In strictest terms, TRON shouldn't be a memorable movie. It posits a serviceable but dull good-vs.-evil storyline, skipping from place to place without a whole lot of follow-through. Its themes are faddish and dated, its characters the most two-dimensional stereotypes imaginable. Were it not for the striking concept and innovative use of computer graphics, we'd probably be talking about in the same breath as Electric Dreams or similar relics from the dawn of the computer age.
That last part, however — the central idea and the visual means used to achieve it — is all-important. It turns TRON from a mere curiosity into something quite amazing. A guy gets sucked into a computer, and finds a whole universe there waiting for him. Neat hook… augmented by the fact that every single one of us is now doing more or less the same thing. To paraphrase director Steve Lisberger, we've reached the 21st century. There's been no alien invasions, no flying cars, no undersea kelp farms, and no colonies on the moon. But we're all plugged into the machine you're staring at right now; we're all users taking that trip down the rabbit hole behind Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) to stare in amazement at the wonders it holds. Few science fiction films proved as prescient as TRON, and few did so with such a one-of-a-kind visual signature.
That forms the second half of the film's one-two punch. Though its ballyhooed computer animation only comprised about twenty percent of the finished product, those sensibilities informed every creative decision the filmmakers made. The light cycles, the uniforms, the strange landscapes seemingly composed of living blacklight… if a world really does exist inside the computer, TRON knows exactly what it looks like, and was kind enough to share.
As a filmgoing experience, it could skate solely on the depth and variety of its images. Lisberger tapped design geniuses Moebius and Syd Mead to create his palette, then delivered it to us with the singular kinetics of contemporary video games. The film's iconic gladiatorial battles moved impossibly fast for the time, conveying a sense of danger and adventure that didn't need complicated storylines to thrive. It's no mistake that the actual video game proved more popular than the film itself, and even today we don't see many game adaptations that fit their source material so perfectly.
A similar principle applies to Bridges, whose movie star charisma gave us an indelible rooting interest in his otherwise run-of-the-mill wisecracker. David Warner matches him in a triple role as the film's three villains: paying the rent as he often did, but doing a damn good job in the process. The remainder of the cast dives amiably into the premise, lending friendly faces and some well-toned bodies to fit into those skintight unitards.
Most of the actual plot follows Boys' Own tropes, as Flynn struggles to survive in this new world and help the heroic TRON (Bruce Boxleitner) restore freedom to the galaxy, or something. It more or less holds up provided you don't think too hard, but it doesn't tap into the grander themes that Lisberger clearly hoped for. (The sequel does much better in that regard, with musings about flawed creators and the nature of God that bolstered is similarly slight storyline.)
Story isn't the point here, nor are complex characters, potent themes or arch conversations. The film exists as spectacle in its purest form. TRON's dated qualities actually add to that appeal; it doesn't need to hold up because nothing else out there resembles it. Even the sequel riffs on its images rather than reproducing them, lending it a visual stamp that no amount of time can dull. In delivering the film to us, Lisberger gave us a glimpse of a future no one could have guessed at the time, one that continues to shape and inform the world we now live in. It arrived in a strange and curious package, one which left the medium richer and more diverse as a result. Other films have performed similar feats -- especially during that wild and wonderful summer so long ago — but none found quite so interesting a way to do it as this one.