Now for some real user power

Last Monday was the 25th anniversary of the theatrical release of the Disney movie Tron. I commemorated the event for Computerworld with an interview with John Knoll of Industrial Light and Magic. Neither Mr. Knoll nor ILM were involved in the making of Tron, which is exactly why I wanted to talk to him. What could Tron visual effects supervisor Steve Lisberger have to say that hasn't been said in the 25 years since he created his opus? No, I wanted someone unbiased, someone on the receiving end of the impact Tron had on Hollywood.  Mr. Knoll proved both gracious with his time and knowledgeable on the subject.

But as excited as I was to be talking to the creator of Photoshop, I was even more excited to be talking about Tron at all. When I first saw the film more than two decades ago, I was as drawn into its world as Jeff Bridges' character was into the games he wrote. Computers and electronic games were both still new media back then, and Disney's simultaneous release of the Tron movie and two corresponding video games capitalized on both fronts. Whether you were in the driver's seat or the audience, the light cycles made for some of the most exciting action sequences in any medium.

I occasionally revisited the film as computers and I got older, and I began recognizing more and more of the metaphors the writers had worked into the script. The nascent industry could've been horribly misrepresented to the unwashed masses, and there surely was a degree of artistic license on that silver screen, with its AIs, lasers, and whatnot. But the way its digital society was structured and how software interacted with each other and with their users worked on both digital and HCI levels.

Two decades later, I just had to include Tron in the curriculum of the film studies course I taught. My high school students were math- and science-focused, and I thought it essential that the next generation of geeks have this film in their cultural lexicon. I'm not sure my subjective enthusiasm for the film proved contagious, but I was proud of one student whose term paper compared Tron to the life of Jesus: a creator descending into the world he designed to fight its evil master and free the inhabitants before ascending back to his own plane of existence.

It's too bad it's taken Tron more than twenty years to be revived and respected.  I'm not holding my breath for a remake or sequel, but for now I'm satisfied with the comic book and upcoming game re-releases. Geek movies such as this deserve to neither die nor fade away -- but as Mr. Knoll pointed out, genius is rarely recognized in its time.  What films would you rank up there with Tron in terms of nerd value and impact?

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