Review for Tron: The Original Classic
For my next quickie double-dip review, I’m tackling the original TRON. This was a film that I was always going to upgrade regardless. After all, it’s a groundbreaking movie from director Steven Lisberger, very much ahead of its time, and stunningly influential. It’s also a visually resplendent film, one which will very much benefit from being watched in as good a quality as possible, which at this time is Blu-ray. It’s also a film that I have watched on a regular basis since I was a child, and first discovered its technological charms on a matinee viewing, very much appealing to the 8-bit kid that I was back then, already falling in love with sci-fi as a genre. Maybe I should have watched the DVD again before clicking on that purchase button.
It is amazing however just how influential this utter box office flop has been. It died in the cinema back in 1982, a victim of its own prescience. If it had come out just two year later, when personal computers had finally proliferated, and Commodore was battling Sinclair for our hearts and minds, it would have been a box office smash. But in 1982, computers still felt like the province of the elite, or mainframes designed for businesses and academic organisations alone. Perhaps it was Disney trying to recoup as much as possible from their flop that ensured that it played at least once a year on television while I was growing up, and it’s that ubiquity that ensured that TRON stayed in our minds, that filmmakers were inspired by it, that games programmers wanted to emulate it. So it is that thirty years on, now that the world has caught up, and even passed its prognostication of a connected world, that we’ve had the TRON 2.0 videogame to coincide with the 20th anniversary, and for its 30th Anniversary, the franchise was reborn with the TRON Legacy sequel, which itself has already inspired further sequels, as well as a TRON Evolution videogame.
ENCOM is a global conglomerate that is conglomerating even more under the aegis of its computer mainframe and the MCP program, brainchild of the Executive Vice President Ed Dillinger. ENCOM is even conducting research into teleportation using lasers. But the MCP program is an artificial intelligence that has evolved far beyond Dillinger’s capabilities to comprehend, let alone control, and the computer has developed megalomaniacal tendencies. That isn’t good for Alan Bradley, who’s working on an independent security program called TRON to police the system, including the MCP, as he finds his security access summarily suspended. Then there is Kevin Flynn, who three years previously was a wunderkind at ENCOM, and on the verge of hitting the big time with some games that he had created, until one day he tried to access his creations and found them missing, only for them to turn up as Ed Dillinger’s creations, successes that he used to kick-start his rapid ascent of the corporate ladder. Flynn now runs an arcade in the city, from where he tries unsuccessfuly to hack the ENCOM mainframe to find the evidence that will sink Dillinger for good.
Flynn tells Bradley that if he can sneak back into ENCOM, he can forge a higher security access that will activate the TRON program, and find the evidence of Dillinger’s theft. Only Flynn uses the terminal in the laser lab to work on. The MCP activates the lab’s equipment, striking Flynn with a laser beam and instantly converting him from matter into electronic information. A disoriented Flynn wakes in a strange electronic world. Computer programs have human form with familiar faces and are terrorised into submission by the tyrannical MCP. The MCP’s general, Sark has been tasked with putting Flynn on the game grid, where he will fight for his life in the very video games that he created. Flynn learns of the programs’ belief in the mythical and godlike users, and that all their hopes for freedom are invested in one program, an unbeatable warrior named Tron who fights for his life at the MCP’s whim on the game grid.
TRON looked pretty good on that 20th Anniversary DVD, but it’s actually seen further restoration for this Blu-ray, with Steven Lisberger addressing the issues with flickering that plagued the computer sequences on its original release. That was down to the way the film was shot, not quite having the hang of the experimental techniques they were using at the time. They covered up the flicker by introducing deliberate effects to emphasise the other-worldness of the computer realm, but for this Blu-ray release, that flicker has been largely eliminated. TRON gets a 2.20:1 widescreen transfer at 1080p. The image is clear and sharp, the film remains stable, and there’s a comfortable layer of film grain. The real world footage doesn’t quite hold up as well as the computer world imagery, largely because of an attempt to match the look. The real world footage is set mostly at night, and blacks really are crushed here to point of losing detail. Foreground detail is good though, while colours are strong, although reds might be pushed a little too strongly. The real joy is in the computer world sequences, rich with imagination and visual flair.
But there’s disappointment to be had here too, with the presence of digital banding indicative of excessive compression. I’m used to seeing it on anime titles, but I didn’t expect to see it on a premium Hollywood disc. Banding is where instead of a smooth gradation of colour, it’s broken up into contour lines of the same colour. Given that most of the colour surfaces in the computer world are gradations of tone, there’s a lot of opportunity for banding to occur, and it happens a little too often. One scene in particular stands out, where Yori and Tron converse with Dumont. The camera cuts to Tron and Yori four times during the conversation. Three of the four times has the background with strong banding in a dartboard pattern, but one of the cuts has it as it should be, a smooth panel of colour. It happens too often in this film, and given the amount of extras with the film, I suspect TRON would have fared better as a two-disc release.
TRON gets a DTS-HD MA 5.1 Surround English track, with optional DTS 5.1 French, Italian, German, and Spanish, with subtitles in those languages plus Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, Icelandic, and Portuguese. The overall volume level is low, and on top of that I did feel as if the dialogue was a little lost in the mix at times, but it’s never inaudible. TRON gets a really good surround track, although given the artificiality of the environments; the discrete feel to the effects around the soundstage actually works for the film. In a real world film, such an up-mix would sound artificial and forced. The LFE gets some serious workout as well, from the moment the Recognisers first appear on screen to the MCP, booming voice of omnipotence.
When you insert the disc, you get 11 language choices for the menu, before the disc autoplays with a trailer for TRON Legacy, then booting up to an animated menu. There’s a progress bar that pops up when you pause the film, while pressing the pop-up menu actually minimises the film in small window to display the menu as full-screen. There’s also a screensaver option in the audio menu.
On the disc you’ll find trailers for TRON Legacy again, The Incredibles, the TRON Evolution videogame, Cars 2, and African Cats.
There are a couple of new featurettes for the HD version of the film, suitably presented in HD.
The TRON Phenomenon lasts 9:45 during which the TRON Legacy cast and crew talk about the original film’s impact on them.
Photo Tronology lasts 16:37, and in it Steven Lisberger and his son Carl pay a visit to the Disney archives to look at some behind the scenes photos from the making of the original film.
The rest of the extras are ported over from the 20th Anniversary DVD, and I just list them here for brevity, although you can click over to that review if you want a little more detail.
Audio commentary with director Steven Lisberger, producer Donald Kershner and effects guys, Harrison Ellenshaw and Richard Taylor.
In Development you’ll find Early Development of TRON (2:37), Early Lisberger Studios Animation (0:30), “Computers are People Too” (4:28), and Early Video Tests (0:31), all in SD. The Gallery has been updated and indexed for the Blu-ray and is now in HD, with thumbnail, scroll through, and full screen modes. There are 130 Design images, 9 Concept Art Images, 33 Publicity and Production Photos, and 44 pieces of Storyboard Art.
In Digital Imagery you’ll find Backlight Animation (1:39), Digital Imagery in TRON (3:44), “Beyond TRON” (4:00), Role of Triple I (0:34), and Triple I Demo (2:15).
The big extra here is The Making Of TRON (88:21).
In Music there are two scenes with alternate music, the lightcycle scene (2:46), and the end credits (5:15).
In Publicity you’ll find a showreel put together for NATO (5:02), a work in progress trailer (1:26), and four theatrical trailers of varying length, as well as access to the Gallery again.
There are three deleted scenes with an introduction from the director, about 5 minutes worth of footage in total.
Design has an introduction from Steven Lisberger (1:10), Syd Mead on the Lightcycles (1:52), and Lightcycle and Recognizer animation tests at 16 seconds each, three of them. You can access the Gallery from here too.
Storyboarding has the Moebius Storyboards for the opening titles (0:16), a featurette on the storyboarding process (3:52), and a storyboard to film comparison with a 51 second intro, a 1:56 storyboard and 1:56 of the section of film. This was multi-angle on the DVD.
Finally you can once again access the Gallery from the main menu listing as well.
Just like the DVD, none of the extras get English subtitles.
I adored Tron ten years ago, loved it as kid growing up. It was the breathtakingly imaginative visuals, combined with the focus on computers and videogames that appealed to me as a boy, while as an adult, it was still the visual aesthetic that rocked my world, and in TRON I recognised a film that started a revolution in digital effects, and also laid something of the groundwork for films like the Matrix, which also played with perceptions and the definition of reality. It looked fantastic on TV, and spectacular on DVD, and I have to say that it looks even better on Blu-ray, although that pesky digital banding stops it being a reference transfer. But I have to admit that I don’t like TRON all that much today.
It’s still that revolutionary groundbreaking film, and it’s one that I’m happy to have for its historical context when it comes to cinema, but the things that I look for when I watch a film these days, fun, entertainment, escapism, a good story, are all lacking in TRON. It’s a film that revels in its visual aesthetic, and dwells on them to the detriment of the story. From the point where Tron and Yori meet with Dumont to the final confrontation with the MCP, the pace of the film just drops away, and it’s around here that I find my attention beginning to drift towards the clock, a bit of a shock in a film just 90 minutes long.
The characterisations are a bit lacking too, in fact Flynn is about the only memorable character in the film. Dillinger is somewhat bland as an antagonist, while Alan and Lora aren’t really in the film long enough to register, while in the computer world, only Ram makes an impact, while Tron as the ‘perfect’ hero lacks for a complex and interesting personality. By far it’s the conclusion I always find disappointing. While there is something of a sense of closure in the digital world, in the real world, Dillinger gets his comeuppance off-screen, while the ultimate goal, a printout saying ‘he nicked the game’ seems somewhat flimsy as evidence.
In terms of character and story, TRON is a dull film. It’s only in the visuals, the sense of imagination, the importance of the movie in cinema history that it transcends its source material. But I have to say that it just isn’t enough for me anymore, and makes me wish that I’d bought The Last Starfighter instead. That at least is fun. The Blu-ray of TRON certainly delivers in terms of extra features, and it sounds great, but in terms of the visual transfer it could be a fair bit better. Maybe wait for the 40th Anniversary release?