When I was a kid in the 1980s, I saw virtually none of the movies my peers saw at the time. Ghostbusters? No. The Goonies? Absolutely not. Top Gun? What are you thinking? Part of this was where I grew up: the middle of nowhere, with the closest movie theater more than 40 miles away. If you didn’t manage to catch a movie in the single week it played there, you’d have to wait and hope it showed up on the local gas station’s rental wall, or on TV. I was also a weirdly sensitive kid, prone to fits of terror at just about anything. (Merely seeing Slimer in a Ghostbusters tie-in book gave me a horrific nightmare.) Naturally, my parents wanted to protect me from stuff that would keep me up at night. But I had another, larger reason for all of this: I was a fundamentalist Christian kid.
This didn’t stymie everyone in the church I went to. Most of the rest of the kids saw the PG outings of the day, which left them able to converse somewhat intelligently about the deeper Christian meanings of, say, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. (Coming up with deeper Christian meanings for Hollywood films, the meanings the filmmakers “truly” intended, was a Sunday-school pastime.) But our church viewed science fiction, fantasy, and horror warily, thinking that these sorts of entertainments were only there to push us toward a conception of the universe without God at its center. Where today’s fundamentalist Christians try to engage with pop culture, to find the Christian meaning in The Matrix or Lord Of the Rings, I was petrified when my mother found out I was reading a novelization of Star Wars, a movie I didn’t see until I was 17. I was sure I’d get a lecture about how the Force was a gateway drug to New Age philosophies, an attempt to supplant God at the center of everything. (Somehow, I escaped after profuse apology.)
What’s odd about all this is that the more I see these movies, the more I become convinced they could have been used in happy little object lessons about how God wants only to save us. That includes Tron, a mostly mediocre-to-awful film with some fascinating ideas about the nature of divinity and the relationship between God and humanity rattling around in its empty little skull. At the time, I wasn’t allowed to see it, because it placed computers at the same level as humans. Now that I’ve actually seen the film, it’s hard to see how it could be mistaken for anything other than pro-human propaganda. Go us! (And by extension, if you swing that way, God!)
Tron has no idea what story it wants to tell. Having been aware of the film only from having seen bits and pieces of it over the years, I was pretty sure it was about Jeff Bridges getting zapped into a computer and acting like Jeff Bridges, all charm and rapscallionosity. And it is sort of about that, at least in its middle section. But the opening and closing acts are about Bruce Boxleitner, who plays a programmer attempting to free the network of the company he works for from the malevolent Master Control Program, using a program called Tron. (Boxleitner also plays the personification of Tron.)
This is sort of as if a nerdier Luke Skywalker got the adventure started, then turned things over to Han Solo for a while, then returned to wrap things up at the end. Structurally, it makes the movie a mess. We spend quite a while getting acquainted with the work struggles of Boxleitner and girlfriend Cindy Morgan, only to have the film abruptly make Bridges the protagonist, giving him a pointless backstory and a weird identity as a videogame champion/rock star. Bridges is almost charming enough to get away with it, but not quite, and I was surprised by how much I wondered what the hell Boxleitner and Morgan were up to in the “real world” (as onscreen text dubs it) when Bridges got sucks into a computer at the 30-minute mark and abruptly enters gladiatorial combat with other programs. When Bridges makes a largely meaningless sacrifice at the climax and disappears from the movie, it feels even more forced. And the movie’s real protagonist is just boring. Tron isn’t a character, he’s an impossibly virtuous computer program.
But that isn’t what anybody remembers about the movie. What they remember is that it looks really fucking cool, even today. And it must have looked genuinely amazing back in 1982, from the subtly glowing costumes to the cool darks and vibrant colors of the sets to the videogame-y bleeps and bloops of the sound design, where footsteps sound like Pong, and Pac-Man makes an audiovisual cameo. The light-cycle chase is the most famous section of the film, but check out this really nifty match of jai alai to the death for a sense of how the film’s aesthetic largely holds up.
Sadly, the film is also way too in love with the idea of computer-generated graphics and the sound of its occasionally haunting but mostly overbearing electronic score. This, combined with the structurally messy story, leads to scenes that might as well have a voiceover saying “SHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAPES!”
Or scenes where the action makes little to no sense, while the soundtrack is like being trapped in the electronics section at Target while kids noodle away on every keyboard on display.
The film’s also seems uncertain how far it can push the film’s science-fiction world, or its content. (Some lines suggest Boxleitner and Morgan are lovers, but they might as well be characters from a courtly romance, they’re so chaste. Meanwhile, Bridges eventually falls in love with a computer-program version of Morgan.) Honestly, Tron’s vision of the inside of a computer as a kingdom unto itself could have been a bigger selling point, had the film wanted to make it one. (I’d assumed it would be kind of like that Muppet Babies episode where the kids all go inside Scooter’s computer.) Yet the film’s vision of insurance actuarial programs personified as people just as boring as those who coded them, or of programs racing through a computer’s memory, trying to stay one step ahead of the baddies, is pretty nifty, if you don’t think too hard. I can see why the film has inspired such a devoted cult of people obsessed with its world and characters: It offers the suggestion of so much more just beneath the surface. (Still, I could have done without the goofy scene where the programs drink luminescent water.)
On the other hand, it is a Disney film, so the explanation for how Bridges ends up inside the computer practically boils down to “Computers are magic!” In that scene, a goofy old scientist explains his new method for what eventually evolved into the technology we now use to send oranges via e-mail. All this scene needs is a dancing cartoon penguin to signify that this is a Disney project.
And yet as I watched Tron, I kept coming back to the idea of my upbringing, and the reasons I was forbidden to see the film. The science fiction/horror/fantasy fill-in we Christian kids were supposed to embrace was the idea of “spiritual warfare,” the idea that angels and demons were battling all around us, and we could urge on our personal angels by praying harder to help them best their demon adversaries, an idea best expressed in Frank Peretti’s genuinely entertaining Christian popcorn reads This Present Darkness and Piercing The Darkness. Peretti has been trying to get a film adaptation off the ground for ages, but Tron already sort of beat him to it. It’s about the idea that there are beings more powerful than humans, which nonetheless hold humans in a kind of awe, and who fight evil adversaries who would do us harm. Granted, in Tron, these beings are bits and pieces of data floating around the inside of a machine, but in the co-dependent world where programs bond with particular users, they might as well be guardian angels.
Tron runs into trouble by trying to graft a clumsy hero myth onto this storyline, involving the Tron program defeating the evil MCP with a program Boxleitner gave him, but that’s far less fascinating than everything else around the edges. As the film hits its midpoint, Bridges talks with computer versions of Boxleitner and Morgan about how the programs just keep doing what they’re doing because that’s what they’re programmed to do, and they expect things to turn out okay if they stick with their assigned roles. Then he blows the pair’s minds by suggesting that “users” live in a similar way, just doing what we think we’re supposed to do, in the hopes that someone will notice and reward us for doing the right things. And, ultimately, isn’t that the idea at the heart of religion?