I suppose I should fess up and admit that I was a pre-teen geek of the highest order circa 1982. My idea of fun was a day spent banging out BASIC programs on the membrane keyboard of my Timex Sinclair computer followed by a trip to the neighborhood video arcade with my gang of like-minded pals. Whoops, looks like things havenít really changed all that much but I digress.
If ever there was a target demographic for "Tron" then I was -- and still am -- it. I have very fond memories of going to see the film during that long ago summer and purchasing the various comic book and other movie tie-ins that soon followed. Here was a film that took place inside a computer and the hero was not only a hacker but also owned his own video arcade. Could Kevin Flynn possibly have been any cooler?
On that first viewing I was blown away by the technical, gee-whiz, aspects of "Tron" and that was how I remembered it until I revisited the film some years later in college. At that time I finally recognized the many shortcomings of the film that had earlier eluded my less than critical eye. The weakness of the story, somewhat wooden acting, and long periods of little or no action forced me to reevaluate my earlier infatuation with "Tron" and I sadly filed the movie away as one of those childhood pleasures that just doesnít hold up well in the long run.
It was with that state of mind that I sat down to watch Disneyís new 2-disc special edition of "Tron." Although I didnít expect to feel any different about the movie itself, I was looking forward to watching the extras and then putting the disc on the shelf next to other childhood favorites like "The Black Hole" and "The Goonies" that I donít watch much but am nevertheless glad to own.
Imagine my surprise when, within a few minutes of starting the disc, I was once again drawn into the world of "Tron" just like I was as a kid. Sure, the critical impressions I formed upon my later viewing still stand but going on 20 years after its initial theatrical release, "Tron" stands as a groundbreaking feature film with a unique style that has never been duplicated. Itís with the benefit of this hindsight that it becomes easier to appreciate "Tron" for all that it accomplished rather than deriding it for its few shortcomings.
Disney had previously released "Tron" as a bare-bones DVD with no extras and a problematic non-anamorphic transfer. This new 2-DVD special edition puts the previous release to shame. Fans of the film are now treated to a beautiful new anamorphic transfer, a new 5.1 audio mix, and an entire second disc packed with insightful extras.
In "Tron," Jeff Bridges stars as Kevin Flynn, a former employee of ENCOM whose lifeís work was stolen out from under from him by his supervisor, Ed Dillinger (David Warner). In Flynnís absence Dillinger has introduced the Master Control Program (MCP), a tyrannical computer program that seeks to dominate not only the world of bits and bytes but the physical world as well.
When Flynnís former co-workers Alan (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora (Cindy Morgan) find themselves locked out of the computer network they convince Flynn to return to ENCOM with them in an attempt to hack into the system, shut down the MCP, and find proof of Dillingerís wrongdoing.
But the MCP isnít about to go down without a fight and it zaps Flynn with an experimental beam that transforms his physical body into a computer program at the mercy of the MCP and its digital minions.
In this alternate computer world, programs take on the appearance of their real world programmers and Flynn soon hooks up with the Alan look-alike, Tron, a security program sent to defeat the MCP. The chief obstacle in their way is the evil program Sark, the MCPís lieutenant and Dillinger doppelganger.
To find and defeat the MCP, Flynn and Tron must traverse a vast computer world populated by programs both good and bad. During their journey they make use of such modes of transport as lightcycles, tanks, recognizers, and solar sailers which afford the filmís creators ample opportunity to show off their then cutting-edge technology and production art.
The unabashed "look what we can do" feel of its fully realized computer world gives the filmís CGI a much more prominent air than is typically seen in movies these days where the whole point is to try and fool the audience with transparent computer special effects. In addition, the design of everything from the costumes to the myriad background matte paintings reveal that "Tron" was a film made by true artists who just so happened to be branching out into the new realm of computer animation.
After spending some time viewing the extras itís easy to excuse the filmmakers for some of the movieís more glaring shortcomings. "Tron" started out as a germ of an idea but when the behemoth that is Disney jumped on board the project was suddenly put on the fast track. In a matter of months the team had to finish the script, select the cast, and figure just how in blazes they were going to make their pie-in-the-sky special effects ideas a reality. Under those pressures it shouldnít come as a surprise that the final film isnít as polished and professional as it could have been.
"Tron" is presented in its original 2.20:1 aspect ratio and is anamorphically enhanced. Itís important to understand upfront just how much abuse was heaped on the film elements in the drive to achieve the cutting-edge special effects. In some cases, a single second of film was subjected to over 100 different physical processes to get the final look. For this reason, the film has a somewhat worn and soft appearance for much of its runtime and no amount of restoration work is going to change that.
The real world footage is quite nice with vibrant -- if not a bit garish -- colors, only slight film grain, and very solid black levels. As the movie shifts into the computer world the image quality drastically changes. Here the film grain is quite heavy, colors are either muted or neon, and black levels tend more toward gray. But again, this is just how "Tron" looks so the DVD canít really be faulted.
I found the overall image quality to be very true to the original and mercifully free of any DVD compression artifacts, aliasing, or glaring edge enhancement. This is as good a video transfer as weíre likely to see in the near future.
Audio is presented in a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that is dominated by the front speakers with only a few musical cues and sound effects spreading to the surrounds. Dynamic range is surprisingly good with very clear highs and an abundance of deep bass. In fact, the LFE channel seems to have been a bit over-emphasized so purists will likely want to dial down the subwoofer a few notches. Dialogue is always clearly understood and is firmly anchored to the center speaker. This is a fairly pleasing audio mix but thereís just no comparing an early 1980s soundtrack to its modern counterparts.
"Tron" is billed as a special edition and the bulk of the included extras are truly informative and entertaining. Disc one features the film itself along with a commentary track culled from the previous laserdisc boxed set. Featuring director Steve Lisberger, producer Donald Kushner, effects guru Harrison Ellenshaw, and effects supervisor Richard Taylor, this is an engaging track that is chock full of information. While itís a given that much of the discussion focuses on the production design of "Tron," the filmmakers also delve into the original ideas behind the story and the more human aspects of making this motion picture.
The remainder of the bonus features reside on disc two and chief among these is the brand new 90-minute documentary, "The Making of Tron." Featuring interviews with all of the principal participants -- save for David Warner -- this feature succeeds at explaining the origins of "Tron" and the continuing appeal of the film some two decades later. The cast and crew all have fond memories of this very difficult project and are clearly enthusiastic about participating on this new DVD.
Also included in the documentary are behind-the-scenes peeks, early production designs, and a handful of snippets from the movie. Many of the other extras on the disc are at least touched upon during this piece so this really is a good place to start as it makes some of the follow-on special features a bit redundant. This is just the type of in-depth documentary that is sorely lacking from most current so-called special editions.
The "Development" section of the disc offers up some early "Tron" test footage and concept art as well as some of the previous animation work done by Lisberger Studios.
"Digital Imagery" provides five featurettes exploring the groundbreaking CGI used on "Tron" and highlights test footage from MAGI and Triple-I -- the outside studios that were hired to work on "Tron."
The "Music" section offers a few gems for fans of Wendy Carlosí work. First up is the lightcycle scene with an alternate music track that was removed from the final film. Next are the end credits featuring Carlosí original music instead of the Journey song "Only Solutions" that was used in the final theatrical release.
"Publicity" offers four theatrical trailers as well as a trailer consisting of test footage. Also included is the 5-minute trailer that was thrown together for the National Association of Theater Owners convention and acted as a test of sorts for the filmmaking process that was to be used for "Tron." Also available are galleries of production photos and advertising and merchandising artwork.
"Deleted Scenes" consists of two so-called love scenes between Tron and Yori -- one with audio and one without. Also included is an alternate opening prologue that introduces the world of "Tron" through some opening text.
The "Design" section offers up a myriad of animated and still galleries that cover the design work for practically every character, vehicle, and environment in the movie.
"Storyboarding" features both animated and still storyboard galleries as well as a storyboard-to-final film comparison that uses the lightcycle scene as its example.
These extras provide an incredible amount of information that is laid out in a logical and easy to navigate manner. Disney is getting better and better at their DVD user interfaces and "Tron" features some amazing, but fairly non-obtrusive, animated menus.
What more is there to say? At long last Disney has graced "Tron" with a deluxe special edition truly worthy of such a groundbreaking and influential film. "Tron" certainly has its detractors and wasnít exactly a box office goldmine but I can think of few films that have so influenced an entire generation of computer programmers, filmmakers, and artists. This is one of those touchstone films of the early 1980s that has impacted every special effects movie since without ever being directly copied.
Featuring a truly unique style, "Tron" stands as not only one of the very first CGI films but also as one of the most original and daring motion pictures of all time. And all this from a studio that no one would have been caught dead referring to as "groundbreaking."
Featuring an excellent new video transfer, a solid audio mix, and a wealth of bonus features, the new "Tron" 2-disc special edition is a real treat for fans of the film. While not every viewer will be swayed by its charms, anyone with even the slightest interest in the history of film, animation, or computer graphics design really must sit down with "Tron" and experience this remarkable film for the first -- or even fiftieth -- time.