THE SCREENING ROOM
By Bill KallayWhen Light Cycles roared across the movie screen in 1982, audiences saw the future. "Tron" changed the face of film and Disney forever.
"Tron" is now available on Blu-ray.
It seems like eons have passed since I saw the film on the big screen in 70mm. Come to think of it, I suppose a lot of time has passed. The film is nearly twenty-nine years old now! Sitting there in my seat at the Cinedome Theatre in Orange, California, I knew I was in for a cool ride into a world I had never seen before. I was a teenager who was growing up on Atari video games and visits to the arcade. Video games were my life. I could not wait for the next Atari or Activision game to hit store shelves. Here was a film from Walt Disney Productions that I was excited about. Being a Disney fan, I was intrigued that Disney was doing something daring for once. "Tron" was going to be cool.
I exited the theater to meet my parents after the film was over. My dad asked me what I thought.
"I don't know. But it sure looked cool!" I replied.
In the years since "Tron" hit screens in the summer of 1982, the world of film has changed profoundly. I tend to believe that "Tron" had a lot to do with it. When the film was made, computer simulated visual effects and animation had only been seen in a few feature films, television commercials and experimental shorts. It was uncharted territory. Since "Tron," computer visual effects and animation has become a staple in nearly every film and television show today.
When Disney bankrolled the film by first-time feature film writer/director, Steven Lisberger, it was taking a chance on a highly risky adventure. No other film had attempted to use so much computer simulation before. No other film used old-school methods of animation like "Tron" did. And no other film used untested methods of animation to create a world audiences had never seen before.
Leading a small team of artists and animators from his former studio in Venice Beach, Lisberger led the charge to change Disney's conservative culture. People like Richard Taylor, Harrison Ellenshaw, Bill Kroyer, Jerry Rees, Syd Mead, Moebius and Peter Lloyd created the "Electronic World" in "Tron." Since computers were still very new to most of the public, diving into a world of bits and bytes was completely new. The crew on "Tron" created something very unique and visually stunning. The look of Taylor's "candy apple neon" still influences films and television today.
People may think of Disney as a corporate behemoth today. But back in 1982, it was undergoing a tremendous amount of painful change. After releasing a number of mediocre family-oriented films through the 1970s and early 1980s, CEO Ron Miller hired Tom Wilhite to change Disney's conservative film palette.
The film was a modest success when it was released. Contrary to rumors that have popped up over the years, it was not a financial disaster and actually made a profit for Disney after merchandising was accounted for. In the years following its release, it has gained a cult status and continues to sell-out movie theaters during revival screenings. When the cast and crew of "Tron" show up, hundreds of fans pack the place. And because of the perception of "Tron" being a failure at the box office, Disney's management was overturned in 1984.
Is the film deserving of its cult status? Yes. Aside from its remarkable computer generated visual effects, the film was a fun ride into a completely unique landscape. The Light Cycle battles and all of the scenes on Game Grid were very entertaining. My only complaint back in 1982 as a young teenager, and my complaint now as a grizzled adult, was that I wanted to see more action on the Game Grid. More Light Cycle battles and chases. But considering how limited the computer power was back then, it is all the more remarkable how the filmmakers pulled it off. And that does not even include the amount of handmade animation and graphics work that went into the film. Hard to believe, but any shot in the film featuring actors (in the "Electronic World") was done by hand, not by a computer.
Where the film stumbles is mostly in the opening twenty minutes or so in the "Real World." After we see Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) hack into the Master Control Program (MCP), we're left with a lot of dialog and exposition. There are some unbelievably brilliant ideas from Lisberger's script presented. But the film suffers from a lack of action until Flynn is beamed into the "Electronic World."
Bridges was perfectly cast in the film. He gave the film life and a sense of adolescent fun in the role of Flynn. Here was a guy who invented video games, owned an arcade, scored the highest points on Space Paranoids, and was popular with the ladies. This was a nerd's dream! Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan are very good considering they were given straight-laced dialog. They eventually warm up in their roles.
The Blu-ray picture is excellent. Lisberger supervised a new transfer of the film and it looks spectacular. When the film was made, it had to go through a number of generations of film processes to get the final prints. The result was a dark and somewhat grainy appearance. Many people who worked on the film remarked to me that the original VistaVision dailies of the Light Cycle battle was bright and very colorful, for example. Technicolor's lenses were soft and desaturated the colors, thus giving "Tron" a dark appearance. That has been mostly remedied here on Blu-ray. The "candy apple neon" now has brightness and clarity never-before-seen. There are some shots that still remain dark and grainy, but that is completely acceptable. Disney has done a faithful rendition of the film. This release is not like Disney's digital clean-up of their classic animated titles where everything looks sanitized.
The DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is excellent. The film has always been one of the more aggressive sounding films of the early 1980s. Dialog is clean and clear, while the Wendy Carlos' score soars. Surprisingly, Journey's "Only Solutions" sounds fairly poor and it is not due to the sound mix. It is a murky recording. The sound mix led by Michael Minkler, supervised by Michael Fremer with sound effects by Frank Serafine, is sublime. It is presented in a nice and wide soundstage.
"Tron" was a milestone in film. Without its daring crew of animators, computer wizards, Disney's "Crown Prince," and a director with a vision, there would be no Disney today, no Pixar, and no amazing CGI. The film forever changed how we see visual effects and changed the course of Disney.
Special thanks to Click Communications
Photos: © Disney. All rights reserved.