A film review by Craig J. Koban
THX-1138: THE GEORGE LUCAS
1970/2004, Originally rated PG/ Re-rated R, 88 minutes
THX 1138: Robert Duvall / SEN 5241: Donald Pleasence / SRT, the hologram: Don Pedro Colley / LUH 3417: Maggie McOmie / PTO: Ian Wolfe
Written and directed by George Lucas
Before the cinema of George Lucas
was populated by Jedi Knights, Galactic Empires, hell…even teenagers cruising
the streets of 1963 Modesto, there was a low-budget sci-fi film that launched his
career as one of the greatest film pioneers of the last quarter of a century.
Made on a paltry sum of $700,000 dollars, Lucas’ 1970 cautionary
sci-fi parable - THX 1138 - just may be one of the best least seen science
fiction films of all-time. The
picture also serves as a fresh reminder (or even wake up call for some) that
feels indifferent about Lucas’ skills as an auteur film director.
To revisit THX 1138, which has just
been recently released in a glorious new DVD special edition “Director’s
Cut”, is to bare witness to an audacious and impressive directorial debut of
one of the cinema’s most underrated filmmakers.
THX is not whimsical, exciting, and escapist fun like the later STAR WARS
films, nor is it “audience friendly” and nostalgically endearing like
AMERICAN GRAFFITI. THX 1138 remains
one of Lucas’ most mature films as a director - a bleak, dark, satiric,
uncompromising, and thematically complex look at the future.
It is a film that, despite its low budget, is a masterpiece of kinetic
visuals and imagery and an audio nirvana. It's
abstract, mysterious, and minimalist sci-fi filmmaking at its most obscure and
non-conventional. Upon reflection,
it’s an amazing accomplishment for a then 25-year-old filmmaker.
The birth of this film can be traced easily back to the history Francis Ford Coppola’s independent film studio – America Zoetrope – which was created in the late 1960’s. Coppola foresaw a film community within his group that was free of Hollywood conventions, which he did not hold in high regard. This ragtag group that he assembled represented the “new guard” of contemporary filmmakers, and young and eager ones at that.
Coppola himself was a promising young talent at the time, and one of his
first films, FINIAN’S RAINBOW, impressed the studio brass at Warner
Brother’s so much that the eccentric director convinced them to financially
back a series of films from his company of fresh, young talent.
Of course, as history has already dictated, not many of these proposed
films were made, and this was a direct result of the enormous failure of THX
1138, which was Zoetrope’s first production that was released in 1970.
The film, a visual and audio tour de force that revealed the unparalleled
promise of its young filmmaker, single-handedly caused Warner Brothers to
withdraw funding from future productions. Ironic,
isn’t it, as THX 1138 destroyed a company but launched the most successful
career in Hollywood history.
The feature film of THX was actually
based on a widely popular and praised student film that the young Lucas made
while he was a student at the USC School of Cinema.
That student film, the incredibly odd titled ELECTRONIC LABYRINTH:
THX-1138-4EB, awarded Lucas with heaps of praise (Steven Spielberg said it was
best student films he ever saw) and garnered Lucas a prestigious scholarship to
work at Warner Brothers as a film intern. This,
subsequently, led to his fateful meeting with Coppola (5 years his senior) and a
friendship that led to the development of Zoetrope. With much persuasion from Coppola, Lucas received the
green light, $700,000 dollars, and a shooting schedule of 35 days to complete
Zoetrope’s first film.
The film that was released in 1970
was a disastrous bomb, one that was taken by the studio out of the young
filmmaker’s hands. Lucas was
forced to cut five minutes out of his film and this, along with similar dealings
with studios when AMERICAN GRAFFITI was made, spearheaded Lucas into the
self-made independent filmmaker we see today.
Now, 34 years after its release, THX 1138 has been released with restored
footage and new visual effects via Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic.
Despite its digital additions (which are actually welcome here and fairly
seamless) the new version feels much like the old – a social commentary in the
guise of a sci-fi film, and a terrifically realized one at that.
The film does not exist on a level
of straightforward, linear storytelling. This
is a film of sights and sounds, and one that works viscerally on the audience.
The plot essentially tells the story of an oppressive society (earth or
alien, Lucas tantalizes us with this ambiguity) of a distant future where
mankind inhabits vast underground cities which are run by state organized
computer programs and robotic policemen. All
citizens are stripped away of any type of meaningful existence and identity.
All are bald, wear the same hospital-like clothing, have letter and
number combinations for names (not to unlike license plates or UPC bar codes),
and are forced to wear identification badges.
People also are selectively paired together with roommates by the state.
Of course, the state is omnipotent,
and is able to monitor the citizens at any time and, without warning,
electronically stimulate them into performing behaviour they deem worthy and
appropriate. The world is sanitized
and sterile. Sex is outlawed, but
machines are at the citizen’s disposal for self-pleasuring.
Emotions, it also seems, are also frowned upon.
The state, in turn, force-feeds drugs to everyone to inhibit their
passions. Everyone does this
willingly, until one day when THX-1138 (Robert Duvall) and his “mate” LUH
3417 (Maggie McOmie) decide to cut down on their drug intake. What they discover is their respective love in one another
and sexual appetites. These are not
wanted qualities to exhibit, especially when the state finds this to be illegal.
THX and LUH make love, albeit
awkwardly, and are eventually discovered. The
authorities, fearing this, even go as far as electronically probing THX’s
mind, which nearly produces a near fatal nuclear accident at a police-automation
assembly plant. THX and LUH are
eventually charged with “sex offences”
and “drug evasion”. LUH,
unfortunately, is sentenced to “liquidation” and her identity is transferred
to an identical fetus that has been artificially created.
THX is sentenced to a prison that would have made Beckett proud.
This scene is a masterpiece of eerie and non-literal philosophizing, and
is creepy in execution. The prison
itself is an ingenious use of space – it’s an endless white void with no
apparent exit, which almost creates a sort of inverse claustrophobia that only
heightens the madness of the cellmates.
THX, with the help of a misfit hologram program SRT (Don Pedro Colley)
manages to make his way out of the prison (by his own will) and this leads to
THX evading the robotic authorities and a towards a conclusion that is,
simultaneously, uplifting and equally bleak.
The story of THX 1138 is highly derivative at its core. It’s a fancy amalgamation of the best of Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury, and, to a large degree, the great works of George Orwell (the film reeks of 1984 in its oppressive state where a “big brother figure” exhibits its power in an anti-utopian society). The themes of love and emotion versus state seems to have been covered countless times before. However, Lucas here seems to use these themes to present to us with a vision that’s kind of wholly unique.
The film is a theoretical
and non-theoretical experience that exists on its willingness to be experimental
and avant-garde. In a way, Lucas,
whom has always been seen as a populist filmmaker, plays against contemporary
conventions here. Lucas’s future
in THX 1138 (like in STAR WARS) is a used one, and the set design and
direction reveals not only this but the ungainly sanitized society the film
precipitates. Its “sterile
sci-fi”, where everything has a real world feel to it, but nevertheless appears
used, old, and sort of offbeat. There
is a curious anachronistic look to the film; its highly stylized in terms of its
look and gives the impression of a futuristic society gone amok, but it also has
things that are old to us now (like corded telephones, for example).
THX is not a masterpiece because of
its story. Rather, it is a major
accomplishment as a film going experience that is to be seen and heard.
Lucas’ sparse direction and Goddard-like editing heightens the
pathos of the society, and the terrific sound design (by the film’s unsung
hero, Walter Murch) creates a rich tapestry that encapsulates half of the
film’s mode, tone, and feel. The
sound effects, brilliantly conceived, add to the transcending feeling of a
distant society on the fringes. The
way people talk and interact also heightens this.
Everything in the film revels in its sense of emotional detachment.
All aspects of society are related through man with machine, not man with
man. The humans, while drug
induced, speak in a sort of muted shorthand that serves the very basics of
communication. Everyone speaks in a
sort of gutter speech, filled with abbreviations and technical mumbo-jumbo.
This embellishes the film’s paranoia and other-worldliness.
Lucas' film, though every one of its 88 minutes, is about craft.
That is not to say that the themes
Lucas delves into here are negligible. One
theme (which seems congruent even with
and AMERICAN GRAFFITI) is the
concept of dealing with change and the feelings of fear and anxiety of leaving
one’s established environment. The
film, metaphorically, is about humanity being trapped in a cage with the door
wide open. The only problem with
this is the fact that the state implicitly tells (or forces) humanity to stay
put, even when humanity has the means to get out.
These are powerful forces of intimidation at play in the film, and by
studying society under a microscope through the film Lucas sort of discusses,
indirectly, issues of who we are, where we are, and what we look to lose in
society. Lucas comments on how
compartmentalized society has become with oppressive force, which no doubt could
have been contributed by many a young person’s hatred of political forces of
Lucas’ film also feels fresh, even today, in the social and economic satire that he displays to us. THX 1138 also is a commentary on consumerism gone rampant. The citizens, under the guidance of the government (computers always chime in with, “Buy more, be productive, work hard, be more efficient and be happy”) buy needlessly, only to apparently destroy the items after their purchase. Sex, as a social force, is also subverted to an act that is state controlled. Citizens artificially masturbate with machines as erotic images are shown to them by state-run hologram televisions. Even the TV of the future reflects contemporary tastes, as various channels show violence, some show commentary, even more show infomercials of sorts with generated laughs in the background. Perhaps the most oppressive aspects are the confessional booths or “unichapels” with images of Jesus on a view screen with computer controlled responses for most questions. Citizens chime in with their problems, and the monotone booth spits out useless and mindless advice to the masses.
these levels, Lucas’ film even works as a religious satire, not that he’s
condemning organized faith, but rather that he’s discussing issues of how
people meander around in society and fail to question anything that is fed to
them. When citizens open up their
medicine cabinets, which are also monitored and controlled by the state, you
know you’re in trouble when the computer tells you to “take four pills and
then later take four more” and you do it without debate.
THX 1138 remains an unforgettable gem in the annals of sci-fi filmmaking. Upon close scrutiny, it’s really more of a modern fable about how society is now than about how the world of the future is like. To Lucas, the film represents much of his 1970’s sensibilities about the world (the idea of one fighting versus powerful and corrupt forces). The film exists - it does not explain. On several technical levels, the film is a class act, and its look, themes, and style could even be seen as precursor elements to future sci-fi films like BLADE RUNNER and THE MATRIX, the later which is also about suppressive control of humanity.
THX 1138 serves as a revealing and surprising historical footnote. It shows the eccentric tastes, audacious style, and emotional complexity of a young “wiz kid filmmaker from USC” long before his life became entrenched in a galaxy far, far away. Lucas has promised a return to his THX roots as an avant-garde filmmaker after STAR WARS. If THX 1138 says anything, then the next few years look very intriguing for Lucas the director. THX 1138 should be required viewing for anyone that doubts Lucas’ broad and capable abilities. It's an amazing little film, especially if look at his career in context today. THX 1138 may not be Lucas most loved or seen work, but it represents the best directorial feature of his career and reminds us that, deep down, there is a filmmaker there with intelligence, sophistication, and a desire to tell complex, adult-themed stories.