WELCOME TO THE MACHINE: The new Disney film “Tron: Legacy” picks up the story of the 1982 movie “Tron,” which was neither a critical nor a commercial success but somehow still echoes in pop culture as an early signpost of the digital era’s glowing frontier. “Tron” is remembered more for its ideas and images (and its namesake video game) than for its story or characters, and that is a challenge presented to this new film, which stars Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund and Olivia Wilde.
The standard line about why the original “Tron” film failed at the box office back in 1982 is that it was a cinematic mess, a glorified video game that director Steven Lisberger failed to transform into a coherent movie. I always felt there was more to it than that, which is why, three years after it tanked, I jumped at the chance to sit in on a UC Irvine-sponsored screening of the movie and an exploration of its themes by a USC literature professor who also happened to be a practicing psychoanalyst.
Jay Martin, who in 2000 was given a USC Faculty Lifetime Achievement Award, provided a fascinating interpretation of what Lisberger accomplished in “Tron,” and why film critics and the public reacted so negatively. In short, he said the film perfectly re-created what happens within the schizophrenic brain, something that profoundly disturbed those who saw it. After the article came out, I received an appreciative note from Lisberger, saying he felt that Martin’s analysis was spot-on.
Last week, as momentum was building toward the theatrical release of “Tron: Legacy,” I reconnected with Lisberger, who also is a producer on the new film, and he said he thinks the problem Martin outlined two decades ago shouldn’t be an issue today.
“There’s been a strange shift in the zeitgeist,” he told me. “The current generation has grown up split between the real world and the digital world. I think people are more open to that division today than people were when ‘Tron’ came out.” Here’s the story I wrote after that evening; it was published Jan. 19, 1985, in The Times:
Films by acknowledged masters of symbolism and surrealism like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini are always ripe subjects for psychological interpretation.
So it’s no surprise that Bergman’s “Wild Strawberries” and Fellini’s “Satyricon” are included in a lecture series titled “Psychoanalytic Investigation of the Creative Process in Film, Art, Literature and Music” being offered by the UCI Psychiatry Service.
But Steven Lisberger’s “Tron,” screened Thursday in Irvine as the third in the six-film series, seems to be the odd entry on a list rounded out by Fred Hains’ “Steppenwolf,” Lewis Carlino’s “The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea” and Franco Zefferelli’s “La Traviata.”
After all, “Tron,” Walt Disney Productions’ massively promoted 1982 showcase for computer graphics and animation, was a commercial and critical failure. Most reviewers drubbed it as little more than a technologically dazzling love letter to Silicon Valley in which computer programmers — “users” in the film’s terminology — are treated as gods.
But according to lecturer Jay Martin, who is a practicing psychoanalyst and a professor of literature at USC, ” ‘Tron’ does offer a lot to think about.”
Martin said he chose “Tron” for the series because it is an excellent study of the schizophrenic process, and much of his commentary to the audience of about 125 centered on that thesis.
He said that “Tron” accurately reflects the way the schizophrenic mind often works, citing psychiatric reports in which patients see themselves as being at the mercy of machines or computers.
As early as 1919, Martin said, German psychiatrist Viktor Tausk “first characterized schizophrenia as a mental process which is experienced by the schizophrenic as if it were imposed upon him through the diabolical activity of some external force induced by a mysterious machine. The patient’s disordered impulses feel as if they are not his own, but are pushed inside from an alien outside.”
In “Tron,” Martin said, the film’s central character of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) exhibits symptoms of paranoia — evidenced by the names of the video games he created, such as Space Paranoids — and schizophrenia after he is “absorbed” into a computer and must grapple with the computerized manifestations of his own programs.
Interestingly, Martin suggested that director Lisberger may have been so effective in presenting schizophrenia that it made critics and audiences uncomfortable with the feelings the movie stirs. “The senses of fragmentation, alienation and danger as a way of life; the film’s representation of a primitive, paranoid schizophrenic process lying just beneath the surface of behavior, into which we might fall at any time — these are what made ‘Tron’ so hard for audiences to take,” he said.
“Two weeks after release, following elaborate publicity, receipts plummeted by 40% and Disney scrapped plans for ‘Tron II.’ It is still a disturbing film, for it touches upon impulses and old fears that we would all prefer to push away.”
He cited complaints by some reviewers about the rapid oscillation in the first part of “Tron” between the external world of reality and the interior world of the computer.
“They said there was no motivation for that. But what I think they were really complaining about was that it is very disturbing to be pushed in and out like that continuously. I think the reviewers were reflecting not an artistic judgment in that case, or psychologically successful operation, but their own disturbance at that,” Martin said.
Is the new film any less schizophrenic? Arguably not, but 21st century audiences are far more accustomed to digital displacement, altered states and ghosts in the machine. Perhaps that’s the true legacy of “Tron.”
— Randy Lewis
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