Here’s a fair question: How can a bomb from 1982 continue to impact the way we imagine cyberspace?
It’s always grids and neon—synths and geometric shapes. When Homer Simpson found himself in this virtual dimension, surrounded by cones, equations, and clip art, he asked if anyone had ever seen the movie Tron. One by one, the residents of Springfield said “No.”
Released the same year Disney opened up their futurist edutainment EPCOT park, Tron impressed critics but failed to speak to audiences. It wildly underperformed for the investment, costing $17 million and taking in only three million on its opening weekend. According to James B. Stewart’s book DisneyWar (2005), the studio largely considered the project a write-off. Of course, as we now know, the film’s audience grew as it became an 80s cult icon, and computers became more familiar to the general public. Its increasing popularity even encouraged a sequel decades later, the also financially sluggish Tron: Legacy (2010), which brought the original cyberspace vision back into the collective consciousness, or at least tried. But in 1982, Tron was a confusing journey through techno jargon for people who might have only encountered a computer six times a year.
That alienation, however, meant the film could treat its innerspace like outerspace—a fantastic new universe, the motto that seemed to drive 80s Disney with both Tron and EPCOT. “I was inspired by the people who worked with computers,” said creator Steven Lisberger during a Q&A. “That’s where the story came from. It was their dedication to something that didn’t exist yet.”
From this came the burning question of what the computer world looks like. What was visually known to most about personal computers in the early 80s were green shivering scrolls of text along a dullish black screen. In arcades, lights and colorful cabinets coated screens that, again, processed and presented pixelated cartoon shapes residing in a void-like world. Colorless drapes with props in front like black light puppetry. The vibrant worlds of 2D platformers like Super Mario Bros (1985), Pac-Land (1984), and Wonder Boy (1986) were still a few years away, meaning games hadn’t even known a blue sky.
Tron’s vision was a logical epic. For a film about computers it was impressively low-tech, the glowing uniforms created with spandex and sharpies, illuminated in post-editing by animators who hand-drew the famous neon outlines. The Academy Awards left it out of the special effects category, claiming that, at the time, computers were akin to cheating.
Even if it didn’t pay off in the box office, Disney recruited some of the best to envision cyberspace. Artists like Moebius and Syd Mead, who also worked on Alien (1979) together, not to mention the perfect pair for a techno-fantasy. Mead’s early work was in automotive trade, machine illustrations, while Moebius was one of the fantasy artists who founded the iconic Heavy Metal Magazine.
“Tron was a game on the backside of a CRT,” said Mead during a red-carpet chat. “There was no weight, no gravity, it was graphical. I plugged that into my design mentality.” By virtue of being a cinematic first, Tron decided, based on information available at the time, what cyberspace looks like. Popular or not, its vision has stuck due to establishing the nomenclature of computer-made worlds. The answer to that notion has only become harder with time as we actually began to consider living within the machine.
games hadn’t even known a blue sky
We know that computers can process far more than basic shapes. If you want to be a knight in shining armour, a wild west outlaw, or Shrek, it’s only a matter of polygons, movement, and textures. Theoretically, anything can be programmed, and the computer can look like anything. But even as computers grew more powerful, Tron’s vision continued to stick. ReBoot (1994-2001), the animated series which similarly set itself inside the digital realm, seemed to use Tron as a launching point. The city of Mainframe is surrounded by grids and basic textures, its inhabitants are geometric shapes. Not only did The Simpsons return to Tron, but so did The Strokes, South Park, Star Trek: The Next Generation’s holodeck, garbage trucks of 90s cyberpunk cinema from Hackers to Johnny Mnemonic, and a great number of videogames including Deus Ex (2000), System Shock (1999), and Second Life (2003), not to mention it being Daft Punk’s entire aesthetic. Parody or not, it seems like Tron is the default for the computer world. And what a great default.
Though transhumanism’s roots began earlier in the century, its seminal texts were still years away when Tron released. The fact that Tron was a major studio film seems all the more baffling when you consider the idea of inhabiting a computer was holistically new, coming from nearly nowhere. And as to what that looks like with modern context is even more straining. We can grasp now that ideas of vision and perception as we know them are human comforts, and that data does not experience the world the way we do. If there is an antithesis to Tron, it’s The Matrix (1999), which suggests a computer world will be a simulation identical to Earth, but both might be pulling our leg as far as experiencing that world. We can’t expect the digital landscape, if we ever enter them like Flynn in Tron (though not through a teleporter), to be experiences boiled down to something we can at least connect with. Plus a computer world that conceptually just mirrors our own is kind of dull to visually expand on, so score a point to Tron.
When Tron was revisited decades later, with Tron: Legacy and the Tony Hawk Pro-Skater reminiscent videogame Tron 2.0 (2003), the initial vision was tweaked, but not transformed. We base our vision of dinosaurs on crocodiles and dragons even though they might have looked more like birds. We base the aliens we imagine on pulp comics and Spielberg movies, even though they might simply be gasses or amoebas. We base cyberspace on Tron, which took on the notion with both pragmatism and colorful flair. And even though cyberspace might look nothing like what the film proposed, if it looks like anything at all, we honor Tron for breaking the mold with something we can relate to today, a world increasingly fixated on the digital mind and engaging with virtual reality, even if 1982 didn’t appreciate it.