“I got a pocket full of quarters, and I’m headed to the arcade.
So ran the lyrics to Pac-Man Fever, Buckner & Garcia’s novelty hit single of 1982 which, by the end of that year, had sold over one million copies in the United States alone. Its success was redolent of the firm hold that arcade games had achieved on the American popular consciousness by that time: 1982 saw revenues for the North American video game market reach their all-time peak value – a figure outstripping those of both Hollywood and the music industry combined – and in November of that same year LIFE magazine was on hand to document the gathering of the country’s most prominent gamers at the Twin Galaxies arcade in Ottumwa, Iowa, confirming the phenomenon as now part of the country’s cultural mainstream.
Although arcade games had appeared in passing cinematic cameos in a number of films produced during the 1970s, it was Disney’s TRON (1982) which would be the first to place them at the centre of the action, unleashing a trend which would continue in the proceeding years with such films as Joysticks (1983), WarGames (1983), The Last Starfighter (1984) and Cloak & Dagger (1984), and a forebear of the recent trend in the likes of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) and Wreck-it-Ralph (2012) for films to reference, appropriate and subvert the aesthetic, structure and narrative tropes of the arcade game form.
Returning to the film now, some thirty-one years on from its initial release, inevitably brings a pang of nostalgia for that putative golden age of arcade games, and in particular how it harks back to a prior technological era in which gaming was a physically communal experience. Flynn’s Arcade in TRON, much like those featured in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and The Karate Kid (1984), showed it as the place for teenagers to congregate in the early 1980s, illustrating the phenomenon’s social function at the time as similar to that of Mel’s Drive-In in the 1950s world of American Graffiti (1973) or the Emporium in Dazed and Confused‘s (1993) summer of ’76. Fast-forward to the present-day of TRON: Legacy (2010), and the once-boisterous Flynn’s is presented as now merely a solemn, long-shuttered electronic museum-cum-graveyard.
Another telling contrast between the original film and its sequel is in the characterization of their protagonists: in the former, Flynn Sr. is a social butterfly, and his interactions with his friends is relaxed and convivial, in sharp contrast to the post-The Dark Knight (2008) stylings of the sequel, in which son Sam is portrayed as an existentially angst-ridden loner. As video games have, in the thirty years since TRON, shifted from arcades to bedrooms, so their cinematic representation has since become a metaphor for modern alienation, as witnessed in the considerably darker tones of game-based films since such as Oshii Mamoru’s Avalon (2001) and David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999), supplementing the rise of internet-centric shockers like Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Kairo (2001) and William Malone’s FeardotCom (2002).
The film’s significance, however, goes far beyond its representation of its specific period of video gaming culture. Its release in 1982 coincided with the publication of William Gibson’s novel Burning Chrome and its coining of the term ‘cyberspace’ which, in conceptual terms, TRON‘s Grid appears to be an early embodiment of. Whilst now a familiar (and even outmoded) notion as a result of the popularity of Gibson’s subsequent Neuromancer, Shirō Masamune’s sprawling manga/anime franchise Ghost in the Shell and films such as The Lawnmower Man (1992) , in the yet-to-be-computer-saturated early 1980s it was an idea that was little short of revolutionary.
In visual terms too, the film would prove to be a landmark: TRON‘s fifteen-minute light cycle sequence signalled the first extensive use of three-dimensional CGI in film a decade before its landmark employment in the likes of Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991) and Toy Story (1995), and the future-chic aesthetic of the Grid – glowing neon stripes set against wire-frame landscapes and solid polygonal structures, coupled with Moebius‘ conceptual designs and synth pioneer Wendy Carlos‘ evocative score – has proved a lasting influence across the spectrum of the creative disciplines, from television advertising to Jean Paul Gaultier catwalk collections, from Snow Crash to Daft Punk. Indeed, while the advancement of CGI technology has a tendency to render the ‘realistic’ look of films of a prior decade (or sooner) as outmoded, TRON‘s world of sheer artifice might be seen to have matured like a fine vintage wine.
The Shadows in the Cave
While TRON‘s depiction of its Game Grid as a walled-off world-within-a-world is strictly in the realms of sci-fi, its roots might be traced back to an altogether different form of fiction. Just as The Matrix (1999) winkingly alludes to Lewis Carroll’s Alice, TRON‘s colourful alternate sphere populated with characters who seem to bear uncanny resemblances to ‘real-world’ equivalents in effect renders the film a digital updating of The Wizard of Oz (1939), with the sinister Master Control Program as oppressive Wicked Witch of the West, digitizing laser as the surrogate tornado, and fluorescent neon piping as the new blue gingham.
In philosophical terms, Flynn’s digitization onto The Grid separates TRON from many of its successors. Where the likes of Brainstorm (1983), The Lawnmower Man and Strange Days (1995) involve the protagonist’s interface with a form of brain–computer interface, Flynn completes a physical, as well as mental, transportation to this virtual other world. Such a set-up precludes the film from addressing, as those films others do, the Cartesian dualism of the separation of mind and body, but instead presents its world as a physical construction beyond which its inhabitants are, at least initially, unable to see.
Such a dual-world construction, certainly in terms of science fiction cinema, anticipates both Dark City (1998) and The Matrix as well as the multiple levels of the aforementioned Avalon and eXistenZ, but can also be seen to share a kinship with the worlds-within-worlds of The Truman Show (1998), Pleasantville (1998) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), as well as hinting at the kind of reflexive construct-within-a-construct ideas at the heart of metafilmic texts such as 8 ½ (1963), The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981) and the oeuvre of screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.
The virtual reality world-within-a-world found its earliest cinematic expression in World on a Wire (1973), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s until-recently little-seen adaptation of Daniel F. Galouye’s Simulacron-3. Its multi-planar construction reached its logical apotheosis in the teasingly ambiguous Lady-Or-The-Tiger endings of both Josef Rusnak’s adaptation of the same source novel The Thirteenth Floor (1999) and Christopher Nolan’s labyrinthine Inception (2010), both ultimately serving to question the possibility of the knowledge of an absolute reality, as well as suggesting an infernal mise en abyme of mirror worlds dreamt up by the combined imaginations of Escher, Borges and the art designers of Droste cocoa powder. While TRON never goes as far as to question the veracity of the objective reality in which it begins, its set-up still implicitly provokes the same questions about the reliability and limits of perception which have troubled philosophers from Plato to Baudrillard.
The Gosateizm in the Machine
Another dimension to TRON’s appeal lies in its delineation of analogues of equivalent real-world language and concepts. Time is measured in ‘microcycles’ or ‘nanoseconds’, ‘thinking’ becomes ‘calculating’, liquid nourishment comes in the form of water-like ‘energy’, and the term ‘derez’ serves as a handily euphemistic term for death in what was intended as a family-friendly PG-rated movie. The Master Control Program’s ability to quantify anything and everything is both played for laughs and serve as a sinister shorthand for its lack of humanity, its voice somewhere between the cold, dispassionate logic of the HAL 9000 of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the sinister croak of the Big Brother-like Alpha 60 in Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965).
Futuristic, yes, but the future this is not, and TRON‘s ostensible present-day setting in some respects separates it from the more speculative, dystopian nature of traditional cyberpunk texts, although its time-capsule-like view on issues contemporaneous to its production are not dissimilar from familiar tropes of the genre. There is, for example, a light critique of the corporatization of Reaganomic America: just as the mega-corporations of Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982) and The Terminator (1984) are seen to be malevolent, morally-questionable forces in their worlds, so too is TRON‘s secretive, hierarchical ENCOM company and its motives viewed with suspicion, reinforced by the direct analogy to the MCP’s corruption of power on the Grid.
The more prevalent theme, however, is that of the United States’ deteriorating relationship with the Soviet Union, following its invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Following the years of détente in the 1970s and prior to Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost, the two competing superpowers were once again balanced on the delicate high-wire act of Mutually Assured Destruction, as played out in 1983’s box office smash WarGames. TRON, too, takes place in this same climate of fear: when the MCP threatens to take control of both the Kremlin and the Pentagon it might seem like a generic threat, but coming in 1982 this was a serious business, carrying with it the weight of a potential global nuclear holocaust. If such a detail might seem incidental, then the early presence of a sign bearing the words ‘Klaatu Barada Nikto‘ – a visual allusion to Robert Wise’s pacifist-themed Cold War parable The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) – ought to confirm otherwise.
Just as The Day the Earth Stood Still‘s ‘Mr. Carpenter’ stands as an analogue Christ figure, so too does TRON carry a religious subtext at its core, deepening its commentary on the political climate of the age. The theological parallel between man’s relationship to God in the real world and the Grid programs’ belief in an unknowable putative creator is, in some respects played for laughs – see the humourous linguistic substitution in Ram’s famous cry of “Oh my User” – yet in the malevolent figure of the Master Control Program, there is too a serious-minded implicit critique of totalitarianism: the MCP’s suppression of the ‘superstitious’ belief in Users directly parallels the Soviet state policy of atheistic gosateizm, with the cruel games it forces the Programs to play akin to the Roman ‘sport’ of placing Christian martyrs in gladiatorial arenas to meet their near-certain death.
While such a thematic concern might suggest overlap with the apparent anti-Communist sentiment of Red Dawn (1984), it is balanced by the film’s questioning attitude towards free market corporatization, as well as a scepticism about the virtues of the increasing technologization of the modern world. The MCP’s reduction of human emotion and judgement to quantifiable numerical values warns of a pernicious dehumanization associated with the rise of the digital world, going some way to look – with a similar feeling of fear – at the potential nightmarish hegemonies-of-the-machine of The Terminator and The Matrix, or the passionless dystopias of Equilibrium (2002) and Gattaca (1997).
When TRON opened in the summer of 1982, its attempt to ride on the wave of popularity of the arcade game phenomenon was deemed by its studio to be a failure: its box-office takings were, while not the disaster of widespread repute, still considered a disappointment in that still-nascent era of the Hollywood blockbuster. There is, indeed, a certain irony in the fact that the highest-grossing film of the year, Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), itself significantly contributed towards the near-catastrophic North American video game crash of the following years after the flop of Atari Inc.’s notorious movie tie-in game.
As shown by two excellent recent documentaries – The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2005) and Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade (2005) – there is a certain wistfulness in looking back on the period in question as a more innocent, bygone age of gaming. Yet TRON ultimately transcends the status of mere Pop Culture snapshot; The Grid’s distinctive, irresistible visual style of pure artifice is an aesthetic milestone which still has the capacity inspire awe in the modern-day viewer, and its rich diversity of thematic concerns still provokes the same searching questions which cinema – science fiction or otherwise – continues to puzzle over afresh.