Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Tron”

Dear Frank,

Sometimes, the holes in your pop culture knowledge seem understandable — the world is vast and wide, and Dirty Dancing isn’t every young man’s cup of tea. But you haven’t seen Tron? Completely bizarre. I mean, sure, it’s been a decade or so since I saw it, maybe two decades… Okay, maybe I don’t really remember it at all. So I’m glad that you’re kicking my ass into watching it again, especially since Tron Legacy is looking pretty disco. (I am attempting to return, as we speak, to an time where the word “disco” meant “cool.”)

So first off, the first shot of Tron? I guess the Wachowski Brothers didn’t just rip off your favorite French philosophers when they made The Matrix — we zoom through the title into code and hardware renderings, which then dissolve to good ol’ Flynn’s Arcade, your friendly neighborhood 1980s-era video game haberdashery. There, an unseen player is rocking a lightcycle video game — which we then zoom inside!

Because here’s where the Disney magic starts, Frank! See, everyone in this movie wearing nifty glowy costumes isn’t a person, but an anthropomorphized software program living under the totalitarian rule of the Master Control program, which either absorbs smaller programs to make itself bigger or forces less useful programs to compete in games. (This is totally not at all a metaphor for the Soviet Union.)

In the lightcycle game, some programs get killed (it’s Disney-friendly violence, because they’re programs and thus not real people, you know?), a mere tease of the ULTRA-FUTURISTIC action that awaits us, and then it’s time for the worst transition in the world! Rather than come up with some clever way to segue back from the computer world to reality, the film just cuts to a shot of Jeff Bridges programming, with the chyron “Meanwhile, in the real world…” super-imposed over it. GOOD JOB, MOVIE. Very cool.

For Jeff Bridges, the act of coding isn’t so much writing in an artificial computer language as it is a dialogue between the Dude and his program, which he supplies with positive reinforcement like “You’re the best computer program that’s ever been written, now go after that data!”

The Best Program In The World? Anthropomorphized in the computer by Jeff Bridges. (Sometimes, things in Tron are definitely not metaphors.) And when Master Control captures and tortures the Dude program, he lasts for like five seconds before dissolving. The Best Program In The World is kinda a wuss.

Whatever, though, let’s move on to Enron or whatever the evil big corporation du jour is named, where the CEO, a guy named Dillinger, is really just Master Control’s bitch. Dillinger is played by David Warner, otherwise known as Jack the Ripper from Time After Time and the voice of Ra’s Al Ghul in Batman: The Animated Series (which makes him awesome).

He has underlings, too, including some blond chick who used to date the Dude and Sheridan from Babylon 5. Okay, yeah, so people born before the year 1980 might refer to Bruce Boxleitner as “Tron from Tron,” but I was raised on syndicated 1990s sci-fi and I work with what I know.

So the reason the Dude’s trying to Swordfish his way inside the Enron-or-whatever mainframe is that the Dude used to work for the company. But he left because he wanted to own an arcade and look really hot shirtless (or Dillinger stole the rights to the computer games he created, one of the two).

This all gets explained to us when Blondie and Sheridan go to warn the Dude that Dillinger is onto his efforts to break into the Enron system computer. I’m not super clear on how this leads to Sheridan and Blondie agreeing to help Dude break into the Enron facility in order to get proof that Dillinger stole some game designs from him, but it totally happens.

Of course, once Dude is inside Enron, he starts computer hacking away in front of a big laser that was developed to transport items form the real world into the computer. And thus when he starts taunting Master Control with unsolvable problems, Master Control “pushes back” by accessing the laser controls and zapping Dude into the game world. Whoops!

Thus, Dude gets dragged into some crazy gladiator video games that are, of course, being played for realsies (but remember, everyone’s a program so it doesn’t matter when they die). They’re pretty cool games, actually, one being a kinda live-action version of Brickles, the other being the aforementioned lightcycles. The most cutting-edge CGI of 1982 goes into creating these scenarios — vector graphics and everything!

Okay, so I got a little bored just now and checked in on Twitter, and when I looked back at the TV the Dude and his new software buddies — one of them the titular Tron, who’s played by Sheridan — were getting high off some magic computer pond water they just started drinking (seriously not making that up). I guess they’ve escaped Master Control’s games? Okay, cool.

Fuck, I looked away again. Um, looks like Dude and his other buddy Ram have now hacked into a broken computer ship and are using User Power to take it on a spin. Good for them! Well, Ram dies shortly thereafter. But good for the Dude, anyway!

This part is really pretty boring, as it’s just a lot of running around with no clear goals in place. But something cute just happened — Tron broke into the Master Control office and was reunited with the game world’s equivalent to Blondie. It’s sweet watching people in glow-y helmets cling to each other romantically.

Man, the Dude sucks at driving the computer ship, which is weird because Dude was the one who originally programmed them, but whatever, the ship crashes, leaving Dude without wheels in the middle of town.

Moments In Classiness: Dude declines the services of some cyber-prostitutes. Really, Disney?

YES! User be praised, there’s some plot development! Tron and Cyber-Blondie just got a code disk from Sheridan (the original programmer of Tron, which is why they’re played by the same actor donchaknow) that will allow them to take down Master Control. And then Tron and the Dude are reunited! They have a most tender bond.

We get into some religious shenanigans here, because there’s this whole thing where programs worship Users like they’re Gods — so when the Dude opens up to Tron and tells him that he’s a User, Tron asks him if everything that’s happened has happened according to “his plan.” This time, I’m pretty sure it’s a metaphor.

So our digital trio go off to try and put the control disc into Master Control, but their glidey-boat-thing crashes into something and in the crash Cyber-Blondie and Dude think Tron was “deleted” as a result — of course, he’s just being clever and hiding out on the control ship, which is taking them to Master Control’s CPU.

Tron tries to insert his disc to kill Master Blaster, but he can’t get his disc into Master Control until the Dude jumps inside the CPU, forcing it open. The computer world is magically transformed into a glittering metropolis, and all the programs seem ready to live happily ever after… But what about the Dude?

Don’t worry, Frank, it’s all good! The laser spits him back out into the real world, where he’s able to get his hands on the proof needed to make money off those video games he created. So cut to a little later, and the Dude is riding around in the Enron helicopter, having gotten the profits he deserved from his games. Everyone lives happily ever after! All those programs who died weren’t real people! Hooray!

(It’s a metaphor, you know.)

(Except for the cyber-prostitutes.)

Love,
Liz

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About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller, based in Los Angeles, is a writer for the screen and the web, her work including G4's Attack of the Show and the tech blog GigaOM. She also co-hosts the podcast Timey Wimey TV, contributes to the video curation site Here's Some Awesome, and tells her friend Frank about stuff at Liz Tells Frank.

Posted on September 29, 2010, in All the Spoilers, Movies and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. LOL! Coincidentally, I’m wearing my TRON glow-in-the-dark tee right now.

    I’m surprised at how well this movie holds up. I did a rewatch before the new TRON film and was amused and pleased.

  2. Undergo your coupons and review the termination times.

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