History has been kind to Tron — very, very kind. Today, a much-ballyhooed sequel to the 1982 (read 28-year-old) film comes out with reigning best actor Jeff Bridges (Crazy Heart) reprising his role as hacker Kevin Flynn, who got sucked into the digital world in the original. Advance publicity and reporting carry a presumption that Tron is as much part of the cultural conversation as Star Wars or Gone With the Wind.
But in 1982, Tron was a flop.
It was supposed to be huge, Disney's answer to Star Wars — after the first and more blatant answer, The Black Hole, really flopped in 1979 — with the bonus of introducing this new thing called computer effects on a massive scale. Disney was so high on Tron that it was screened for its stockholders. They didn't like it, and neither did critics, who were cool to what they saw as its cold, technological aesthetic.
It was emblematic of a lot of films that we saw in the early 1980s, as computers made their way into our homes. Computers fascinated and scared us. In Tron, the computer kidnapped people to maintain its power. In the more popular War Games, a computer nearly started our other early '80s fear, a nuclear war.
Matthew Broderick as a smart-aleck computer jock was more entertaining than Bridges, but Tron ultimately proved to have a life well beyond its opening-weekend box office total of $4.76 million and overall haul of $33 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
Although the masses didn't embrace it, a lot of filmmakers and digital visionaries were drawn into Tron's world, which we have taken for granted now. Consider this: Tron did not get an Academy Award nomination for best special effects, because using a computer was considered cheating. Let's stop and ponder where 21st-century special effects would be without computers.
Many current filmmakers and effects artists say sequences such as the "light bike" scene influenced their ideas about the possibilities of computers and film. And Tron doesn't have the cultural ubiquity of some iconic franchises, but shows like Family Guy and South Park can drop Tron references, knowing that audiences will get them, thanks in part to popular Tron video games.
No, Tron was not a blockbuster in its day. But it has aged well.