40 Years of Tron

I’ve been wanting to say something for some time now about one of my favorite movies, the Oscar nominated Tron from 1982. It celebrated 40 years of neon light cycling this past July, and I think it’s amazing (though it remains relevant) that it’s still quite overlooked by today’s general mainstream audience.

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a swell movie too and one that’s in my regular rotation. But something that’s bothered be since it came out in 1989 is that I couldn’t place the actor that plays ‘Billy The Kid’ in it, but knew I’d seen him before. As I sat down tonight to write about Tron, I was looking over the cast and realized that Dan Shor, who plays ‘Billy The Kid’ in Bill and Ted, is also Ram in Tron. Mystery solved! This gave me yet another reason to sit down for a Tron rewatch.

Dan Shor and Jeff Bridges in Tron

I remember when the picture came out, but I don’t remember seeing it in the theater. However, that could have been very possible as my cousins were just as obsessed with it, and it was my aunt (their mom) who would usually take us to see most of the sci-fi epics around that time. But Tron the movie had some stiff competition for the space it occupied in 80’s kid’s lives, and that was the toy line from TOMY that came out the same year. Though very short lived and only containing four action figures (Tron, Flynn, Sark and his henchman, the Warrior) and two vehicles (an orange and yellow light-cycle) the line was a massive hit with kids who made space in their toybox for stuff outside of the norm like Transformers, He-Man, Star Wars and GI Joe.

The toys still remain a thing of beauty. Each figure is made from translucent colored plastic (blue, purple, and 2 red) with light pastel painted highlights that make them pop when displayed with a light behind them. TOMY took a cost-saving page from Kenner’s Star Wars book and made them with five points of articulation (5POA), which is still my favorite style of toy to collect. As a toy designer I always appreciate a simpler canvas and seeing what more can be done with less. To add to the movie aesthetic, each came with one glow-in-the-dark accessory familiar to their live-action versions. For the vehicles there were two light-cycles that could hold a figure and shoot across the floor when an accompanying ripcord was inserted and yanked out of the back.

As I write this, I’m looking across the room at my “Tron shelf”. Along with being a toy designer I’m also a huge collector of, mostly, vintage toys. I always tell people I’m the most nostalgic person you’ll ever meet. My memories of being a kid in the 80’s are something that give me peace reminiscing back to simpler times. I’m lucky to have had the childhood I did, and even today, when I hold these artifacts in my hands, smell them, run my fingers over their sculpted details, I’m instantly transported to coming home from Toys R Us and sitting down with my brother and other toys and being part of that world until dinner time. It’s like instant time travel. I still have a picture of myself holding up my brand-new Tron figures that my mom had bought me. My parents got us a lot of toys, mostly action figures, but where they drew the line was with the more expensive vehicles. So, I had to cut my light-cycle out of the back of the figure’s card and use some serious imagination. And I didn’t mind that at all.

Me and my Sark figure and cardboard cutouts with my brother, 1982

The movie, however, was visually mindboggling. Staring Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, and David Warner, and directed by Steven Lisberger, it was a groundbreaking adventure into virtuosity the likes of which had never been attempted at the time. The story centers around the computer programming and video game development industry. Programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) is transported into one of his own software worlds and has to battle different programs to survive. Aided by his real-world friend and fellow programmer, Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner), aka, Tron in the program, the two gather allies to take on the forces of the movie’s villain, Sark (David Warner).

It was visionary in digital experimentation and its use of computer processing and virtual FX in film. Even today, when I watch it it’s hard to wrap my head around how it was made. All the scenes within the virtual world of the program were shot entirely in black and white and had to be hand tinted, frame by frame. The costumes were cobbled together with spandex suits and hockey equipment that had hand-drawn tech details in Sharpie. And as pioneering as the visuals were, the Academy Awards decided not to honor the movies special FX claiming they had somehow cheated with its computer generated details and images. It was, however, nominated for two Oscars at the 55th Academy Awards in 1983 for Best Costume Design and Best Sound.

Jeff Bridges filming Tron on the black and white set, left. Same scene backlit and hand tinted, right.

Owned by Disney, Tron has since had a sequel in 2010, Tron Legacy, and an animated series from 2012, Tron Uprising, that takes place between the two movies. The sequel, Tron Legacy, can at times feel to be pushing the technology forward that the original film set in place, but other times fails to re-raise the bar of digital rendering that it should have been able to do. This is particularly evident during the scenes with the de-aged, younger Jeff Bridges. Where Tron 82’ set the bar for visual FX at every level, Tron Legacy does not. But I still enjoy it, and it’s only a matter of time before Disney levels up the Tron franchise.

Tron was released on July 9, 1982 and was well received by the audience and critics. Shortly after its actual 40th anniversary, David Warner who played the picture’s villainous Sark passed away at the age of 81 on July 24th, 2022. Warner was an engaging, and quirky actor who played the bad guy often. He was the Klingon Chancellor Gorkon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the face-hugger-as-a-hat wearing Evil Genius in Time Bandits, and the creepy waxwork owner, David Lincoln, in Waxwork, along with dozens of other iconic characters in some classic flicks. But as Tron’s Sark he was able to transcend the celluloid and take his place in my daily toy escapades as a kid, and now on the shelf of my toy collection as a prized piece of memorabilia from one of the most impactful times in my life.

David Warner as Sark in, Tron, 1982.

My co-host on my podcast, Death by Podcast, is a huge Roger Ebert fan, and we like to see if he hated the movies we review as much as we did, as often as we can (we actually like a lot of the movies we watch). But sometimes he can surprise us and speak kindly about some flick I was sure he wouldn’t like. At the time Ebert was working for my local Chicago Sun-Times, and he gave Tron four out of four stars. In his review he said it was “a dazzling movie from Disney in which computers have been used to make themselves romantic and glamorous. Here’s a technological sound-and-light show that is sensational and brainy, stylish and fun”. More simpler words have never been spoken about something so detailed and intricate. Which is what the 80’s were about: handing you something that can only move in five places, but sparks an entire future in your mind.

My Sark figure, today.

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