Tron: 20th Anniversary Edition On DVD

Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner, Cindy Morgan, Barnard Hughes. Directed by Steven Lisberger. Aspect ratio: 2.20:1 (anamorphic). Dolby Digital 5.1. Two discs. 96 minutes. 1982. Walt Disney Home Video 23569. PG. $29.99.

An anniversary usually commemorates a momentous event. The release of Tron in the early summer of 1982 (in 70mm six-track stereo in some locations) was supposed to be a momentous event in itself, both for the then-floundering Disney studio and for film buffs, who would witness the first major motion picture to make use of computer animation. Although it didn't quite work out that way, the DVD is still getting the 20th Anniversary treatment.

With the release of Tron, Disney had pulled off a major publicity coup, with commitments for cover stories from Time and Newsweek, which correctly recognized both the history-making introduction of computer animation in motion pictures and the possible awakening of the Disney giant after decades of fitful slumber. Unfortunately for all involved, a far more explosive event, the sudden resignation of then Secretary of State Alexander Haig, pushed Tron off both covers, though the stories, heavy on the computer-animation angle, ran in both magazines.

But that was a minor bump in the road compared with two far deeper potholes. One was the release of Steven Spielberg's science-fiction blockbuster, E.T. The Extraterrestrial, which Variety tauntingly characterized as "the best Disney film Disney never made," and which became the summer blockbuster. The other was the unfortunate fact that, despite director Steven Lisberger's pioneering production and conceptual genius (not everyone gets to be 20 years ahead of his time!) and the film's stupendous graphics and superb soundtrack (conflict of interest alert: I supervised it), Tron was a terribly flat movie, bereft of character development, high on embarrassing dialogue, and—with the exception of a few stupendous computer-animated scenes—low on suspense, thrills, drama, or human emotion (though all of these reside frustratingly just below the glossy surface).

That much will be obvious to anyone who watches this superbly produced two-DVD set. The essential story elements are all there—good guys, bad guys, a quest, the triumph of good over evil—but despite the spectacular graphics and brilliant design elements by Syd Mead, Peter Lloyd, and Jean "Moebius" Giraud, Tron is as emotionally flat as a lo-rez pancake. There is some humor, delivered largely by Jeff Bridges, who mostly improvised it during filming.

Forget the extraterrestrial angle—in E.T., Spielberg was making a tear-jerker. He knew what emotions he wanted to pull from viewers, and he did it. All the director does here is wow an audience with lights, computer technology, and a creature from outer space. Indeed, after Tron and unsuccessful stabs at a teen flick (Hot Pursuit) and more sci-fi (Slipstream), Lisberger's directing career stalled.

So why the 20th Anniversary Edition for the DVD? Despite its many failings, Tron deserves this kind of technical treatment, if just to preserve a piece of film history and to allow fans to optimally experience its visual and (dare I say?) sonic brilliance. Plus, as is made clear shortly after you pop the disc in the tray and push Play, a sequel, Tron 2.0, is due out in 2003, also directed by Lisberger.

Tron was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound (E.T. won), and was the first Disney film to be so nominated since Pinocchio. We used many pioneering techniques to produce the soundtrack—for instance, I believe Tron was the first film to use the SMPTE time code to aid in the creation of the score, and then, to make the final mix, to sync to the film a multitrack recording containing the music. But the commentary does not contain one word about the soundtrack, about how Wendy Carlos composed the music for orchestra, synthesizer, and chorus, or about how we created the many original sound effects used to accompany previously unseen visual events.

Although neither Wendy, head mixer Mike Minkler, Frank Serafine, who created many of the sounds, I, nor anyone else involved in the soundtrack was asked to comment about it for the DVD, I have no qualms offering a few inside tidbits on its creation. For instance, one of the wonderful ambient tracks you'll hear is actually the sound of the Goodyear blimp. The "light-cycle" sound began as my 1970 Saab Sonnet, driven way too fast on Mulholland Drive with a pair of microphones in the engine compartment.

Toward the end of post-production on Tron, the "final" edit kept being changed, creating havoc for Wendy Carlos' scoring efforts. Many visual effects showed up for the first time while we were actually mixing the film, and sound effects for them had to be created on the fly. In any case, the Dolby Digital audio transfer is superb, particularly the eerie ambiences we created for this never-before-experienced world. Although the sonics weren't given enough attention, in my opinion, on this SE, admittedly, the main event is the graphics.

The THX DVD transfer is superb. The "real world" scenes, originally shot in 65mm, look wonderful. (On the commentary track, Lisberger recalls that when they opened the boxes containing the 65mm cameras, sand from the Lawrence of Arabia shoot poured out.) Those scenes haven't looked this good since I attended the premiere at New York's Ziegfeld Theater in 1982. The color saturation and clarity of both the computer-animated and live-action "computer world" shots are far superior to those of the CAV laserdisc edition issued a few years ago or to the previously released, non-anamorphic DVD. Tron was meant to be seen on a video monitor, where it makes more visual sense than on a movie screen.