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Tron: The Original Classic (Blu-ray Review)

31 Mar, 2011 By: John Latchem

Street 4/5/11
$29.99 two-DVD set, $39.99 Blu-ray/DVD combo
Rated ‘PG.’
Stars Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner, Cindy Morgan, Barnard Hughes, Dan Shor.

When it comes to identifying the films that defined Generation X, Star Wars is undoubtedly at the top of the list. But not far behind has got to be 1982’s Tron.

It certainly has its place in movie history, and not just for being one of the first films to make extensive use of CGI in its visual effects. In one of the better anecdotes on the 90-minute behind-the-scenes retrospective (a holdover from the 2002 DVD), a young Disney animator recounts how he became awestruck by early footage for the famed light-cycle sequence, which opened his eyes to the potential for CGI as an animation tool. That man’s name is John Lasseter, who expresses in no uncertain terms that “without Tron, there would be no Toy Story.”

But it doesn’t end there. Tron’s iconic imagery has permeated pop culture to surprising degree and the film endures as a reliable cult classic.

Most sources tend to cite the film’s visuals while underrated its story, which shouldn’t be overlooked because there is definitely some sublime brilliance to how it manages to weave a tale that is both simple and complex at the same time.

In its basic form, the story involves a computer programmer named Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) who finds himself in a battle of wits with a piece of corporate mainframe adminstrative software called the Master Control Program. Using an advanced laser, MCP is able to zap Flynn into the computer realm, where he encounters a civilization of anthropomorphized programs wilting under the oppression of the MCP, who sends programs to die in gladiatorial contests we humans know as video games.

Flynn teams with a security program named Tron (Bruce Boxleitner), who has been tasked with shutting down the MCP. Flynn is what the programs call a “user,” someone who creates programs and gives them direction. With this subtle Christ metaphor, the film evokes the subtext of philosophy without an overt religious message.

MCP’s actions in connecting with and assuming control of other systems also embodies the concept of the Internet without using that term, as the World Wide Web was just in its infancy when the film debuted. Tron was years ahead of its time in anticipating the type of digital culture we now would refer to as social media, where people can exist as avatars in cyberspace — an observation that was brilliantly made by the “South Park” Tron spoof episode “You Have 0 Friends.”

The point here is to contrast the similarity of the film’s real-world scenes with what we see in the computer: banks of lights on buildings, endlessly sterile cubicles and freeways that move like circuitry all suggest the film’s primary motif that cautions us to hold onto our humanity as our society turns more toward technology.

It’s a theme that’s echoed in the making of the film as well. For all the computer wizardy employed by the film, we are reminded by Harrison Ellenshaw, the film’s visual effects supervisor, that technology does not equal creativity and that even the most advanced CGI and computers are just wasted tools without the spark of imagination to guide them.

I have to admit I was kind of dreading the prospect of the original Tron on Blu-ray. The primitive CGI and clunky costumes didn’t exactly seem to speak to the sensibilities of the modern state of digital filmmaking. Having viewed the 2002 DVD last year upconverted to an HDTV, I feared a Blu-ray would only reveal that some parts of the film hadn’t aged too well, and there was some Internet speculation that this was the reason Disney didn’t release it prior to the Tron: Legacy sequel hitting theaters in December. And yet I was pleasantly surprised about how much the film pops in high-definition. The colors are vivid and the unique combination of visual effects styles (such as a backlit animation composite that was so complicated it was never used in another film) gives the film a lot of its charm. While the circuit costumes call attention to how fabricated they are in a few scenes, for the most part they aren’t as distracting as I thought they would be. The HD transfer even corrected some glitches contained in the DVD version.

In addition to the making-of documentary and other featurettes, deleted scenes, alternate music tracks, test footage, trailers and galleries from the 20th anniversary DVD, the Blu-ray version also includes the DVD’s commentary track, in which the filmmakers spend most of their time discussing the technical aspects of the movie with only the occasional hint of the story process or its philosophical overtones. I suppose that’s not surprising, but without a solid story, which Tron has, a film such as this can just end up being an effects demo.

Two new extras were created for the Blu-ray. "The Tron Phenomenon" provides a 10-minute forum mostly for the cast and crew of Tron: Legacy to discuss what they loved about the original film, but it’s probably not as insightful as it could have been.

More interesting is the 16-minute “Photo Tronology,” in which director Steven Lisberger brings his son, Carl, to the Disney archives to reminisce about the film nearly 30 years after making it. This is obviously a personal experience for the two and echoes the father-son plotline that forms the core of Tron: Legacy.


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