['Cinema Pixeldiso' is a bi-weekly column by Matt 'Fort90' Hawkins that spotlights movies that are either directly based upon or are related to video games, with an emphasis on the obscure and the misunderstood. This week looks a true classic in every sense of the word...]

Last time we looked at two films that asked what would happen if video game characters came into our world. Well this time, the opposite takes place...

TRON

http://www.gamesetwatch.com/tron1.jpg

Tron is quite simply the grand daddy of all video game movies. It was the very first film to feature video games in any capacity whatsoever, but more importantly, it came at a time when the general public had no idea what video games were about; the medium was still in its infancy at the time, and that made a huge impact.

The abstract (translation: primitive) nature of video game concepts, along with their visuals and sounds at that point, coupled with the state of technology as a whole, in relation to people's perception of it (the idea of computers being part of everyone's day to day lives was just starting to sink into society's minds), helped to create an environment that spawned a movie like Tron, as well as allow its various messages to be so highly effective.

[Click through for more.]

The REAL Matrix

Whereas plots featuring technology going haywire is rather passé, back then it was still quite fresh. This is why its goofy by today's standards allegory between man, machine, and God worked, and still kinda does today. If you really think about it, Tron is more or less the same exact film as the Matrix. Tron is the real Matrix, and a much better one to be honest. The acting is superior, the special effects and concepts are far more imaginative, it doesn't try so hard to act cool and edgy, and it doesn't have to rip from Hong Kong cinema (instead it unintentionally emulates expressionist avant-guard European cinema... more on this later), to name just a few examples. Both have a fairly slim story, but again, Tron has historical context on its side. But this isn't about why the Matrix is so horrible and overrated, though it is about why Tron is so criminally underrated...

The film primarily takes place in the digitized world, and tries to illustrate what goes on inside our computers, on the other side of the screen. You've got programs running around like people, basically tiny, neon-covered versions of their "real life" counterparts, the ones that created them. And unfortunately, much like in the real world, most are slaves to "the man", which in the world of Tron is the Master Control Program, or the MCP, who goes around sucking up hapless programs and either assimilating them into himself to become more powerful, or pitting them against themselves in the "game grid".

We learn that the these computer people have their own religion, that those who are oppressed hold out hope that divine intervention would come and help them show the light, that being the ones who made them and everything else. They call their gods "Users". Which leads to such brilliant philosophical questions, such as "If I don't have a user, who wrote me?" Wow, deep stuff. And of course, the MCP doesn't like such crazy beliefs (i.e. religion) clogging the system, hence another facet of its intention behind domination.

Yeah, its pretty hokey story, but its rather easy to ignore all that when you've got such lush visuals feast before one's eyes. The film is simply beautiful. The special effects were groundbreaking for its time, then since then, its aged... like fine wine. The combination of actors in stupid-looking outfits, shot in black and white, with neon colors added on top, and placed in airbrushed and/or computer generation backdrops gives the movie the feeling that it's some early 80s pop album come to life, mixed with some early German impressionist film. But more on that a bit later.

Computer People

The details of the plot concerns a disgruntled programmer, Flynn, who created a number of video games that another person stole and tool credit for, which then became smash successes, allowing said underhanded individual to shoot straight to the top of the company. Flynn naturally is pissed, hence why he attempts to find proof that he was the original author by hacking into the company's computer systems, that being the MCP in real life, but is ultimately unsuccessful. The aforementioned corporate monkey, Dillinger, now the senior executive vice president, and who basically runs Encom, with the aid of its super advanced computer system (in the digitized word, Dillinger is Sark, the MCP's main lackey and the film's primary bad guy, and in reality, the MCP also really pulls all the strings) is pissed by this attempt, and gives a few folks in his employment whom he doesn't like some grief.

This includes Allan, the fresh-faced programmer working on a security program called Tron (which is also established early on is a possible threat to the MCP), as well as Lora and Gibbs, the cute female researcher and the not so cute old guy that's the token "I remember the good old days before the MCP ran things, when it was just a simple chess program" voice of the story, both of whom are working on a matter transference laser (more on that in a bit). With the heat on, Lora decides to warn Flynn that Dillinger is onto to him, so they go to a video game arcade that he runs, which happens to feature Space Paranoids, as well as a number of other games that Flynn created but never got proper credit for.

One has to assume that this is perhaps a reference to Nolan Bushnell, a well known video game creator who in real life was run out of his own company (Atari), but would later still manage to make money off his creations and former employer (Warner Communications, which Bushnell had sold Atari to) via arcades that he owned and operated (Chuck E. Cheese). And of course, when we meet Flynn in his arcade, he's playing his own game, and about to top the high score yet again, establishing firmly that he's a video game God (with plenty of pretty ladies looking on and quite excited by such virtual feats of manliness).

Upon hearing Flynn's reasons for wanting to infiltrate the system, Alan and Lora decide to help by breaking into the Encom facilities to allow Flynn to do his hacking on-site. Fate leads Flynn to the lab where Lora and Gibbs were working on their laser, which the MCP uses to zap and transport Flynn into his backyard, the computer world, where he becomes one of its own.

Dazed and confused, Flynn is immediately forced to participate in various feats of strength in the game grid along with assorted other programs that were swept up by the MCP. Its total life or de-resolution (you don't just die in this world, you get erased). It's here that he meets two fellow captured collections of ones and zeros: Tron (Allan's alter ego, of course) and another fresh faced program who used to work for an insurance company named Ram. Cute name eh? The film constantly name drops various techie words and terms, all stuff that sounded fancy and impressive at the time, but which now comes off as simply "quaint", though it never becomes annoying, thankfully.

Anyway, both Sark and the MCP hates Tron the most, primarily because he stands for the "silly beliefs" that they try so hard to drive out of the minds of those that they capture and force to join their ranks, that being the idea of a higher power, or Users. And of course, those who claim to hate a belief, and wishes only to crush it and say it is false, are always secretly afraid, such as when the MCP tells him that one of the new boys that was snatched up is basically God, so now's your chance to kill him!

In The Game

Flynn manages to do rather well on the game grid, thanks to his leet game playing skills from the real world. Then him, Tron, and Ram are all sent to the light cycle grid, which is perhaps the scene that the is most famous, and for good reason. It's pretty exciting to watch. And it more than anything does a brilliant job of emulating what being in the middle of a video game.

They heroic trio manage to escape, but while on route to an I/O tower so Tron can communicate to his user ("Allen-1"), they get ambushed and both Flynn and Ram are seemingly killed, forcing Tron to go on by himself. Thankfully both have not been erased, and Flynn is only dazed, though Ram is badly wounded, so they both take refuge in an abandoned den, which is actually the cockpit of a busted old recognizer, the ships that all the bad guys use. Which Flynn is able to piece together, since he's really a God after-all, but even he can't save Ram who fades away, literally, in a scene that is perhaps the most awkward of the whole movie. Mainly because you have one guy comforting another guy whose life is slowly slipping away... oh and they're all wearing goofy outfits that emanates blue neon too.

Meanwhile Tron catches up with his girlfriend Yuri (who's Lora's alter-ego naturally, and btw, Allan and Yori are bf/gf in real life as well) and she helps him get to the tower, which is more or less a place of worship, one that had gone to crap in the MCP regulated world (which is run by a wise old "priest", Dumont, aka Gibbs in the computer world). There Tron talks with Allen and gets the info he needs to take down the MCP.

Elsewhere Flynn tries to fly the damaged recognizer the best he can, with the help of a floating electronic... "bit" for a lack of a better term, that just flies around and saying only "yes" or "no" (which was the only real way to "talk" with computers back then). It’s actually quite reminiscent of Navi, the little floating fairy from Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, but less helpful and even more annoying, if that can be believed. So it's not much help, and since even Flynn's Godlike skills from the arcade can't help with a busted ride, they crash into the town square (you can tell the director was going for a Mos Eisley feel, like LOTS of sci-fi directors were trying at the time).

Eventually he runs into Tron and Yuri on some air ship that they hijacked in an attempt to escape a hot pursuit from Sark's goons. Again, another scene that highlights the wonderful art direction of the film; the barren electronic landscapes are simply a joy to watch, and totally contrary, conceptually and execution-wise, to most modern attempts at creating a wild, weird world. Its like an old video game that manages to create a compelling and believable world with just a few elements.

The God-Like

At a point there's some technical difficulties, but Flynn taps into his God-like powers, followed by his revelation to the others that he's a User, that is met with a certain degree of apathy, which again has oodles of subtext for anyone wanting to dig deep. Then the same thing as before happens: the party is crashed, and this time it is assumed that Tron is dead. Flynn and Yuri are captured and forced to stay on Sark's ship as it sinks (well, erased actually), while Sark heads over to the MCP with the latest band of captured electronic souls that are to be incorporated into it (mostly older programs, including Dumont).

Tron manages to hitch a ride on Sark's ship (the MCP's "introduction" btw is one of the most visually and aurally exciting moments of the entire film), and then they have their long await confrontation. Tron is able to take out Sark, but like all good final bosses, he comes back, bigger (literally in this case) and badder than before. And while this goes down, Flynn pilots the "de-rezed" ship (he was able to save himself and Yuri from getting erased since. again, he's a high power) toward the MCP in an effort to create an opportunity for Tron to make the decisive blow. Does he succeed? Well.... when was the last time a video game didn't have a happy ending?

Final Score...

Tron works because it exudes two things: first atmosphere. The combination of sight and sounds work amazingly well. The entire world, from top to bottom is so well fleshed out, so cohesive that they honestly put modern attempts at science fiction and fantasy to shame. Yeah, the look is clearly the eighties, but the art direction, special effects, and everything else is just so tight and spot on (though having an appreciation for the eighties aesthetic only enhances the material). As for how it all sounds, Wendy Carlos' soundtrack is simply breathtaking (it's worth pointing out that Carlos was a pioneer in the realm of using electronic music in film scores, and was also behind Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange and The Shining to name a few). As are the sound effects and ambient noises. Its like nothing you've ever heard, even today.

But both those elements are heightened by the second thing the film is dripping with: innocence. I already mentioned how fresh and new the source material was, in conjunction with the perception of technology in general at the time, making the film work for viewers, but the same holds true with the filmmakers, whose imagination had an open range to run around. Granted, video games have only been around for about 30 years or so, but anyone who has to think about composing a video game world for a film is unfortunately going to be saddled many years of established ideas and cliched. Stuff that we are all familiar with, and almost unavoidable.

Thankfully, the makers of Tron had no such mental blocks in the way, hence why to a certain degree, the movie ended up influencing how games were viewed, even made afterwards (much of this took place in the early 80s and did not go as far as it might have... perhaps the crash of the video game market might be a reason).

The bottom line is that if you at all enjoy video games, then you must see Tron. Period. Never mind the goofy costumes and wacky visuals and crazy music, (which again, is only getting better in age). In fact, embrace it. Since we should all embrace our past.

FYI...

The special edition 20th anniversary DVD release a few years back is perhaps the best way to see the movie. Aside from a very nice print and re-mastered music, there's a bonus disc with a slew of extra features, including a deleted "sex scene" between Tron and Yuri.

Also, a sequel to the movie was planned, but was never actually made. Instead, much of the work went towards a video game, Tron 2.0 which came out for the PC and Xbox a few years back. Its a decent FPS that Tron fans should try to check out.

[Matt Hawkins is a New York-based freelance journalist and Gamasutra contributor. He also designs games, makes comics, and does assorted “other things.” To find out more, check out Fort90.com.]