In the early 1980s, digital technology was new, mysterious and its workings largely unknown to the general public. So, when Tron came along – with its dastardly Master Control Program and experimental laser, capable of digitizing humans – it caught the imaginations of cinema audiences around the world.
Writer-director Steven Lisberger (Hot Pursuit) based the film on a story he wrote with Bonnie MacBird, having seen the early video game called Pong. Sparking the idea for bringing those similar video game visuals to a cinema release, Lisberger’s film features Jeff Bridges as Flynn – a computer programmer, working to reclaim credit for his work that was stolen by a colleague – Dillinger (David Warner). Trying to hack into the mainframe of the company, he is repeatedly thwarted by the Master Control Program (MCP), which is an Artificial Intelligence security measure installed by Dillinger.
When it becomes clear that the MCP is planning to seize control of other, external mainframes – such as the Pentagon – Dillinger realizes he has lost control and tries to intervene, only to be blackmailed into submission by his creation. After enlisting the help of two former colleagues – Baines (Cindy Morgan) and Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) – Flynn increases the security clearance of ‘Tron,’ which is a separate security program designed by Bradley. In the process, however, the MCP defends itself by digitizing Flynn into the mainframe using an experimental laser. Once inside, Flynn discovers a horrifying dictatorship, in which programs are violently oppressed. Flynn and his colleagues work to set things right, and find a way home.
Betrayal runs deep in Tron. Not only is Flynn betrayed by his colleague, Dillinger, who plagiarizes his work, but he is then betrayed by his own creation – the MCP. Once inside the digital world, Flynn and friends purposefully encourage the oppressed Programs to betray their dictator, the MCP, while trying to stop the MCP from betraying the nation, by attacking the Pentagon, other agencies, and other countries. Conflict arises from Dillinger’s realization that his Artificial Intelligence program has evolved beyond his control, and Flynn’s discovery that his Programs are being controlled by this sentient, megalomaniac security software.
Coming at a time when digital landscapes were uncharted territory for most, the idea of being taken inside of it – visually, at least – was groundbreaking in terms of a cinema release and, though the effects and soundtrack date this film quite drastically, it became something of a cult classic over the intervening decades. It was so revered that, a full 28 years later, it got a sequel – Tron: Legacy. Directed by Joseph Kosinski, and with Steven Lisberger on board as producer, the film was a box office hit and introduced a whole new generation to the achievement of Tron.