Tron at 40: The groundbreaking Disney flop that stood the test of time

Tron (Disney)
Tron (Disney)

It’s easy to overlook just how influential Tron was. Directed by animator-turned-director Steven Lisberger, the film — which turns 40 this week — was so ahead of its time, audiences in 1982 weren’t quite sure what to do with it.

Released little over a month after Steven Spielberg’s alien heartwarmer E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial stormed cinemas, Disney’s highly complex and very experimental science fiction adventure arrived at an unusual moment in time where video game culture was in its infancy and bold digital effects were still a bit of a head scratcher.

It was perhaps this mixture of unprecedented new concepts, combined with the mammoth lasting success of Spielberg’s kids’ classic — which was very much still reverberating through multiplexes — that left its initial slew of viewers perplexed.

Read more: Jared Leto lets slip Tron 3's title

After all, Tron (available to stream on Disney+) is about as high-concept as mainstream movies get.

Tron (Disney)
Jeff Bridges, Cindy Morgan, and Bruce Boxleitner in Tron. (Disney)

In it we meet Flynn (Jeff Bridges) a rebel hacker who, upon discovering the nefarious plans of mega software corporation ENCOM, decides to break into their mainframe and stop them in their tracks.

All’s going well until he gets zapped into the computer, finding himself trapped in a neon-monochrome world where he’s forced to join forces with security program Tron (Bruce Boxleitner) and digitising programme Yori (Cindy Morgan), survive light-disc battles and take down ENCOM from the inside out before escaping back into reality.

Set in both the real and digital world, with actors playing multiple versions of the same character and interacting with visuals that must have been truly dazzling at the time, it’s easy to see why viewers may have struggled to keep up with Lisberger’s vision.

Tron (Disney)
Tron (Disney)

In fact, many members of the film’s cast later admitted to struggling to make sense of the story themselves. While stars like Peter O’Toole were reportedly eager to step into Tron’s jumpsuit, the actors that did get scanned into Disney’s latest venture were met with a film set like no other they’d ever experienced.

Once Lisberger had shot Tron’s reality-set bookends, the real challenge of making the movie began. And it was a big one. Shot entirely on black and white 70mm film, stars like Bridges, Morgan and Boxleitner would have to wear white, skin-tight suits which were then filmed back-lit against black screens.

Read more: Disney 'pulls plug on Tron series'

By shining coloured light through specific camera filters, the movie’s stars could achieve their now-iconic neon coloured look. These shots were then blown up, given a reverse positive image and essentially animated into life — just like a cartoon.

Tron (Disney)
Cindy Morgan and Bruce Boxleitner in the computer world of Tron. (Disney)

Needless to say, it was a huge job. Despite only containing around 15 minutes of computer generated footage, Tron marked the most ambitious use of CGI technology in any film made up until that point.

To help put that into historical context, some of the computers used to bring the film to life only used 2mb of memory (modern smart watches have around 512mb of memory) and contained just 330mb of storage.

It was a process that had never been seen or used before and as digital graphics quickly progressed, it was a groundbreaking step that was quickly eclipsed by easier ways of working.

Lisberger’s techniques were so unheard of that the industry initially declined to reward the hard work of his huge post-production departments, instead labelling their efforts as a form of cheating.

Tron (Disney)
Tron (Disney)

“The motion picture academy refused to nominate Tron for special effects because they said we cheated when we used computers,” explained the director in disbelief just a few years after Tron’s initial release.

“Which in the light of what happened, is just mind boggling.”

Meanwhile, the studio behind the film was so used to being known for its ability to churn out cockle-warming family features, it too struggled to comprehend what it had on its hands. “The film came out and it was just after the E.T situation had occurred,” recalled Lisberger after the fact.

Read more: Disney plotting Tron 3 with Daft Punk

“It was a difficult situation for Disney because they weren’t use to saying: ‘We’ve got the cutting edge movie and we don’t have the cute, cuddly movie’, and I’m sure they were envious of the money that was happening on the other side of town — and it’s true: this film was cutting edge.”

LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 11:  Steven Lisberger and Jeff Bridges attend Walt Disney's
Steven Lisberger and Jeff Bridges attend Walt Disney's TRON: Legacy after party, 2010. (John Sciulli/Getty Images)

Four decades later and Tron’s ability to predict things that have since become commonplace in modern filmmaking are as noticeable as a light cycle speeding through the grid.

From the pioneering techniques used to bring it to life that ultimately paved the way to the movie magic we see today (what current director worth their salt doesn’t take potentially-career ending risks?), right down to the skin-tight PJs worn by its cast that look eerily similar to modern motion capture jumpsuits.

Thankfully, the advent of home video game consoles throughout the 1980s and 1990s helped audiences find new gold in Tron’s computerised frames.

As the digital realm became more and more intertwined with our day-to-day-lives, the cult following for Lisberger’s experimental feature grew and grew.

Tron (Disney)
Tron (Disney)

Cut to today and the idea of stepping into a limitless cyber world where anything is possible is something that places like Facebook are touting as their own Metaverse future.

While Tron’s true legacy may have taken its time to fully emerge, its raw potential was something that Lisberger spotted from day one: “Young people, 10-year-olds, 12-year olds - they didn’t have any fears of preconceptions about all of these things and for the most part they really embraced the film,” he explained after the film’s release.

“They had a sense that this is where the future was going — and it was going to belong to them.”

<em>Tron: Legacy</em> featured a digitally de-aged Jeff Bridges as Clu. (Disney)
Tron: Legacy featured a digitally de-aged Jeff Bridges as Clu. (Disney)

Since its release 40 years ago, Tron has acquired a sizeable fan base, picking up new admirers with each new passing generation, finally earning a sequel in 2010. Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner returned as Kevin Flynn and Alan Bradley for Tron: Legacy, with Daft Punk providing the soundtrack, and the technology had finally caught up with the ambitions of Steven Lisberger.

It received a mixed response from critics, grossing $400m worldwide, but was rightfully recognised by the Academy earning an Oscar nomination for Best Sound Editing.

With a TV spin-off (Tron: Uprising), Disney ride, and persistent rumours of a third film, it's clear there's still a bright future ahead for Tron.

Tron, Tron: Legacy, and Tron: Uprising are all streaming on Disney+.

Watch: Tron: Legacy director talks to Yahoo about Top Gun: Maverick