(1982, Fantasy/SciFi, color)
Jonathan Coulton, Paul Sabourin and Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo
All glory to the C prompt, amen.
In a Nutshell:
Jeff Bridges ventures into the computer world to prove ownership of a copyright.
Inside our global network of computers there lies a blacklit universe, populated by skullcapped men in glowing bodysuits. These men (er, programs) worship us (the users) as gods, and struggle every day to carry out our will. Or, they did until the villainous and despotic Master Control Program conquered the computer world, subsuming the functions of his inferiors and forcing the superfluous unitard-clad code to do battle, gladiator-style, in his video game arenas.
But some resist. Rogue program Clu (Jeff Bridges) boards a cyber... tank-ish thing to assault the main MCP fortress and recover a crucial piece of data for his user. He fails, gets caught, and is subsequently de-rezzed (i.e. killed).
In the real world, the MCP informs his creator, ENCOM senior executive Ed Dillinger (David Warner), of the attempted intrusion. It seems that Mr. Dillinger once stole the work of fellow programmer Kevin Flynn and presented it as his own. The work in question, a set of video games, was so immensely profitable that it triggered Dillinger’s meteoric rise within the company. Dillinger immediately locks all users out of the MCP security group that Flynn’s program, Clu, was using.
This raises the ire of ENCOM programmer Alan (Bruce Boxleitner), who was also in the security group locked out by the MCP. He’s one of the few who’ve started to understand the sinister implications of the MCP, and he’s been working on a program called Tron to shut it down. He goes downstairs so he can whine to his girlfriend Lora (Cindy Morgan), a scientist who has just perfected a laser that can convert matter into computer graphics and back again. Turns out she used to be Flynn’s girlfriend, so it isn’t much of a leap for her to figure out who is responsible for the “security issues” cited as the reason for the lockout.
Alan and Lora head down to Flynn’s place in a gigantic company van. Flynn (Jeff Bridges, again) lives above an arcade, dividing his time between practicing his l33t video game skilz and trying to hack into the MCP for evidence of Dillinger’s theft. He admits this to Alan and Lora, and together they hatch a new scheme. The three of them will return to ENCOM headquarters, where Flynn will use a company terminal to temporarily lift the security lockout. This will give Alan an opportunity to activate Tron and shut down the MCP.
They break back into the ENCOM building, and the terminal Flynn uses just happens to be the one in front of the matter conversion laser. While Flynn begins to hack, the MCP turns on the laser and—Hey Presto!—Flynn falls into a digital universe of black lights and polygons. Hooded sentry programs capture him instantly, forcing him to battle to the death in the very video games he created. Ah, the irony (or something).
After he refuses to do away with a friendly opponent, MCP’s main henchman Sark (David Warner, again) teams him up with the captive program Tron (Bruce Boxleitner, again) and a digital redshirt named Ram (Dan Shor). The game is light cycles, in which two teams of motorcycles try to crash each other into walls of solid exhaust (I think). Flynn exploits some kind of loophole in the game (again, I think) to crash his opponent into a wall and escape through the resulting hole. Tron and Ram do away with their opponents and follow. They run away, wander around, drink some clear stuff, and then run away more until a well-placed tank blast finally destroys the motorcycles used by Flynn and Ram. Believing them to be dead, Tron goes on alone.
As a user, however, Flynn cannot die (I think). He hauls the mortally wounded Ram to some sort of digital junkyard and uses his newly discovered magic user powers to build himself a flying tank. Ram tearfully realizes that Flynn is a user, come down from heaven to deliver them from oppression (I think) and dies happy. But just because Flynn can build flying tanks with his mind doesn’t mean he knows how to drive them. He swerves around like crazy to try and arrive at the glowing what’s-a-ma-thingy place where he somehow knows he’ll find Tron.
Meanwhile, Tron runs to his girlfriend program Yori (Cindy Morgan, again) who leads him into the what’s-a-ma-thingy place’s back window. Apparently this ill-defined station is some sort of access port to the outside world. Tron talks the guardian (yet another analog of a real person, this time in a large phallic hat) into letting him pass, so that he can chat with his user, Alan. Alan imbues a luminescent Frisbee with power from on high, and tells Tron to hit the MCP with it. Tron and Yori escape before Sark can arrive with the guards. They sneak out of the what’s-a-ma-thingy place to hijack a giant bowtie.
Flynn catches up in time to hop aboard the bowtie conveyance just as it begins its journey across the geometric landscape to the fortress of the MCP. Sark gives chase in his star cruiser-esque-type thing, and despite Flynn’s last-ditch attempts to save them with his poorly defined “user powers”, he and Yori are captured. Sark sentences them to a needlessly complicated and ultimately unsupervised death. Of course they escape rather easily.
Also of course, Tron survives the wreck of the bowtie and sneaks into the fortress to throw his magic Frisbee at the MCP. He throws over and over again, trying, without success, to penetrate the nefarious program’s defenses. Sark catches up and battles Tron with a magic Frisbee of his own. Tron wins, but the MCP resurrects Sark, inflating him to gargantuan size. Seeing that things aren’t going too well for Tron, Flynn throws himself into the MCP’s data stream (whatever that means). The MCP’s defenses shut down; the holy Frisbee finds its mark; and the vaunted Master Control Program is revealed to be nothing more than an extraordinarily old program with a typewriter and a large stone block. He fades peacefully into oblivion.
For no reason whatsoever (that I could determine, anyway), Flynn reappears in the real world. Apparently, Tron’s defeat of the MCP has caused evidence of Dillinger’s intellectual property theft to pop out of the system like bread out of a toaster, plastering the information across every terminal in the company. Dillinger sees it on his own computer/desk and knows his goose is cooked. In the next scene, Flynn greets Alan and Lora as the new head of ENCOM.
While reading the summary above, you may have noticed that after Flynn arrives in the digital world, things stop making a whole lot of sense. For this, I apologize. As viewer and a human being, my ability to comprehend is somewhat limited, forcing me to color any summary I write with a fair amount of interpretation. Should you decide to watch this for yourself (a course of action I recommend), I promise the film will make far, far less sense firsthand.
I think the problem here (one of them, anyway) is that the computer world has few established rules and no consistent physics to speak of, making anything that happens in it appear to happen at random. “User power” is a prime example. It’s less defined than The Force and more intermittent than spider sense, only popping up when the plot finds it convenient, to do things it will never be able to do again. Culturally, the computer world is every bit as haphazard. They worship users as gods, sure, but when Flynn finally starts convincing people of his divine userhood, that’s no big deal. And yes, the computer world is pretty friggin’ ugly, but I admit that’s not a valid criticism. It may not compare favorably to today’s movie-making technology, but in 1982, the visuals were jaw-droppingly awesome. (Jawesome, if you will.)
These days, the only things we have to comfort us are the lickety-split pacing—which, thankfully, doesn’t bog down in a pathetic attempt to explain things—and Jeff Bridges as smarmy idiot man-child savant Kevin Flynn. All the other actors play it straight, but Bridges seems to know just how stupid this is and decides to have fun with it instead. Even when he’s throwing himself into the data stream and possible death (I think), he’s not taking this seriously, and because he’s not, neither are we. This is a good thing. If we were, we’d be horribly frustrated and/or confused. Instead, we get to lay back and bask in exciting, lightweight, luminescent fun.
Mike, Bill and Kevin start off the introduction to the commentary track, but are quickly subdued and summarily executed by the real riffers for this film—internet songsmith Jonathan Coulton and musical comedy duo Paul & Storm (a.k.a. Paul Sabourin and Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo). I’m not as familiar with their voice work, so I won’t be able to tell you exactly who says what, but here are some of my favorite quips: Regarding the grid-like light cycle arena, “Graph paper: the game.” As Clu screams in agony before finally evaporating into red mist, “This is a much more satisfying way to delete files than dragging and dropping into the Recycle Bin.” As Ram dies, “Too bad this was before the invention of the one-up mushroom.” As Tron steps up the access port with religious reverence, “All glory to the C prompt, amen.” It’s an exciting and extraordinarily silly film, the writing is sharp, and the riffers are experienced performers with excellent comic timing. Mike or no Mike, this one needs to be in your collection.
(1982, Fantasy/SciFi, color)