I’ve been watching more non-anime films lately, partly with the intent of connecting to influential works of geek culture. Today’s menu: 1982’s Tron.
My general image of Tron is shaped by my earliest days online, back in the 1990s. Being into things like video games and anime, websites would often laud Tron as a work that shaped perceptions of what the inner world of computers looked like, but also really appealed to nerds even as it was less well received by many movie critics and didn’t perform astoundingly at the box office. The grids and games of “Deadly Discs” and what-not carried a virtual cyberpunk aesthetic, even if the film might not be technically cyberpunk.
Now that I’ve watched it, I can see exactly why some would love it to bits and others would find it shallow and impenetrable. It’s the kind of movie where in order to enjoy it, you need to be in love with the aesthetics or at least highly appreciative of them. The world they depict, highly reminiscent of the arcade games of the 1980s mixed with a hauntingly sterile environment, carries a certain specific attraction that current artists try to capture through things like vaporware. As someone who is into this sort of thing, experiencing Tron could feel like a religious experience, or like a David Lynch or Oshii Mamoru work. The fact that the universe of Tron has programs as living entities who speak of their programmers in hushed tones of reverence (while a rogue program forces its fellow brings to renounce their creators) certainly adds to it.
But it’s in that basking that Tron can drag. Moments meant for viewers to revel in the heretofore unseen computer graphics and the eerie world around them can take a long time—enough to make even me impatient. For anyone who is not so on-board with the aesthetics, whether because they were a 1980s critic for whom “computer world” held no value or because Tron most assuredly looks at least somewhat dated to a modern viewer, these moments can get in the way of the story rather than complement it.
To compare Tron to later works might be an exercise in foolishness (what was once novel is now commonplace), but the first thing that pops to my mind is the 1990s cartoon Reboot. In a similar manner, that show depicts a world inside the computer where programs go on their own adventures and have a strange relationship with a being on high (the “player”). And given that decades have passed since Reboot as well, it might be worth revisiting just to see how its depiction of the universe inside electronics holds up today.
So Tron is definitely a nerd film that valued things mainstream critics often would not. Today, it might seem too plain. But its look and feel can still resonate today, amidst the enduring revival of 80s nostalgia. I feel like I can understand the past and present just a bit more.