Are computers conquering the movies? Check out the lobby of your local theater, and you're sure to find at least one video game bleeping and blipping between the popcorn concession and the soft-drink machine.
And now electronic circuitry is taking over the silver screen, too. Tron, the new film from Walt Disney Productions, was made largely with computer techniques. And it takes place mostly inside a computer, where characters made of pure energy fight a sinister ''master control program.''
It isn't the only recent picture with eye-boggling effects that could have been designed by Pac-Man himself. But for now, ''Tron'' is the ultimate computer movie. The inspiration of its maker, Steven Lisberger, was to combine computer technology with computer subject matter - using electronics in the service of electronics, with razzle-dazzle entertainment as the goal.
The result is stunning to the eye, as ''users'' and ''programs'' careen off each other in a free-for-all of technical wizardry. When you look beneath the action and technique, though, the epic is less impressive. At its best moments, it has a philosophical touch, as electronic circuits ponder the meaning of existence and debate the ''religious'' question of whether ''users'' really exist. At worst, it falls into familiar Disney pitfalls, with inexcusably flat performances and mechanical story twists.
In any case, it's a neat update on the old Disney tradition of anthropomorphizing everything in sight. Instead of cute little animals, it is electronic circuits that take on human form and personality, bravely battling archetypal foes.
True, there are differences from normal Disney fare. The action is sporadically violent, earning a PG for a few slightly jarring images. And director Lisberger often chooses speed over information, racing from one thrill to another, then backing up to fill in the logic. But the basic idea is as old-fashioned as Dumbo and Bambi, despite the movie's up-to-the-millisecond trappings.
It would be futile to describe the story, which is totally wrapped up in the flashy visual style, and probably too weak to stand up any other way. Suffice to say it involves a young programmer who is kidnapped into a computer by the evil ''master control,'' and - like any mythic hero from Odysseus to Luke Skywalker - surmounts various obstacles and challenges before vanquishing the villain. Much of the action is structured like a video game, with the ''inner space'' of electronic circuitry replacing the ''outer space'' of conventional science fiction.
Though the movie takes computer techniques and subject matter to dizzying new heights, filmmaker Lisberger considers it a thoroughly human picture. Yes, it's a high-tech achievement all the way. But, said Mr. Lisberger in a New York interview the other day, he wanted to avoid an ''apocalyptic'' or ''heavy'' approach. Rather, he says, ''Tron'' is just the opposite - it represents the ''humanizing'' of computers, by showing the defeat of their ''big brother'' overtones.
That's right, beneath its gaudy exterior ''Tron'' has a message: that computers could become ''big brothers'' which run our lives, and that the best way to counter this is ''from the inside,'' by understanding the machines so well they can't mislead or divert us. ''It's like saying the best way to predict the future is to create it,'' Lisberger says.
So don't worry if ''Tron'' seems as tightly programmed as its own computers, and rather poor in old-fashioned ''heart.'' Deep down, the movie is on humanity's side, calling for understanding of the new technologies, not mere submission to them.
Already, says Lisberger, today's children are less cowed than their parents when a ''computer error'' fouls up some bureaucratic or technical task. Why? Because youngsters are learning to communicate with computers from an early age, and to treat them as the humble servants they really are. Even video games help foster a healthy ''interactive'' approach, in Lisberger's view, and a movie like ''Tron'' reflects the same perspective. By contrast, television teaches the opposite attitude: passivity.
Lisberger's own background is far from technological. A self-described ''book-lover,'' he came to film ''from the fine-arts side, not the photography side.'' But in 1975 he saw a demonstration of computer techniques as applied to cinema, and was drawn in by the possibilities. At the same time, he felt computer technology was ''dehumanizing'' and ''needed some mythology behind it.'' As for video games, he couldn't help liking them. ''They brought some humor to this deadly serious science,'' he says approvingly.
''Tron'' is Lisberger's combination of all of the above - fine art, high technology, mythology, and sheer playfulness. A friendly and unpretentious young man, Lisberger doesn't make exaggerated claims for his film, calling it ''eye candy'' and admitting that it's basically a repackaging of an old story in a new form. But that's a worthy goal, he feels. ''TV grinds up these old archetypes,'' he says, ''until you become numb to them. I wanted to bring them back to life.''
''Tron'' can be viewed as a computer self-portrait, a version of the world as it might look to a complicated circuit. Or it can be taken as simply the newest wrinkle in the old Disney ideal of family entertainment with a distinctive look. ''All the people who worked on 'Tron' were Disney freaks when they were kids,'' Lisberger says. ''It was a pleasure to work for that organization, and I think we fit nicely into their traditions. . . .''