.
Current ENCOM employees, Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora (Cindy Morgan), find Flynn and warn him that Dillinger is aware of his hacking attempts and that security has now been tightened. Flynn talks them into getting him into ENCOM where he has a plan of some sort involving Alan's TRON program, which is a watchdog security-type program that would threaten MCP. So MCP finds Flynn logged in at a computer station and uses a laser to digitize Flynn and transport him into the computer's mainframe. Once inside, Flynn meets various entities that appear in the likeness of their human users. Dillinger's likeness inside the "Grid" is known as Sark, who urges the programs to renounce their beliefs in their Users. Resistance is met with being thrown into various combat video games. The premise of this computerized world is quite intriguing and the visual effects just pop.
Flynn meets another entity known as Ram (Dan Shor) and then Tron himself, played by Bruce Boxleitner, the creation of Alan. They participate in a game of Light Cycle that is truly one of the more amazing visuals of the entire film, as the cycles speed up and down the grid, creating colored walls used to destroy the opponent's cycle. The three take the opportunity to escape from the Grid and are pursued by Sark and his army. Flynn learns that he can manipulate his surroundings and uses that ability to move around the system; he and Tron plot to somehow take down MCP from inside the mainframe before MCP can consume more programs and become even more powerful.
From a 1982 standpoint, TRON's visuals are groundbreaking, setting the stage for the future of animation and CGI use. Three-quarters of the film is made entirely with computer-generated designs and graphics, presenting a virtual feast for the eyes like no movie had done prior to TRON. Director Steven Lisberger has a background in animation and has combined backlit animation with computerized versions of motorcycles and tanks. TRON earns its designation as a milestone in cinematic achievement.
But what about the story? You have all of these cool, amazing visuals that require a story we care about in order to truly be considered a great film. The screenplay takes liberties with the audience, thinking that we know what's going on without truly explaining anything. It takes a while to understand that the characters inside the computerized world are avatars for their real-world selves, but the movie just throws them up on-screen. After figuring that out, we're still relegated to figuring out what exactly is going on inside the computer world. We know that MCP is evil and must be stopped, but how are we getting there? The plot is somewhat muddled in that regard and takes some of the fun out of the film, as we have to stop and figure it out while the characters press forward. This is where TRON fails us. But, boy, is it something to look at!