Walt Disney’s Century: Tron

In the midst of its wayward period, Disney decided to Tron for it.

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Walt Disney’s Century: Tron

This year, The Walt Disney Company turns 100 years old. For good or ill, no other company has been more influential in the history of film. Walt Disney’s Century is a monthly feature in which Ken Lowe revisits the landmark entries in Disney’s filmography to reflect on what they meant for the Mouse House—and how they changed cinema. You can read all the entries here.

“Won’t that be grand! Computers and the programs will start thinking and the people will stop!” – Dr. Walter Gibbs, Tron

We were one of the first families I knew to get a home computer. My father, always into computers, actually helped my elementary school to set up the Apple IIe machines where we learned typing and played stuff like Number Munchers and Oregon Trail. My childhood was spent figuring out how to get the damn sound cards to work on games like The Rocketeer or Monkey Island (which came on seven whole 3.5-inch floppy disks). Computers were some weird combination of fascinatingly unknowable and fun in the way a bucket of LEGOs or a closet full of art supplies or a pile of roleplaying game sourcebooks is fun: With a computer you could do anything you might imagine!

Tron lives in that time of wide-eyed discovery and possibility. Video games ate quarters, user interfaces were in monochromatic text, and we still believed software moguls when they said they founded their companies in their garages. It is a random, almost miraculous turn of events that Disney even made the movie at all, and while it was a modest financial success, it remains a foundational sci-fi movie. When we envision a digital world—some strange land inside of a computer that we can perceive and interact with from within—we owe something to Tron.

Even Cheech and Chong can’t resist this stuff:

The world’s foremost software developer is ENCOM, a company that occupies a massive corporate tower, flies people in via choppers with glowing accents, and, we find, was built on stolen intellectual property. The company is run by Dillinger (David Warner, whose presence in everything always screamed “bad guy”), but his strings are being pulled by his own creation, the artificial intelligence that runs the company, known as the Master Control Program (also Warner, with his voice distorted).

The movie opens with a view of just how oppressive the MCP is to the system it runs: Programs are anthropomorphized in the movie, within a partly animated, partly back-lit, partly computer-generated world designed in part by Blade Runner production designer and all-around-futurist Syd Mead, and French comic artist Jean Giraud, known as Moebius, who also contributed design work to the never-made Alejandro Jodorowsky adaptation of Dune. The MCP’s thugs capture programs and force them to compete in the games, gladiatorial combat contests that all have the feel of arcade quarter-munchers. The visual effects look dated, but here’s the thing: Of course they would. It’s set in the ‘80s, in a computer. Watching it again recently, it was kind of charming.

In the real world, a disgruntled former employee of ENCOM turned arcade owner, Flynn (Jeff Bridges), plots a way to break into the company’s systems and find proof that Dillinger grew the company by stealing his multi-million-dollar videogame ideas. (It is unclear if the games people are playing in the arcade are being populated by the programs in ENCOM’s systems, since the games at Flynn’s arcade are all exactly identical to the ones happening inside the computer world. The writers didn’t make it clear, and I guess you’re not supposed to think too hard about it.)

After a failed attempt to breach ENCOM that’s foiled by the MCP, Flynn’s antics raise the security level at the company, something that pisses off his old colleagues Alan (Bruce Boxleitner, who also plays the title character), Lora (Cindy Morgan) and Dr. Gibbs (Barnard Hughes). Gibbs in particular is righteously indignant that company employees are being locked out by the system, their programs subsumed into the code of the MCP.

It’s in this confrontation between Gibbs and Dillinger that Tron, for all its total nonsense about how programs would act or interact in some kind of abstract environment that is made real, actually sounds depressingly insightful.

Gibbs wants users to have freedom, to have the computer system work for them, while Dillinger views the human element as inefficient and the individual needs of people beneath the system’s consideration. The guy would’ve made Exec VP in any social media company in a heartbeat. He’d be out there minting crypto and slurping ape juice and paying half of Micronesia to farm Smooth Love Potions for him. If you have written a book, he thinks, you must have fucked up.

Flynn and his friends hack their way into ENCOM HQ, and Flynn begins trying to extract evidence of Dillinger’s theft. But the MCP decides to stop him by zapping him with a laser that transfers the matter composing his body into data and drops a digitized version of him into the computer world.

This, you don’t need to be told, is gloriously absurd. For a look at just how much slower a supercomputer in 1982 was than recent ones, consider Hewlett Packard’s best offering of 1981, the Cray-1, which was about 6 billion times slower than its 2018 model, the Cray EX, which also can’t store a human being in RAM. It’s like claiming, in 1992, that you want to replace a U.S. Senator’s brain with a computer. If Flynn is truly being put into a computer, I don’t want to contemplate what the compression rate would actually do to him when he is eventually unzipped in the real world.

Once inside, Flynn meets up with a network security program designed by Alan, Tron (also Boxleitner, because all the programs look like their creators). They escape captivity and embark on a quest to delete the MCP for good.

It’s all pretty cute. The peaceful programs incarcerated by the MCP regard “the users” as alike to gods, and innocently prattle on about what they’re programmed to do: One piece of financial management software gets a warm fuzzy feeling from helping senior citizens save for retirement. A little floating assistant robot thing has the power only to say “yes” or “no.” He is, Flynn realizes, a bit—the smallest unit of binary data. The MCP ends its communications with the foreboding pronouncement “END OF LINE.”

Nobody wanted to greenlight this thing. Writer-director Steven Lisberger—inspired by seeing Pong for the very first time—wanted to make videogames seem more accessible to regular folks. He and producer Donald Kushner showed off proof-of-concept storyboards and computer-generated film samples to Warner Bros., MGM, and Columbia Pictures, who all turned them down. It was finally Disney that bit. The film landed at Disney when it had pivoted hard to live-action production and all but put its animation division in mothballs, with Tron probably being one of the strangest additions to the Mouse House’s stable of classic movies even in light of that period: Too big to be considered a cult film, too peculiar to ever really replicate. Though I liked it, nobody really seemed to go for 2010’s Tron: Legacy, a movie that went even deeper into the religious overtones that the first film made.

Tron makes it to the nerve center of the MCP and slugs it out, winning the day and exposing Dillinger’s crime to the world. It’s a happy, tidy ending where a greedy corporate jerk who has unleashed a silicon menace he doesn’t understand and can’t control gets his comeuppance.

The digital revolution has fallen short of its every promise. We had a web of infinite possibilities. Now we have, as others have put it, four websites that each show you pictures of text from the other three. We had the cumulative total of human knowledge at our fingertips, now we have search algorithms that favor garbage AI-generated sites designed only to trap you with search engine optimization and lie to advertisers about how much genuine traffic they get. Big tech companies seem as if they have no use for users whatsoever, barreling toward a world where AI-generated content slop is pitched to websites that are run by nobody, read by more thieving AI scrapers than actual humans. Microsoft Word—the most basic application a computer can fulfill from a consumer standpoint, with functions that have not meaningfully changed since 1983—is now subscription-based.

We’ve collectively come to realize that the system isn’t some overbearing, thinking Master Control Program that actively hates us. It wants to hate us: How else do you explain why I’m still getting ads for PragerU on Twitter despite blocking it four separate times? But it lacks the capacity to hate, only to follow instructions given to it by the world’s richest people in the most stubbornly literal way, which sure feels like the same thing when you’re on the receiving end. It makes me doubt anybody is going to be too enthusiastic for the upcoming Tron sequel Disney is planning.

Next month, join us for another Walt Disney’s Century as we explore Disney’s resurrection of its mascot character with Mickey’s Christmas Carol.

Kenneth Lowe fights for the users. You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses and read more at his blog.

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