In 1982, an ambitious science-fiction film called “Tron” was released by Disney aiming to capitalize on the new video game revolution. Starring Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner, “Tron” told the story of a computer programmer whose life work was stolen by a greedy rival, and in the process of reclaiming what rightfully belonged to him, tripped across a ruthless artificial intelligence embedded in the corporate computer.
Bridges played Kevin Flynn, the wronged computer programmer, who through the aid of Alan Bradley (Boxleitner) and Dr. Laura Baines (Cindy Morgan), broke into his rival’s corporate headquarters to battle the evil computer A.I. But in doing so, Flynn became digitized and sucked into the computer system itself.
The story then involved the computer world where Flynn joins forces with Bradley and Baine’s alter-personas, Tron and Yori, to track down and destroy Flynn’s thieving competitor and the villainous computer A.I. system seeking to take over the world.
It was the distinct visual style and graphics of “Tron” that still sets it apart today. “Tron’s” use of a nearly all black background with glowing outlines of the people and vehicles made it fascinating to watch. Like Flynn, the audience was sucked into a new world of darkness broken only by thin strips of light. It made it feel ominous and foreboding and heightened the intensity of the action sequences. The other-worldly feeling helped create the computerized world that Flynn, Tron and Yuri navigated — and where they battled the computer itself in a series of games.
The introduction of the light-cycles — or super-enhanced motorcycles — was ground-breaking at the time. The light-cycles helped establish a fast-paced, urgency in the games and provided a means for traversing through the maze-like computer system.
In the years since “Tron” was released, we have since been introduced to several other iconic sci-fi films that helped shape audience perceptions of science-fiction and what other worlds — computer or otherwise — would look like.
In 1982, one month before “Tron,” Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” was released. However, like “Tron,” it was not a mass hit and its true visual genius was not fully appreciated until years later. It was not until 1984 with the release of James Cameron’s “The Terminator” that Hollywood began to take note of the dark side of science-fiction. These were films unlike “Star Wars,” Star Trek or even the Steven Spielberg sensation “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial.” “Tron,” “Blade Runner” and “The Terminator” were not just popcorn movies, they wanted to explore the twisted psyche of sci-fi. They wanted to push the envelope and barriers of what a sci-fi film should look like and what kind of story it had to tell.
However, it was not really until the 1990s, beginning with “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” and ending with “The Matrix,” that film studios really began to see how much money could be made in a successful melding of hardcore sci-fi and popcorn blockbusters. Whereas “Tron” and “Blade Runner” only made approximately $33 million, “The Terminator” made $78 million, “Terminator: Judgment Day” made $519 million and “The Matrix” made $463 million. With box office revenue like that, Hollywood had definitely learned its lesson and was willing to embrace the dark side.
While it was 28 years in the making, Disney knew it has something special and worked diligently to launch the “Tron” sequel. While it was always willing to greenlight the sequel, it took a couple decades for the technology to be developed to make the film they wanted. In fact, it was not until Cameron developed it for “Avatar” that “Tron: Legacy” was finally able to become a reality.
In addition to the kick-ass special effects necessary to make the “Tron” world as dazzling as today’s jaded moviegoers expect, a razor-sharp script and hip new director was needed to re-introduce “Tron” to a much more technologically aware audience. In 1982, there were not computers in every home in America and every teenager did not own a cell phone and a Wii. Today, movies are no longer competing with each other; they are competing with all the techno gadgets that have become the staples of everyday life.
So as the stars finally began to align with the technology and a script finally completed, “Tron: Legacy” was all set to go. Miraculously, the original stars were available to return for the sequel. While at San Diego Comic-Con, Bridges and Boxleitner shared their delight in reprising their iconic roles of Kevin Flynn and Alan Bradley.
It is a labor of love not only on the part of Disney, Bridges and Boxleitner, but also of Joe Kosinski, the director whose tenacity made the dream a reality. Coming from an architectural background, Kosinski was determined to not only use the best special effects and technology available, but also the magnificence of today’s architectural and automotive creations. The original “Tron” was not just about cool computer gadgetry and special effects, it was about cool cars and a world of visual delights. Thus, it was important to recreate that stylistic world in such a way that it was both scintillating and exciting.
Adding to the new and improved visuals, “Tron: Legacy” also added two new characters to the mythology. The sequel would not just feature Flynn and Bradley’s characters, but in order to hook the younger generation, Garrett Hedlund and Olivia Wilde were recruited to play the roles of Sam Flynn, Kevin’s son, and Quorra, who guides Sam through the computer labyrinth as he searches for his father who has been missing for the past three decades years.
While “Tron: Legacy” has been back-burned and brewing for the past 28 years, it had one significant side effect: It had time to prime its audience. When “Tron” arrived in theaters in 1982, no one had heard of it before. But in the intervening 28 years, sci-fi fans have been recruited en mass into the “Tron”-world — so much so, that even the NBC series “Chuck” has given it a key role in its series. Whereas “Tron” is about a man who is actually sucked into a computer, “Chuck” is about a man who inadvertently downloads a computer system into his brain. The parallels between the two stories are significant.
The science-fiction realm has been fascinated with computers and other “worlds” since the dawn of the sci-fi era. Nothing is more compelling and addictive than believing that anything is possible, and as we have seen in recent years, things that were once thought of as pure fiction have now become a reality. Who is to say that one day that we won’t be able to download or upload ourselves into computer systems?
But until that science-fiction becomes a reality, we entertain ourselves with speculating about such wondrous worlds. “Tron: Legacy” explores just such a world and lures us with the tantalizing prospect of revisiting characters who introduced us to a new world of possibilities. For a generation of fans, we have learned that computer A.I. technology may one day turn against us, so in this struggle between whether A.I. is good or evil, perhaps our greatest fear is not that we must one day fight A.I. for our survival in the world as we know it, but that A.I. will one day figure out how to level the playing field and draw us into its world — and trap us there.
Will we one day wake up and find ourselves not living in a “Terminator” world, but instead a “Matrix” or “Tron” world? Which is to be feared more? Which would we have the greater chance of escaping?
These are the questions that “Tron: Legacy” invites us to explore. It will delight us and dazzle us, but it also will challenge us to view our computerized world without the rose-colored 3-D glasses. Shall we celebrate technology or shall we one day fear that it will enslave us for its entertainment?
You can learn more about “Tron: Legacy” through one of the stories I wrote at Comic-Con by clicking here.
“Tron: Legacy” will be released in theaters on Dec. 17.