1982: THE GREATEST YEAR – ‘TRON’

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This summer marks the 30th anniversary of what is considered the greatest blockbuster season of all-time: summer, 1982. That year, the cinemas were loaded with genre-defining classics that are still shaping the worlds of science-fiction, fantasy, horror, and action to this day. In this retrospective series, 1982: The Greatest Year, Jeff and other members of the Geek League of America will take a fond, and sometimes funny, look back at this monumental time in nerd culture history.

In 1982, America was glowing.

I’m not talking about all of that flag-waving, beaming, jingoistic pride in celebration of the beginning of the Reagan era – I mean literally glowing. I’m talking about the eerie amber light from early Tandy or Apple computers warming offices, and the iridescent magic of arcade monitors bathing the faces of teenagers in soft blues, reds, and whites. Our cityscapes, urban centers, and malls were awash in neon and the twinkling lights of thousands of car headlights, street lamps, billboards, arcades, and office buildings. From high above, the hustle and bustle of the city night looked like an enormous circuit, alive with pulsing energy.

In 1982, I was eight years old, probably the best age to be as a kid, because you’ve left behind the silly little boy stuff like bedtime stories and Fisher Price playthings, yet concepts like puberty, adolescence, teen angst, and responsibility were still so far off on the horizon that they weren’t even worth thinking about. Why worry about some distant spectre of adulthood when there were G.I. Joe action figures to collect? I loved to ride my bike around the neighborhood in the warm sunlight, and role-play Star Wars in the backyard until my Mom called us in for dinner, but it was the twinkling lights in the darkness; the world of electronic wonder beyond my windows that really captivated me. I eagerly anticipated going on nighttime shopping trips to the mall with my family, because I was enthralled by the galaxy of artificial stars stretching off into the inky blackness on the side of the highway. Anything that lit up, bleeped, blooped, or shot “lasers,” fascinated me.

In 1982, we were on the cusp of enormous technological breakthroughs – computers were becoming smaller and more commonplace thanks to innovations in microchip and microprocessor technology, arcade games were leaving the simple blocks behind in favor of vector graphics and identifiable human characters like Mario, and nine out of every ten feathered-haired teenagers had a Walkman clipped to their Levis. Technology was about to consume our existence, and Disney knew it. So they took an expensive gamble on a then-groundbreaking idea: take the audience on a journey literally inside the computerized wizardry that was enhancing and altering their lives.

Throughout the early 70’s Disney churned out sub-par animated efforts that failed to resonate with audiences the way their early classics did, while simultaneously filling theaters with sappy, toothless, live-action kiddie pap like The Apple Dumpling Gang and Escape To Witch Mountain. When Star Wars took over the universe in 1977, Walt’s protegés knew what they had to do: make some serious science-fiction films that would connect with an audience growing more sophisticated and eager for special effects-laden spectacle. Their first effort, 1979’s The Black Holeproved to be a mixed bag in terms of critical response and box office take. It wasn’t exactly a dud, but it didn’t set the world on fire, either. The Disney brass still felt like live-action blockbusters were the way to go, so in 1981, production began on a landmark geek culture touchstone. TRON was on its way.

When Disney unleashed the marketing storm for TRON in early 1982, my eight-year-old mind was flummoxed. Here was a film that seemed to encapsulate everything that I was feeling about that warm, electrical splendor of a million crackling circuits. My eyes were dazzled by the uber-cool blue luminescence emanating from the costumes, the film’s logo, and the light cycles. Oh the light cycles! I was absolutely blown away by how awesome those light cycles looked. Some of my friends got a hold of a few of the toys before the movie hit; I can distinctly remember how amazing we all thought they were. I don’t think any of us had seen a colored, transparent plastic action figure with glow-in-the-dark weaponry before. It was a staggering revelation.  The neon-colored, glow-in-the-dark light cycles, that shot across the floor via zip-puller mechanism reached an unattainable level of coolness.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see TRON until it hit our local, second-run movie house, and to this day, I will never forget how utterly lost I felt watching it. The pace moved a bit slow for an impatient eight-year old (boy, was I impatient then), and I couldn’t follow the storyline at all. Strange terminology like “conscript,” “bit,” “master control program,” and “user” flew at me from every direction. I was still astounded by the gorgeous visuals, but the one thing that stuck with me from the experience, is that I couldn’t tell if Jeff Bridges or “that other guy” was Tron.

I never bought a TRON lunchbox or any of the toys after seeing the movie, but I always held TRON in high regard. When my Dad purchased our first VCR in 1985, TRON was one of the first movies that I wanted to rent. Seeing it again three years later was revelatory. Now that I was older, (11! What a sophisticated age!), I was able to crack TRON‘s code. I dug Jeff Bridge’s carefree, rebellious Kevin Flynn, and was super-jealous that he owned an arcade, complete with a sweet bachelor pad upstairs! Cindy Morgan, in those giant 80’s glasses, was my second boyhood crush (after Carrie Fisher, of course). Bruce Boxleitner had a great Clark Kent/Superman dynamic going with this portrayal of both nerdy Alan and stoic Tron. David Warner scared the bejeezus out of me as The Evil Genius in one of my favorite childhood films, Time Bandits, and he was equally sinister in his dual role as the corporate raider Dillinger and Sark, the Darth Vader to the Master Control Program’s Emperor.  I was swept up in the plight of the accounting programs and other conscripts that were being assimilated and controlled by the tyrannical Master Control Program, and thrilled to their exploits as they battled the MCP on the “game grid” with their cyber jai-alai sticks, identity discs, and those sweet, sweet light cycles.

I was even able to look beneath the layers and recognize the underlying subtext of the movie. On the surface, it’s about a charming loose cannon who works for a giant electronics conglomerate, then has his brilliant video game ideas stolen out from under him by an opportunistic corporate scumbag. Later, he’s literally transported (via laser) into the company’s computer system after attempting to hack into it to find evidence of the intellectual property theft.  But its broader themes have their origins in the works of George Orwell and Fritz Lang. TRON is all about free will vs. a corrupt, totalitarian system; the struggle to retain one’s humanity in the face of soulless, technologically driven conformity. It’s love vs. order, greed vs. integrity….humanity vs. machinery.  These universal themes — coupled with the cult-like following amongst the nerd cognoscenti it developed in the wake of disappointing box office performance (Disney wouldn’t make another live-action film for ten years) — ensured TRON would become one of the seminal films of its time.

No movie before or since looks like TRON; it is one-of-a-kind. That’s mostly because no one was insane enough to ever try to duplicate the painstaking processes it took to make the movie again. The actors wore black and white costumes and were filmed against equally monochromatic backgrounds.  The footage was then turned over to animators who added the color and the “glow” to the sets and costumes frame-by-frame. The revolutionary, three-dimensional sequences that featured vehicles like the Recognizers, tanks, and the iconic light cycles required programmers to painstakingly input thousands of  lines of code into now-archaic computers. It took days to render four-second shots. The film’s enduring legacy (heh, no pun intended) speaks volumes about the countless man-hours director Steven Lisberger and his crew put in to this unique and highly influential movie.

TRON is also one of those films that had a transformative effect on everyday objects. Because of Star Wars, to this day I’m unable to hold a wiffle ball bat in my hands without waving it around, making “VWOOSH VWOOSH” lightsaber noise. TRON did the same thing for frisbees. I can’t handle one without imagining myself out on the game grid using my “identity disc” to deflect balls of light, then whipping it with all my might to de-rezz the unfortunate accounting program that dared to challenge me. When a film can do that, it’s a truly remarkable thing. No…not remarkable, transcendent. TRON‘s cult status in the years after its disappointing theatrical run helped shape the lives of countless engineers, computer programmers, physicists, mathematicians, designers, architects, writers, artists, and other creative and intellectual people. Tron fought for the Users, and we repaid him by creating a multitude of  technological advancements that connect us, entertain us, inform us, and heal us.

End of Line.

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About Author

Jeff Carter

Jeff is the defining voice of his generation. Sadly, that generation exists only in an alternate dimension where George Lucas became supreme overlord of the Earth in 1979 and replaced every television broadcast and theatrical film on the planet with Star Wars and Godzilla movies. In this dimension, he’s just a guy from New England who likes writing snarky things about superheroes, monsters, and robots.