Tron: 40 Years of the Game-Changing Cult Classic

Celebrate four decades of the game-changing classic Tron with Quinn.

1982 was a hell of a year for science fiction movies, serving as a diverse display of all that the genre had to offer. The Thing was a beautifully disgusting display of cosmic body horror. E.T. took audiences on a heartfelt adventure with a lovable visitor from another planet. Blade Runner transplanted detective noir into a hellish futurescape. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan breathed life into a beloved but stagnated classic franchise, preparing it for a new generation. And then… there was Tron.

Tron is a truly bold and experimental film. It’s the kind of movie that only gets greenlit when a desperate studio throws its metaphorical arms up in surrender because it’s in such a dire place that any idea is welcome. Luckily, that was the state that Walt Disney Studios was in during the early 1980s. Disney had the benefit of being a household name, but they were hardly putting out anything revolutionary, let alone noteworthy. Their animation studio was cranking out quaint but unexciting flicks like The Rescuers and The Fox and the Hound, and they’d continue to slog onward until the end of the decade, when The Little Mermaid kicked off the “Disney Renaissance” and made the company synonymous with “animation” once more.

Disney wasn’t faring much better with their live-action offerings, as movies like The Last Flight of Noah’s Ark, The Devil and Max Dillon, and Condorman failed both financially and critically (Disney itself doesn’t seem particularly proud of these movies, as none of them are streaming on Disney+). When Steven Lisberger (whose most notable work had been the 1980 animated special Animalympics) approached Disney with a pitch for a film about digital people that would feature computer animation on a scale never seen before, it didn’t really seem like the company had anything left to lose.

Interestingly, Disney was one of the last major film studios that Lisberger Studios approached, as he felt that the company with so many ties to traditional animation would resist their novel, technological approach to the medium.

Concept art for Tron by Peter Lloyd. It appears to depict the infamous deleted “Tron and Yori Love Scene” where the two programs get… intimate.

The initial concept for Tron was that it would be a completely computer animated film, but early in development, it was decided that the characters should be brought to life through live-action footage. While groundbreaking computer animation was used for segments featuring vehicles, certain landscapes, and even two characters, Tron also utilized a fair amount of other animation techniques to build its digital world. The signature glowing circuitry on the characters’ costumes and certain bits of the digital world was achieved through a technique called “backlit animation”, where, frame by frame, a cutout of certain blacked-out elements is made, and then images of the cutout with light shining through are applied over the original elements. This process is easier to show than it is to explain, which is why Lisberger’s team had to make a two-minute test reel to show Disney before they agreed to fund the project. The test reel features Frisbee champion Sam Schatz as a program who breaks out of prison and defeats a guard, who is actually wearing a repainted costume from Disney’s 1979 sci-fi movie The Black Hole.

A still frame from the two-minute test footage for Tron’s digital effects.

Two legendary futurists, Syd Mead and Moebius, defined the look of Tron through their concept art. Mead created slick, futuristic vehicles like the solar sailer and iconic lightcycles, which he refined in ways that made them simple enough to recreate with a computer, but striking enough to be instantly recognizable. Meanwhile, Moebius contributed heavily to the design of the digital warriors’ circuit-covered armor, which was translated to costumes crafted from hockey helmets and lycra.

An early piece of concept art for the lightcycle by Syd Mead. It features a rider folding into the vehicle rather than being fully enclosed in it, which was an idea that was revisited for the lightcycles in Tron: Legacy.

The result was a universe on the same level of creative caliber as Star Wars. Tron was an otherworldly visual triumph, a beautifully weird spectacle for the viewer to soak in. From the expanse of the Sea of Simulation to the I/O Towers beaming data to another plane of existence, the computer world of Tron was completely unlike anything made before or after it.

A still from Tron.

Tron’s had a fairly unusual approach to cast. Like The Wizard of Oz, each actor would play both a regular human in the real world and a counterpart in the fantastic world that most of the film was set in: specifically, programs in the digital world. Jeff Bridges played the central protagonist, a video game designer named Kevin Flynn who was betrayed by his employer, ENCOM. Additionally, Bridges briefly played Flynn’s hacking program, Clu (a second version of this character serves as the main baddie of Tron: Legacy). Bruce Boxleitner appeared as frustrated ENCOM programmer Alan Bradley and his creation, the heroic security program Tron. Cidney Morgan was Dr. Lora Baines, a scientist working on a digitization laser (who was also Bradley’s girlfriend and Flynn’s ex), and Baines’ program, Yori. Barnard Hughes played ENCOM co-founder Dr. Walter Gibbs and Dumont, a wise guardian program. David Warner was the backstabbing CEO of ENCOM, Edward Dillenger, as well as Sark, the tyrannical second-in-command to the Master Control Program (Warner is also the uncredited voice of the MCP itself). Even Dan Shore, who plays Tron and Flynn’s ally, Ram, cameos in the real world as an unnamed ENCOM employee interested in Bradley’s popcorn (he’d later receive the name “Roy Kleinberg” in the follow-up short to Tron: Legacy, Tron: The Next Day).

A promotional still for Tron featuring Bruce Boxleitner, Jeff Bridges, and Dan Shore.

Everyone in Tron’s cast has remarkable chemistry with one another. Among the male actors, it’s possible that this is due to the brotherly bond formed over having to wear dance belts (thongs) under their skin-tight outfits to make sure they weren’t showing off anything unsuitable for a PG-rated film. Maybe it was the shared struggle of often having to act against entirely black backgrounds, the kind of experience many other actors wouldn’t understand until greenscreen got really big. Regardless of what brought the cast together, you can just feel the blooming camaraderie between Tron, Kevin, and Ram in the digital realm and the shared history between Alan, Kevin, and Lora in the real world.

A still from Tron.

Wendy Carlos is an absolute pioneer of electronic music, and her score for Tron is a testament to that. Its heavy use of synthesizers could’ve easily come across as too cold and artificial under a less talented composer, but under Carlos, the result is warm and whimsical. The use of a choir gives many scenes an almost magical, otherworldly quality, bringing out the fantasy vibes that are baked into this high-tech adventure.

A still from Tron.

On July 9th, 1982, Tron was released, receiving a very mild and unimpressive reception. While not an outright box office bomb, the movie failed to be the instant phenomenon that Disney hoped it would be. Those who actually did watch Tron seemed to generally enjoy it, though the film itself made less money than the arcade game based on it. Tron was obviously not a hit, and it even seemed to be a victim of its own forward-thinking nature. Concepts like the works of computer users being digital extensions of the self were far too foreign to casual audiences of the early 80s. Computers were monolithic machines used by corporations, with the exception of early personal computers utilized by hardcore hobbyists. As a result, Tron didn’t really offer many of its viewers anything they could connect to. At least, not at the time.

Promotional material for Tron, including Jeff Bridges on the cover of Rolling Stone.

To add insult to injury, Tron wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar for Best Special Effects. The Academy considered its use of computer-generated imagery “cheating”, which was remarkably dismissive of both the effort that the digital artists put into the film and the craftsmanship of the artists who did the non-computer animated effects, like the elaborate, time-consuming backlit animation.

It seemed as though Tron was destined to fade into obscurity like many of Disney’s other films from the same era, but it never really did. As computers became increasingly present in people’s lives throughout the ’90s and 2000s, Tron’s relevance seemed to increase. The children who had watched Tron became adults in a digital age where computers were seen as a means of connection and self-expression, and the movie gathered a cult following as society caught up with Lisberger’s vision. The film’s revolutionary use of computer animation inspired animator John Lasseter to attempt to make an entire feature-length film using this technology: 1995’s Toy Story. Parodies and homages to Tron’s lightcycles and game grids were sprinkled into animated shows like The Simpsons, Dexter’s Laboratory, Family Guy, and others, continuing to give the movie life beyond its initial release.

Still from Dexter’s Laboratory, Season 1, Episode 7c “Game Over”

Even Disney themselves started to realize what they had. To celebrate Tron’s 20th anniversary in 2002, the movie received a special two-disc DVD re-release and a series of Neca action figures that were replicas of the ones released in 1982. Disney also started to feature Tron in some of their games, including the Virtual Magic Kingdom MMO and Kingdom Hearts II.

A still from Kingdom Hearts II.

Tron even received a sequel in 2003 in the form of Tron 2.0, a first-person shooter game for the PC (which later received a port for the Xbox and a Game Boy Advance companion game, both titled Tron 2.0: Killer App). The game follows Jethro “Jet” Bradley (voiced by Jason Cottle), the son of Alan Bradley and Lora Baines, who has apparently been killed in a lab accident. Jet is digitized by his father’s program, Ma3a (who might actually be a digitally reincarnated Lora), who wants Jet to aid her in the fight against F-Con, a company that has seized control over ENCOM.

The cover art for Tron 2.0.

F-Con has accidentally corrupted the system when one of its executives, J.D. Thorne, was transformed into a monstrous virus due to digitizing himself without the correct algorithm. With the assistance of a program named Mercury (voiced by Rebecca Romijn), Jet battles security programs, viruses, and wraith-like digitized mercenaries in his quest to foil F-Con’s plans and find his missing father.

Art from a print advertisement for Tron 2.0.

Tron 2.0 showed fans what it would be like if the universe of the original film was expanded into a franchise (a taste of things to come) and brought into the 21st Century. It built upon the first film by melding firewalls, leetspeak, and, of course, the Internet, with the iconic aesthetics established two decades prior. Both the game and its tie-in comic, Tron: The Ghost in the Machine, served as the definitive follow-up to the 1982 movie, until a different sort of sequel came along and “derezzed” their status as “canon”

A still from Tron 2.0.

Around this point is where my love of Tron began. In the latter half of the 2000s, I remember seeing this movie with a striking cover and title everywhere I went. It was for sale on DVD at Costco and available on the UMD for the Playstation Portable at Fry’s Electronic Store. This movie seemed to just drag me in before I even knew anything about it. One day, I asked my mom what Tron was, and she said it was about a guy getting sucked into a computer. That fascinated me. I’d already developed my love for science fiction from a young age and eagerly gobbled up any story I could find about traveling through time and/or space, but the inside of a computer? That was something new to me (I wasn’t allowed to watch The Matrix as a kid). We rented the DVD for Tron from Netflix, which was still a few years away from revolutionizing entertainment with streaming, and I remember the summary on the envelope describing it as “Star Wars meets Alice in Wonderland”. To this day, that still feels like a remarkably fitting description of what makes this movie so appealing. It’s a simple tale of a man stranded in a strange fantasy world, and he goes from one colorful fantastic setting to the next, but the entire time there are also ships and battles and chases. From the second the movie started, I was hooked.

A still from Tron.

I often imagined what a modernized follow-up to Tron would look like, unaware of the existence of Tron 2.0 (most of what I imagined looked like that). Suddenly, in 2008, I learned that I wouldn’t have to imagine it much longer. A friend told me about how at the end of the Race to Witch Mountain panel at San Diego Comic-Con, Disney shared test footage for a different science fiction movie that they were working on. A blurry leaked cellphone video showed a much darker-looking digital world, with characters in black suits that had much more simplified glowing circuitry. Through a haze of pixels, there was the unmistakable spectacle of a lightcycle chase between a blue program and a yellow-green one, which spanned a smooth, glass-like grid and a narrow canyon. The clip ended with the yellow-green program wrecking the blue one’s lightcycle with its jetwall, and an old man watching from a futuristic dwelling in a nearby mountain as the blue program begged for its life: “It’s just game!” The yellow-green program’s helmet finally lit up to reveal his face as he declared “Not anymore” and executed the other program. There was a cut to black and the reveal of the movie’s title: “TR2N”.

A blurry first look at the test footage for “TR2N”.

According to people on the Internet who had actually been present, the man in the mountain was Jeff Bridges, and the yellow-green program was… a younger Jeff Bridges. However, you wouldn’t have been able to tell that based on the footage that leaked because it was likely captured on a first-generation smartphone in a dark room (I’d recommend checking it out for yourself to feel what it was like to experience it this way).

A still from the Tron sequel test footage that was later officially released.

As the actual film began to materialize, the test footage was officially released and TR2N would receive an official title: Tron: Legacy. Alongside a standard advertising campaign,Tron: Legacy was also marketed through an alternate reality game (ARG) called Flynn Lives. Flynn Lives was presented to fans with an in-universe search for Kevin Flynn, which they could participate in by finding clues on various websites made specifically for the game. There were even special events that Flynn Lives would guide fans to, such as a real-life recreation of Flynn’s Arcade and a live ENCOM PR event (crashed by Garrett Hedlund’s Sam Flynn) where Bruce Boxleitner and Cidney Morgan reprised their roles as Alan Bradley and Lora Baines.

Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan at an “ENCOM PR Event” for Flynn Lives.

Additionally, Tron: Legacy received a few pieces of tie-in media, including the video game, Tron: Evolution, and a two-issue comic (later compiled as a single graphic novel) Tron: Betrayal. Rather than retell the events of the upcoming film, these stories instead fleshed out the period between the original and new film. Specifically, they focused on the emergence and genocide of the ISOs and Clu’s betrayal, with Tron: Evolution introducing a subplot about a mysterious virus named Abraxas threatening the Grid.

Tron: Evolution promotional art.

On December 17, 2010, Tron: Legacy hit theaters, serving audiences with a feast for their senses. The movie’s production design called back to the original film in tiny ways while maintaining a bold, distinct new identity. Every smooth curve and glowing line of this world grabbed viewers’ eyes and refused to let go. Tron: Legacy’s action scenes simultaneously flowed easily while also possessing a certain undefinable weight to them. The sound design brought an almost electric tangibility to racing lightcycles, hovering recognizers, and speeding identity discs. In every way, it was a worthy successor to the original.

A promotional image for Tron: Legacy.

And then… there’s Tron: Legacy’s score. French electronic music duo Daft Punk were brought on board to compose the film’s score, and damn is it a thing of beauty. They could’ve easily just whipped up some dance tracks and put them over the movie’s scenes, but they didn’t. They really went above and beyond in crafting something that spans a wide spectrum of emotion, from the curious build-up of “Son of Flynn” to the sweeping tragedy of “Adagio for TRON”. Daft Punk gained many new fans through their score for Tron: Legacy, myself included.

A promotional image for Tron: Legacy featuring Daft Punk.

Audiences seemed to adore Tron: Legacy, though critics didn’t understand it, frequently citing the plot as being too simple and complaining that it took a backseat to the film’s visuals. This always struck me as an odd complaint because the value of a story shouldn’t necessarily be determined by its complexity, but rather by how it feels to you. To me, Tron: Legacy was everything I’d spent two years (including a personally rough 2010) hoping for and a little bit more, and no unimpressed, pretentious writer for The New Yorker can take that away.

A still from Tron: Legacy.

Tron: Legacy did decently at the box office, though this unremarkable return combined with a less-than-stellar critical reception meant that, like its predecessor, it had earned the status of “cult classic”. Around Tron: Legacy’s release, Disney had recently bought Marvel and was about to buy Lucasfilm, so movies that did “decent” would soon seem to be not as appealing to them. Additionally, many of Disney’s live-action films that weren’t part of the MCU, Star Wars, or remakes of animated films seemed to bomb. After financial and critical failures like John Carter, The Lone Ranger, and Tomorrowland, Disney seemed to grow more and more hesitant to make a third Tron film. They had franchises that were guaranteed to make money, so anything else was a potential risk. 

Eventually, details about the potential third Tron film came out. Titled “Tron: Ascension”, the movie would’ve centered around elements of the computer world entering the real world. Morbius star Jared Leto would’ve appeared in the movie as a character named “Ares”. The film seems to be in a continual state of Limbo: not quite canceled, but not quite happening either. It doesn’t seem impossible that it will eventually happen, especially after Tron: Legacy’s director, Joseph Krasinski, recently directed the massively successful Top Gun: Maverick.

A still from Tron: Legacy.

Still, even without a third film, Tron has continued to live on post-Legacy. 2012 saw the release of a Tron animated series, Tron: Uprising. The show follows a program named Beck (voiced by Elijah Wood), a mechanic turned masked renegade who is mentored by Tron himself (once again, Boxleitner reprises his role). When Clu sends the villainous General Tessler (Lance Hendriksen) to oversee the military occupation of Beck’s city, Beck must struggle against Tessler’s goons while preventing his friends from discovering his heroic secret identity (in true superhero fashion). Tron: Uprising magnificently expands upon the world of the Grid with new characters, locations, and vehicles, all presented in a really unique art style. It also has an incredible cast of voice actors and guest stars. Actors and actresses like Mandy Moore, Paul Reubens, Lance Reddick, and Aaron Paul have all played programs in the show, and even Olivia Wilde returns to play Quorra for an episode.

A still from Tron: Uprising.

Tron: Uprising is criminally underrated, and was canceled due to low ratings, which in turn were caused by Disney airing it on their premium cable channel Disney XD and changing the show’s air times without warning. Currently, Tron: Uprising is streaming on Disney+, and I’d highly recommend that any Tron and/or Tron: Legacy fans check it out.

A still from Tron: Uprising.

In 2016, Disney released a Tron-themed, arcade-style runner game appropriately titled “Tron RUN/r”. It’s a neat, fun little game, but the most notable thing about it is its soundtrack. Rather than recycle songs from Wendy Carlos or Daft Punk’s scores, Tron RUN/r has an entirely new soundtrack of electronic music by Raney Shockne and Giorgio Moroder. Moroder is largely considered an icon in the world of electronic music, and he was widely influential to Daft Punk (there’s even a track on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories that begins with Moroder giving a monologue about his life). It’s just interesting that “doing music for Tron” is something that these two artists have in common.

A screenshot from Tron RUN/r.

2016 was also the year that Tron received its first dedicated ride in a Disney theme park since The PeopleMover through the World of Tron, an overlay for part of Disneyland’s PeopleMover that was added in 1982 and stuck around until the ride’s closure in 1995. This new ride was the Tron Lightcycle Power Run, a partially indoor roller coaster themed to Tron: Legacy that opened with Shanghai Disneyland. The Imagineers (the people who design the Disney parks and the attractions in them) created the ride because they wanted an IP-based roller coaster to put in the park’s Tomorrowland in place of Space Mountain, which they felt Shanghai guests wouldn’t be as interested in. However, American guests also had an interest in riding through the Game Grid, so work began on a clone of Tron Lightcycle Power Run in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.

The Tron Lightcycle Power Run at Shanghai Disneyland.

I don’t know if Steven Lisberger could’ve imagined that people would be talking about, let alone celebrating, the universe he created forty years after it was “uploaded” into theaters. It’s doubtful that was the case when Tron opened second at the box office, being dragged behind the juggernaut blockbuster E.T., which had already been out for five weeks. Tron initially appeared to be another entry in Disney’s extensive list of early 80s flops. But the thing was, this movie had a lot of imagination put into it, and imagination is this sort of magnetic force that attracts the imaginations of others. Tron explored new possibilities in both its themes and the technology used to craft it, and that’s clearly something people connected with. 

Steven Lisberger and Joseph Krasinski on the set of Tron: Legacy.

The impact this movie truly had wasn’t immediately apparent, but as time went by it made more and more sense to audiences. The extensive computer animation techniques used in Tron would be reworked and refined by others until they were able to change the way movies were made forever. And that’s to say nothing of the beautiful-yet-dangerous digital wonderlands of disc battles and lightcycle death races that we all can’t help but want to get zapped into. Looking back on the growth of Tron over the last forty years as both an iconic piece of popular culture and a preview of what’s next has been incredible, and I can’t wait to see where Tron’s legacy will lead to in the next forty years.

By Quinn Hesters

Quinn is a vat-grown living advertisement created by the LEGO Company to promote their products. When he's not being the flesh-and-blood equivalent of a billboard, he's raving about the X-Men on Twitter.

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