When Jeff Bridges rocked the cover of Rolling Stone On August 19, 1982, his most well-known films were made The last picture show (1971) and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), both of which earned him Oscar nominations. But on this vintage magazine cover, Bridges is decked out in a funky costume adorned with circuit board flourishes. This is his Tron Outfit in which he starred as Kevin Flynn, a programmer who gets sucked into the Matrix – sorry – do that the gridand must figure out what it’s like to navigate a video game world from the inside out. Tron was groundbreaking when it debuted, but it was also a failure. That’s why, despite its bumpy reception in 1982, it’s still pretty damn great 40 years later. Mild spoilers ahead.
The premise of Tron – living in a computer – describes much of the mainstream science fiction film and television of the past two decades. The Matrix and Ready player one are obvious examples while Destroy it Ralph and several episodes of black mirror also owe a large debt Tron. Nowadays, the idea of someone entering a virtual world almost feels like a burned-out sci-fi cliché. But in 1982, for a mainstream Disney-produced film, Trons The premise was groundbreaking.
But even more groundbreaking than the idea was the unique approach to visual effects. While The Last Starfighter would push the boundaries of computer generated special effects two years later, Trons Method for integrating human actors with a mostly empty The virtual world was gorgeous and moody as hell at the same time. While Bridges, Cindy Morgan, Bruce Boxleitner and David Warner were photographed using traditional backlit techniques, the fact that their vehicles (LIGHT CYCELES!) and their surroundings were was Everyone digital was pretty much brand new.
Because 80’s computers couldn’t handle today’s processing speeds, VFX guru Richard Taylor often suggested that different parts of the virtual world should be all black, which ended up giving way Tron an odd minimalistic quality while at the same time looking like no other film before or since.
But of course when it was released in July 1982, Trons Reputation was bizarrely mixed. It was the highest-grossing Disney live-action film to date Peter’s dragon (1977), but also was not a “Disney movie” in that nothing about it felt like a Disney movie. It also lost Money for the studio overall because it was so damn expensive to do. It was also unlucky enough to attempt to compete with two other major summer sci-fi blockbusters in the summer of 1982: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan and ET the extraterrestrial. The reviews were also mixed. While some loved it, the scathing reviews stood out, like that of Janet Maslin, in which she wrote: “[the special effects] are loud, bright, and empty, and they’re all this film has to offer.” To be clear, this is the same critic who was in the same month praised The Wrath of the Khan and began her review of this sci-fi flick with the words “that’s more like it”. The point is, it’s not that mainstream film critics or viewers weren’t ready for a great flashy sci-fi film.
The quirk of Tron is that it is exaggerated and understated at the same time. The title character is “Tron” who is actually a virtual avatar for Bruce Boxleitner’s character Alan Bradey. Meanwhile, Jeff Bridges’ Flynn is reportedly the star of the film, although he’s not the hero. Aside from Bridges, pretty much every other actor has it two versions of themselves in the film; a digital self on the grid and a flesh-and-blood version in the real world.
That psychological dissonance is kind of a hat-trick in the context of 1982, but looking at it now is more poignant. In 1982 there was no internet in the mainstream sense and the idea that a person could have one second Identity in a digital world wasn’t just science fiction, it bordered on pure fantasy. But in 2022, many of us have our own virtual “trons,” versions of ourselves that “fight” for our self-image, helping us appear employable for various jobs, finding childcare, and literally everything else. And this way Tron is oddly more optimistic than most tech-paranoia sci-fi movies that came later. In which Tron world there are good programs and bad programs. Everything we do in the virtual world is just a reflection of the real world, and that’s okay.
All of this makes for an interesting and thoughtful film that was ahead of its time not only technologically but also philosophically. In this 1982 edition Rolling Stonejournalist Jerry Stahl asked “Why would [Bridges] jeopardize his reputation as a serious actor to star in it Tron…?” Jeff Bridges responded by saying, “I took the film seriously because I saw it break new ground.” And now, 40 years later, no one can say he was wrong.
Where is Tron stream?
Tron – and its 2010 sequel, Tron: Legacy — are both streaming on Disney+. You can also get both Trons on Blu-ray in a bundle right here.