Director: Steven Lisburger
Writer: Steven Lisburger
Hello everybody in cyberland! Here’s my first “blog” post on the compu-net. I hope the good netizens of the world approve!
I borrowed Tron from the Toronto Public Library. In 1982 there was a popular sense that the personal computer had opened a new frontier for outlaw activity. But because computers are essentially office equipment, there was little about hacking to make it into an exciting source of cinematic action. Wargames, released in 1983, portrayed computer hacking as a pursuit for disaffected, underachieving teenagers. Matthew Broaderick played high-school hacker David Lightman whose exploits plunged him into a cross-country fugitive adventure with cold war era Nuclear-apocalyptic overtones. The post-cold war film, Hackers, released in 1995, maintained the teen-aged outlaw portrayal of hackers although the film bestowed upon them roller-blades and mid-90’s club kid style and attitude. Both Wargames and Hackers represent computer hackers as mildly malevolent kids who possess a knowledge of the weaknesses of contemporary technologies and infrastructure that gets them into, and out of, tense situations. Tron predates these films and charts a unique path among hacker movies, where the hacker enters the computer and conquers its internal landscape.
Tron is unique because its basic narrative revolves around anthropomorphized computer programs. The programs are represented as men who fight with each other for survival. Much of the movie takes place inside of a computer system that is being hacked by former programmer and current arcade owner, Kevin Flynn. Flynn seeks the evidence that his video game designs have been stolen from him by Ed Dillinger, the film’s villain who is currently an executive of the company Flynn used to work for, a software development firm called ENCOM. While Tron’s hackers are grown-up software industry professionals, Flynn exists in a state of perpetual adolescence. He is first alluded to by Alan Bradley, a former colleague, in conversation with Lora Baines, also a former ENCOM colleague as well as an ex-girlfriend, as a programmer who wastefully used his considerable talent to program games. He first appears in the film as the centre of attention, surrounded by enraptured kids, achieving a high score on a game machine in his arcade. That scene recalls a time when the video arcade was a space where heroes were made. I suspect that this brief scene, displaying the handsome and fun loving Flynn, surrounded by girls that are amazed by his gaming abilities, provides the model for the nighttime fantasies of the sad subterraneans who populate the King of Kong and Chasing Ghosts documentaries.
|Flynn at the arcade.|
|Video game great, Robert Mruczek, is featured in the 2007 documentaries The King of Kong, and Chasing Ghosts: Beyond the Arcade.|
This film quickly progresses from displaying Flynn’s hacking efforts, where he types at a keyboard, to zapping him into inner-space of the computer via some kind of transmogrifier. While the computer interior should probably be a domain under the MCP’s complete control, it is actually a chaotic realm subject to the same unpredictable shifts in power as any other landscape populated by people of divergent interests and motivations. Dellinger’s avatar within the computer, Sark, is Tron’s Darth Vader. He is a military leader who orders his red guard around. The Red’s are Fascistic foot soldiers that seem to take computer programs hostage and force them into armed combat with one another. The film’s title refers to a network security program, designed by Alan Bradley, that is essentially a powerful hacking tool. In the computer realm, Tron is a figure who is preternaturally skilled at overcoming any of the challenges Sark throws at him, and is such a powerful new program that he is essentially destined to succeed in destroying the MPC, which, of course, happens in the end. Similarly, Flynn is not an avatar but is rather a user materially transported into the machine. Computer users are regarded as godlike entities by the anthropomorphic programs in Tron, and therefore Flynn is considered a power previously unseen in the space. Within the computer realm, hacking is game-playing, and Flynn’s honed game skills put him on par with Tron in terms of breaking through Sark and MPC’s security systems.
Tron has succeeded in finding a way of representing hacking as adventurous in a way that is interesting to cinema. In most hacker films, the scenes in which the hacking being done are the least interesting, generally, and the inevitable post-hacking run from the police or whoever is where the action is. Of course, Tron succeeds at this by removing anything that resembles actual hacker activity and turning the whole enterprise into an adventure quest, but so what? Tron’s aesthetic is also really great, as the whole computer world is a light-blue monochrome against a black sky, and every character glows red or blue. The evil Master Control Program is represented as a spinning glowing monolith that speaks, and for a film villain, is genuinely intimidating (although by 1982 Disney has long mastered the hero vs villain quest formula).
Tron is probably one of the first cinematic representations of the computer as a space to be explored, rather than a tool to be utilized. Furthermore, the film presents the hacker as an outlaw hero whose knowledge of technology allows him to undo the wrongs of the powerful. This mode of thought about hackers continues today where hackers such as Julian Assange of Wikileaks, to name a single example, claim to use their technological acumen in ways which appear morally questionable, but are vindicated when they achieve a moral good. Flynn’s infiltration of ENCOM computers and the ultimate destruction of their property is vindicated by his discovery of proof that Dillinger stole his game code. In the film, Flynn is detached from any hacker subculture, but the model he provides is identifiably present throughout the actual hacker world.