Jack Palance, looking like he did circa 1989, strolls through a dimly lit, dust-shrouded room cluttered with arcade games, Timex Sinclairs and Atari 2600 consoles and Commodore 64s hooked up to small televisions. A VHS player hums while WarGames silently unfolds. Jack looks into the camera as he walks, fingers brushing the artifacts as he passes. “John Booth,” he says, “was 11 years old in the summer of 1982. He shoveled quarters into video games like coal into a ravenous locomotive engine, wore Atari joystick blisters like badges of honor and dreamed in pixels when he slept. Lasers and lightsabers and robots and spaceships and computers were the ever-whirling sparks in his brain, setting fires that would burn for years to come.”
“And yet he never saw Tron. Believe it – ” (dramatic pause) “- or not.”
The scene’s made-up, of course, but that last fact is absolutely correct.
The closest I ever came to seeing the movie that’s spawned this month’s highly-anticipated Tron: Legacy was in middle school, when my math teacher decided to show it on video during the last week of school – maybe even the last day of the year. It was hard enough to see the TV up at the front of room, because kids were all sitting on their desks and stuff, and at any rate, the impending summer vacation had everyone talking and hyper, and I couldn’t hear the movie anyway.
Not seeing it, of course, didn’t stop me from plugging countless quarters into the original Tron video game over the next few years, or from buying my little brother “Surround” for our Atari because it was the closest thing I could get to a light-cycle race.
Every so often over the decades since then, I’d get the notion into my head to watch Tron, but I never did. Earlier this year, I finally remembered to put in a library request, and the 20th Anniversary DVD edition of Tron finally made its way to my house in February.
A friend warned me in advance: “OK: You REALLY need to put your mind back into its 1982 pre-teen geek mode. Try to imagine NEVER having seen CG before…” I was already sort of preparing for this, since I’ve had my heart wince more than a few times when I’ve gone back and taken a look at the things of that era I remember enjoying. (Saturday morning Godzilla cartoon, anyone?)
So when I shut off the lights and settled in for 97 minutes of retro, I did so with an attitude of “If nothing else, this will be fun.”
And then I found myself really enjoying it.
Maybe it was because Jeff Bridges is ridiculously entertaining and cool as a video gamer while still subtly hinting at the darker side of his character, and David Warner remains David “I Make Evil Look Awesome” Warner, even when they make him wear a goofy King Tut-wannabe helmet.
Maybe it was because of Wendy Carlos‘ amazing synthesized soundtrack: While I’d never seen this movie, big chunks of the musical score lived in my head courtesy of that arcade game, making it even easier access that still-eleven-years-old corner of my mind.
Maybe it was because the visuals, which, while obviously dated, hold up remarkably well in terms of mood and aesthetic and which yes, while primitive by today’s standards, fit so cleanly and neatly into that world and that narrative that they somehow don’t feel hokey. (It was only while researching the movie that I learned that Tron wasn’t even nominated for Best Visual Effects award in 1982 because the Academy felt that using computers for special effects was cheating. Someone fire up the DeLorean and go slap the 1982 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Hard.)
Yes, Tron’s concept is more than a bit silly: computer programs imagined as tiny beings; a scanner that translates not just objects but personalities into the virtual world. Of course it’s cheesy. Then again, how about a computer network that becomes sentient and invents time-traveling killer robots, or another one that – get this – farms humans as batteries to survive?
As a script, Tron suffers from nothing unusual, by Disney kids-movie standards: stiff, cartoony dialogue, a bit of clunky storytelling, the old standbys of elderly mentors and life lessons.
But I enjoyed the heck out of this movie in much more than a nostalgic way, which was a wonderful surprise. And I’m glad that over the past decade, it seems to have earned the wider appreciation which eluded it for so long.