The Way of the Word

10. March 2010

Tron’s Legacy

The second trailer for Tron: Legacy is out, and it has the internet split in two.

Those over 30 experience geekgasms. Those under 30 don’t understand what the big deal is.

Let me help you out with that. First, watch the trailer. If you don’t know the original movie, you won’t get a lot of what makes us old fogeys go “Whoa.” But that’s okay.

Done? Had fun? Now, indulge an old man and watch the trailer of the original Tron, from 1982. I promise that if you do, some of the stuff from the new trailer will make sense.

Done? Great. How did you like the second one? I know, not nearly as cool as the first one. The CGI look horrible and insanely dated, don’t they? The way Jeff Bridges stumbles on some pretty basic (almost primitive) computer-speak dialog is funny. The story is also a major case of “been there, done that,” right? I mean, some guy getting pulled into VR, what’s so hot about that?

What you need to remember is that the original Tron is from 1982. Nobody even knew what cyberspace was. Sure, the term was coined in 1982, but it didn’t enter the public awareness until William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer in 1984. CGI as we know it today didn’t exist. Sure, there had been some computer graphic effects in movies since 1971, but those had always been about someone looking at a computer screen. CGI, as we know it today, can really only be traced back as far as 1982. ILM used some CGI effects in Star Trek 2. Tron was the first movie to use extensive 3D CGI-sequences, and very simple facial animation. Extensive for the time means that 15 minutes of the movie were completely computer-generated.

That dumb shot of the huge virtual face? At the time, unique. First time ever. The first photorealistic CGI-character didn’t appear on the screen until 1985, and he only had 10 seconds of screen time.

Terminator 2? Jurassic Park? Babylon 5? Toy Story? Matrix? Avatar?

None of them would have been possible without Tron.

Regarding Tron’s story, you could say that it’s an old hat. Sure, there were some elements that were not really new. Basically, it’s a story about a god coming into a world of mortals to help fight a great evil. God being called a “user” and the mortals being “programs.” You could also say that it’s a superhero story. That works just as fine.

So what if the world is VR/cyberspace? Again, you’re looking at the wrong context. Remember what I said above, about how the word cyberspace did not even exist when Tron was made? Nobody had any concept of cyberspace. That there could be a world within the computers… at the time, it was a daring concept that boggled the mind. Matrix took it a step farther… 20 years after Tron, when it really was an old hat.

Maybe all of this will give you a certain sense of perspective. Maybe now you understand why Tron is such a big deal for those of us who are over 30.

Tron was in 1982 what Avatar is in 2010: it was the movie that redefined what movies could do. It was the big game changer. It created new possibilities and set a new standard, that everyone who followed had to try and outdo.

In 30 years, your children will ask you why Avatar, this dated movie with that dumb story, is such a big deal to you.  (Actually, considering how much more quickly technology progresses these days, it will probably be much sooner than 30 years.) Then you will explain to them, as I do here, just how different movies were before and after Avatar.

And that is why Tron is such a big deal for us who saw it when it was new. Are the effects dated? Of course. Is the story original? By now, no longer. Is the acting cheesy? Actually, I don’t think so. At least most of the time it’s pretty solid.

Do we, the over-30s, expect Tron: Legacy to be a game-changer, the way its daddy was? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t think so. It will, however, be a good showcase for the advance of CGI since 1982. It will also, I expect, be a great deal of fun, and it is the only movie coming out this year that I will actually make an effort to see in the 3D-version.

I really, really look forward to this one.



  1. All valid points and a great breakdown of why this – along with some other films – require a little context to get a sense of how fondly people think of them.

    For me, Tron and Black Hole were two peculiarities from Disney – though the concepts weren’t entirely groundbreaking science fiction, they were pretty intense, downbeat and adult movies coming from that company.

    One thing I’d take issue with is that the Matrix wasn’t 10 years later, it was nearly 20… but I suspect that was just a glitch. The extra ten years make the comparison even more poignant…

    Comment by Nicolas Papaconstantinou — 10. March 2010 @ 18:39

  2. Thank you for pointing that Matrix error out. Yes, that was just a typo. I fixed it.

    I went to see Black Hole because of its terrific cast. I always felt that BH was overly ambitious, striving for something greater than it could achieve. Instead of greatness, it found… well, cheesiness. At the time I enjoyed it for what it was. I even used to read the sequel comic book series. 🙂 Then there was a period where I just saw all the flaws. These days, I’m thinking more along the lines of what it might have tried to do, and why it failed at it. (I think the robots did it in — probably the Star Wars influence.)

    I believe that Tron, on the other hand, accomplished exactly what it wanted. At the time, I didn’t consider it as groundbreaking as I do now, with 20/20 hindsight. Back then, I thought (and still do) that Blade Runner was the movie that set the bar for the 1980s.

    Writing this was actually fun. I’m supposed to write about Tron: Legacy for a German movie magazine later this year (closer to release time), and I will probably re-use some of this blog post for that article. I might tackle the Nightmare on Elm Street movies next for a look about how the evolution of that franchise (especially remake vs. original) reflects the generational changes.

    Comment by jensaltmann — 10. March 2010 @ 18:53

  3. The one thing I’m not too happy about is that they’re using Daft Punk for the score — Wendy Carlos’ score for the original was a fantastic piece of work, one of the few times in movie scoring where she’d been allowed to really run with it.

    Comment by Steven E. McDonald — 18. March 2010 @ 03:13

  4. I’m going to reserve judgment on the score until I’ve seen the whole thing. Who knows what they’ll come up with. Plus, I have no clue who Daft Punk are, so…

    Comment by jensaltmann — 18. March 2010 @ 11:01

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