Why Tron is Still the Best Movie Ever Made About Video Games
Updated: Dec 13, 2019
In 1982, Disney released the film Tron a high concept sci-fi film using techniques like CGI mixed with Rotoscoped animation that had never been seen before on such a scale. Hype for the movie was high, and in 1982 Disney needed a hit after several years of financial woes. Although the film was a minor financial and critical hit, it wasn't the Star Wars blockbuster Disney was hoping for. But thanks to its subject matter, innovation, and performances it would gain a strong cult following over the years. In fact it was such a strong cult following Disney would eventually make a big scale sequel over 30 years after the original film hit the screen.
Most video game based or plot driven movies, well, they tend to suck. Some of this might be due to the lack of film makers to immerse themselves into what makes a particular video game property popular or endearing. They veer too far from the original material and start inventing new characters or unnecessary plot elements. Some video games also just don't lend themselves to narrative devices needed in a two hour film. Video game culture also can be slightly niche filled and not necessary appealing to the masses of film goers. Tron was different on many levels, and for that reason successful in this narrative. It was created from the ground up smack in the middle of the golden age of arcade games. The idea of being sucked into a game and playing the game is definitely the fantasy of any player of games... but especially in the pre virtual reality world of 1982. Filmmakers would have to invent a whole new way to portray visuals for Tron to work; the story is almost secondary in Tron. I'm not going to dig too deeply into the actual story of the film in this post, I'll leave it to you to go check it out if you haven't seen it already for some reason. (Seriously, you haven't seen Tron?) So here are my 15 reasons why Tron still rocks my game grid, and why it's still the best movie ever made about video games.
We are the best looking tech professionals ever...
1 - It's about the video game industry
The fictional company Encom in Tron seems like an attempt to merge 80's IBM with Atari. Encom makes video games, (among other things it seems) and according to Jeff Bridge's character Flynn is one of its industry leaders. The evil Vice President "Ed Dillinger" of Encom played by David Warner steals video game code from Flynn and takes credit himself for writing these highly successful games. The economic success of these games we are told is the reason he is so high up in the company now. Some of this might seem over the top, but I think it's important to note here that Atari was a juggernaut of a company in the early 80's before crashing down to earth by 1984. Atari seemed like the future of not just video games but the future of technology based companies. Atari wasn't just a video game company either. Atari made a successful line of home computers, experimented with newer tech, and even briefly got into telecommunications with one of the world's first video conference phones.
No singing robotic mouse or pizza? Screw this place!
2 - Amazing vintage arcade porn
Flynn's Arcade seemed 10 times cooler than any arcade I had ever been in as a kid seeing Tron for the first time. No real life arcade has ever had this mix of cool kids, cool games, and a non-stop jam of Journey music. Now many years later as a collector of these machines it is just arcade cabinet porn. And since the movie came out in 1981, a lot of pre color arcade games are also represented. The most predominate being an Atari "XO" Football cocktail game. The one thing I have never understood is Flynn might be super upset about having his original games stolen. But the dude evidently runs a very successful business with his arcade so he can't be too sad right? I mean this place is popping!
"Look man, if we start this game don't crap out the 3rd weekend of the campaign and leave the rest of the party hanging"
3 - The main characters are all essentially an RPG or D&D style adventure party
Flynn - Chaotic Good
Tron / Alan Bradley - Neutral Good
Yori / Dr. Lora Baines - Lawful Good
Ram - True Neutral
Dumont / Dr. Walter Gibbs - Lawful Neutral
Sark / Ed Dillinger - Lawful Evil
MCP - Neutral Evil
If you don't understand this part, please consult with your local geeky gamer friend.
Kind of blows the doors off of your Atari 2600, huh kids?
4 - Early 80's CGI still looks charming and video game like
There is a subtle charm to early CGI animation, almost a timelessness to those exact lines and limited detail. In a world of CGI monsters that are heavily detailed or historic recreations of times gone by I do miss these very striking colors and lines of early CGI films like Tron. The back lighting effect given the actors in bright neon blues and reds really compliments the CGI backgrounds. Even as a kid, I didn't think the blending of these elements was convincing as an illusion. The actors are obviously in front of a green screen. However it works thanks to this other worldly scenery created by the CGI and that they are in a video game. It looks like a video game with it's limited color choices and limited at times animation. And since Tron was creating a whole new world and not trying to convince you that a transforming truck really exists it still looks great. As video game technology progressed, games started looking more like Tron for real. Although I wish more games would attempt to make a world totally devoid of realism creating a new artistic style or styles. Surrealism in Tron works thanks to good creative choices and the need to work with the limited technology of the time period.
Much more dangerous than Lawn Darts
5 - Several sequences of playing actual video game like games
Most films based on video game ideas or properties fail to actually, well, mimic the game itself. Tron not only dips early into the video game culture with our heroes professions as programmers or arcade owners. But once "sucked into the grid" Flynn actually plays games. The Light Cycle sequence is obviously the most famous of the game like sequences of the film but earlier we get treated to the "Ring Game". I have always dug this sequence since it sets up several rules for the film, or at least reinforces them. First the game itself is very simple to understand, two contestants are walked out to floating circle platforms made of progressive rings. Second, both players have Jai Alai like ball mitts and are giving a glowing ball. Finally the ball must be caught by the other player, or the rings on the platform that are hit disappear, causing the player to possibly fall to their death. This is all very cool for several reasons.
It is a simple game that can be explained through actions and practically no monologue which can make the narrative of the film seem rather static. And spoiler alert, the fact of death in this world for losing a game is enforced. It also gives a rather interesting moment that the viewer thinks about all those Pac-Men they murdered and how their family got through it all during the tough times. No? Just me? Ok...
"I was also in Caddyshack ya all!"
6 - Video games made to tie-in with film are actually good games
The arcade games Tron and Discs of Tron are classics. From the beautiful cabinets, layered game play, and replay value these were and still are just great games. The home versions of Tron (which were not really based on the arcade games originally) were also not so bad given the limitations of those machines. Often home versions (since arcades are for the most part mostly dead in a modern context of things) of movies now become beacons of "Shovelware". Quickly made games with very little quality or originality, movie tie in games have almost a permanent reputation for being terrible.
"Guys I think we stepped into a Patrick Nagle painting."
7 - Creates a unique and truly original world of its own
After Star Wars rewrote Hollywood history in 1977, studios scrambled to make the "Next Star Wars". Most of these efforts came off as cheap Star Wars knock offs with a similar look, feel, and characters of Star Wars. But Tron went a totally different route in several different ways. Most importantly in the look of the world our heroes find themselves in. Helped by the limits of the CGI and animation process, the glow of the world is unlike anything else the world had seen in 1982 or since. Disney might have thought they had learned they couldn't out "Star Wars" Star Wars with their earlier Sci-Fi film The Black Hole. Another cult film in it's own right, that was somewhat criticized for coming off as a cheap Star Wars knock off.
"I was also in Time Bandits ya all!"
8 - David Warner
There are several good actors in Tron I guess considering the production was one of the first of its kind. (Hey kid, go pretend you are interacting with stuff in front of this giant blue screen... it's gonna be great). But David Warner's stuffy British vibe almost would feel at home in a classic Hammer film. His triple role as Sark in the Game World, the voice of the Master Control Program, and as Dilliger the evil VP of Encom gives the movie much needed weight and bravado. He's not afraid to go over the top when needed and chew up some of that digital scenery. It's a welcome balance to the "Average Cool Man" performance of Jeff Bridges.
Still cool after 35+ years
9 - Light Cycles
Tron's Light Cycles could be in the running for the coolest movie vehicle of all time. Fast, deadly, and collapses into a small stick you can shove in your pocket. Also they produce a wall of death behind you as you travel for tailgaters. Light Cycles also came out as a very cool toy with a rip cord to send it sailing across the kitchen floor. Mine used to scare the hell out of my cat, it also broke in half after hitting the wall for the 456th time. Tron action figure and Light Cycle Toy 1982-1983 ... in memory
OMG dudes I am so baked right now...
10 - End boss fight mimics 80's/90's side scrolling games
The Master Control Program is the main big bad in the movie, so it's not a surprise our super glow heroes have to fight him at the end. Although I have to admit the representation of the MCP as a giant wedge of red cheese left me a wee disappointed as a kid. But the end battle would be one of the most influential devices in the movie for video games. Almost every side scrolling beat em up that would populate the video game landscape in the following years would have this pattern. Start a level, and and the end of the level fight a boss. And then at the end of all levels, you fight the most powerful end boss who usually had some sort of timed play mechanic for beating them. Sounds a lot like the end of Tron with the MCP's ring of shields that are only open in one spot for Tron's disc to fly into. And that only happens once Tron defeats the smaller boss of Sark. These dynamics of game play kept kids buying Nintendo NES games for many years.
Next music packed issue: Return of the Jedi and Bloom County!
11 - Didn't need to lean on nostalgia
Tron is an original creation, and in a modern word of "Reboots" and "Reworkings" it makes one nostalgic for a time where someone would take a risk on something like Tron. Disney was not in the best financial state in 1981, in fact it was bleeding money. So how do you make a cult film like Tron that has a lasting legacy? "Hey we want to make a multi-million dollar movie about computers and video games using new tech and animation... I know we are losing money here at Disney but can we?" "Got ya fam." (Writes blank check...)
For god's sake, never eat the gum
12 - Unapologetic about a love for geek culture during a time period when it wasn't acceptable to celebrate it
In Tron, three extremely good looking computer programmers go on an adventure. Well one of 'em gets to go on an amazing adventure. They are fully immersed in computer terminology, usage, and geek culture. They talk about reserving flights over the computer in 1982, computer protocols, technobabble, hacking, and of course video games. There is even a spirited conversation about the rights of access to their creations by the programmers. Alan talks about his abacus for gods sake. I imagine this might have been somewhat confusing to non-techie people in 1982, and maybe even off putting. Most families didn't own home computers yet, so these basic concepts of how computers work (and the major plot points in the film all relating to how computers work and communicate) might have been too much for Joe Average.
I bought all the cool synths and left none for you...
13 - The soundtrack by legendary composer Wendy Carlos is brilliant
If you don't know the works of Wendy Carlos, you are missing out on one of the most amazingly gifted and original synth composers of our time. Her soundtrack work on Tron is unabashed analog synth goodness with a touch of classical music influences. Check out her classic LP "Switched On Bach", or my personal favorite "The Well Tempered Synthesizer". Variations of her electronic score also translated very well to the original arcade machines.
Could you all hurry up with the production? We have to make 35 Iron Man movies this year.
14 - The sequel was actually pretty good, if unnecessary
Hot Take - I thought Tron Legacy was pretty ok. It did an interesting job create a sequel to a film while trying to reboot it into new characters and situations. It was great to see Jeff Bridges again (both old and as his CGI modified younger self), although I do wish they would have had at least a cameo for Cindy Morgan or David Warner. I don't think Tron was one of those films that was really narrative-wise calling out for a sequel. It was set up as a self enclosed story originally, no bad guys left in escape pods. So I do feel an exorbitant amount of time is spent on setting up the story of the sequel. But we do get some great game sequences, cool music, amazing visuals, some fun nostalgia, and Oliva Wilde in a cute haircut. So much like when the Mc Rib sandwich comes around every year I enjoy it but don't really need it in my life.
This is also a good movie BTW...
15 - It created the video game movie genre for better or for worse
Since Tron a lot of film studios have dabbled in both video game themed films and movies based on video games. From The Last Starfighter, Tomb Raider, and 2018's successful reworking of Jumanji video game based films aren't going anywhere. In fact I would predict with the current trend of Hollywood wanting to play it safe with reboots and nostalgic properties w can expect more and more films and TV shows based on video games. Even original properties such as the excellent TV show Halt and Catch Fire aren't afraid to dig into the business side of the video game industry again. That doesn't mean these films do the games justice or have respect for the source material (or video games in general), just look at the train wreck films such as Super Mario Bros, or Pixels. Later this year legendary director Steven Spielberg will release his film adaptation of Ready Player One. Based on the book by Ernest Cline it is an adventure story but a love letter to 80's and 90's nostalgia first. Video games (mostly classic 80's games such as Joust, Atari 2600's Adventure, and Tempest) are major plot elements in the film. The story also is very reminiscent of Tron's "Being sucked into the video game" type world. If the film is a success (which i have no doubt it will be) expect a flood of video game based films and TV shows for years to come. And thank Tron for being the first one to dip it's foot in the glowing water of progress.