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August 23-29, 2006

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Cult Leader

Free Tron Now!: Almost 25 years later, Disney's failed sci-fi flick is a midnight movie—and a geek cause celèbre

By Steve Palopoli

'IT'S the end, the end of the '70s; it's the end, the end of the century." It wasn't just a Ramones lyric—especially in Hollywood, which had just been changed forever by the unexpected and totally off-the-chart success of Star Wars. Every studio wanted a yank on those coattails, none more so perhaps than Disney, who suddenly decided it was going all in on PG-rated science fiction. Its first foray, 1979's The Black Hole, was a disaster on every level you can think of, and probably some that haven't even been discovered yet. You'd think they might have given up, but then along came a young writer-director named Steven Lisberger, who somehow talked them into doing a movie about what went on in those newfangled "computers" and what would happen if a person got sucked in there. They gave him millions of dollars and a bunch of young stars, and he gave them a revolutionary movie, an opening salvo into the cinematic digital age called Tron.

Which tanked.

It's hard to say why this movie, which barely made back its production and marketing costs at the box office, wasn't the megahit everyone was expecting. It got a huge push from Disney. It had all kinds of tie-ins. And it was released in 1982—the same year as Buckner and Garcia's Pac Man Fever album, for chrissakes. Computers were cool for the first time ever. The stars would seem to have been aligned.

But as it plays the Camera Cinemas' midnight movie this weekend, it's clear that whatever the reason, the sense of disappointment that's always shrouded Tron is precisely what makes its fans so protective of it. Among geeks, it's practically a cause celèbre: screw Mumia, free Tron! It doesn't hurt that nerds of a certain arcade age grew up on the Tron video games, which reportedly outgrossed the film. (God knows how many quarters I have sacrificed to Sark and his goddamned Discs of Tron.)

So the question is: Why do fans care? It sure ain't the plot. Even the faithful are usually hard-pressed to remember the details of Tron's overcomplicated and confusing story about the Master Control Program that is "snapping up programs" in the real world, apparently with the intent of turning itself into an evil supercomputer along the lines of "AM" in Harlan Ellison's "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream." Whatever is going on along those lines pretty much gets dropped when Lisberger gets to the computer world, where the enslaved programs have human bodies and are forced to fight each other in high-tech gladiator competition when the MCP brands them subversive.

These computer-world segments are what Tron is really remembered for. Recently, I wrote about how Richard Linklater rescued the rotoscoping process of drawing over live-action from talentless hacks, but I forgot to mention Tron's elegant use of the process. Who can forget the soft neon glow over black-and-white? Especially since there hasn't been anything like it before or since.

Fans always say that Tron was ahead of its time, and in many ways, it was. I'd bet money it was the first film to use the expression "hacking." And it's safe to say it was also the first video-game movie. But ironically for such a futuristic-type film, it looked to the past for its most effective touches. The architecture and staging recall Lang's classic Metropolis more than anything else. And when one character says "stranger and stranger," you've gotta think Lisberger was intentionally tipping his hat to Lewis Carroll, the godfather of Tron's "down the rabbit hole" scenario.

My personal favorite thing about Tron is that Jeff Bridges gives us his second glimpse of The Dude (the first having come a year before in Cutter's Way). Watch the scene where he says, "I was this close to starting my own enterprise, man!" and tell me you don't expect him to add, "I've got information, man! New shit has come to light!"

Tron plays Thursday (Aug. 24) at 9:30pm at the Los Gatos Cinema, Friday (Aug. 25) at midnight at the Camera 7 and Saturday (Aug. 26) at midnight at Camera 12. Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback or your favorite video-game movie here.

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