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THX 1138 Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 9, 2010

    THX 1138 Review

    “Thou art a subject of the divine, created in the image of man, by the masses, for the masses.”

    With Star Wars, George Lucas went for the myth, and, for better or worse, he has pretty much stuck with that. But before young Skywalker broke the bonds of Tatooine and sought the liberation of a crusade that meant something, the similarly young filmmaker broke a few bonds of his own and, in so doing, tore down the walls between the cinematic, the cerebral and the downright fantastic with a dazzling feature-length version of his own experimental college film. Made in 1970 with the stalwart backing of his friend and fellow beard-fanatic, Francis Ford Coppola, THX 1138 was a mini-budgeted art-house SF parable – not the most bankable sort of production to get off the ground. But with critical acclaim for his earlier short – then entitled THX 113 EB, but telling roughly the same story – and the innate hunger of a raw new talent, Lucas' enthusiasm and unbridled imagination seem to know no bounds. Thus, using real locations in San Francisco and Los Angeles, and garnering a fabulous cast headed-up by Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasance, he and his college conglomerate of technicians and crew revved-up their creative engines and produced one of the pivotal science fiction films of the seventies.

    Although Lucas, by his own admission (at least as much as ours), is not a good writer, he is still a master storyteller and this tale of a nightmarish, robot controlled future for a mankind expunged of all emotion and permanently drugged-up into a state of blind, senseless conformity, was a lightning bolt of intellectual and visual accusation to an establishment that many saw as headed towards the ultra-right-wing. Lucas would go on to create a pop-culture, mass appeal phenomenon with Star Wars, but THX 1138 was a powerful and disturbing metaphor for the coerced consumerism of the sixties and the overbearing concept a Big Brother society that trusted no-one on the outside, but its own people even less.

    We don't know the year. We don't know the city. Nothing of how this blinkered, emasculated underworld came to be is revealed to us. We find ourselves in a vast subterranean environment populated by shaven-headed humans in white smocks and governed by imposing, yet inordinately polite robot policemen. It would have been horribly easy to have claimed that the story of one of these human drones, Robert Duvall's THX 1138, slowly awakening to this sham of an existence and fighting for his freedom, was set after some sort of nuclear war. Certainly most similar future-yarns made after THX would boldly state this up front, or at least heavily imply … and it is to George Lucas' credit that he simply doesn't give any explanation at all. Of course this is a metaphor for how the very society that he and his collaborators saw all around them at the time could eventually turn out, but Lucas, at this stage anyway, wasn't anywhere near as patronising a filmmaker as he would become. With THX 1138 he revealed a true and unique voice that spoke volumes in the language of vision.

    “Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more. Buy more now. Buy. And be happy.”

    The film fits right on in with Planet Of The Apes, Soylent Green, Silent Running, Rollerball, The Andromeda Strain and No Blade Of Grass with its heightened sensibility and intellectual foundation for the loss of identity and the collapse of a rational civilisation. The irony is that these films, and others like them that possess a more serious nature and theme, thrived during the early part of the decade, and yet it was Lucas, himself, who would blow the lid off such allegorical, speculative and insightful science fiction when he made Star Wars. He likes to cite that the theology behind both THX 1138 and his Empire-bashing spectacular is just the same – the yearning for freedom from tyranny – but the execution is poles apart, the cumulative effect of each irredeemably distinct and separate. His penchant for stark imagery – fused somewhere between Japanese iconography and the wild conjecture of a hundred SF artists – is made manifest in this surprisingly barren and sanitised world of civic plazas, gleaming corridors, blank apartments and brightly-lit, inescapable techno-futurism. The law enforcement officers, imposing silver-faced automatons in motorcycle cop gear, are a terrifically visual incarnation of state-ruled intimidation. They carry electro-prods and truncheons and can ride their cycles like Evel Knievel. Mindless masses with no semblance of free-will at all buy ridiculously useless coloured cubes on command, that they can take home and then recycle … for the next zombie to buy. Renaissance paintings of Jesus offer calming advice in little confessional booths for those who may have unwisely slipped a pill and stumbled across a rogue and alien emotion. Curiously robed monks wander the plazas in an enforced and regimented attempt to enhance a charade of spirituality to the population. Holographic television offers stale, regurgitated programs for those impulses that the state seeks to suppress – nude workout-instructors flex and dance whilst rhythmic masturbatory tubes take care of the “physical” side of things for the viewer, and aimless imagery of beatings corral any errant violent tendencies that may creep to the surface. Life is created in test-tubes and physical and emotional love is outlawed. A secret hatchery houses foetuses in jars as well as a truly dreadful revelation about the ultimate recycling process. Lucas had concocted the furthest extreme of consumerism that Cinema would exploit until George Romero would invade the shopping malls of Pittsburgh with zombies in Dawn Of The Dead.

    He had created the future imperfect.

    Robert Duvall gives a great performance as factory worker THX 1138, full of psychotically damaged self-loathing and overburdened with a desire to break out and find reality, as well as himself. He lives with his state-allotted room-mate, LUH (Maggie McOmie), and takes his state-prescribed cocktail of drugs with monotonous regularity, his state-sanctioned existence devoid of sensation, free-thought and emotion. But LUH has begun to question this banal, waking-coma of a life and has illegally stopped taking her required dosage of suppressants. Slowly but surely she weans THX off the drugs as well and, together, they finally savour the beauty and emotional transcendence of sex – an act that is forbidden in this society. The unknown and faceless ruling classes will not stand for it and THX and LUH are separated and reduced to experimental pawns. But THX has tasted a drug far more powerful than any concoction his implacable masters can rustle-up - life - and he will stop at nothing to sustain his new addiction.

    “We have to go back. This is your last chance to return with us. You have nowhere to go. You cannot survive outside the city shell. We only want to help you. This is your last chance.”

    A haunting face and the most soulful eyes provide Maggie McOmie's LUH with hidden depths of repressed desire and expectation. Like the way that most rebellions start, she is the small and muted instigator – something of a martyr, actually – that will become the foundation stone of the coming BIG change. McOmie provides a performance that matches Duvall's and there is a tragic detachment to her that makes LUH's longing for affection so much more heartfelt than a thousand more conventional sob-queens could have portrayed. And the film is notable for having the great Donald Pleasance cropping up in yet another wacky role. Once the gnome-like actor reached American shores, his scope for roles took off almost exponentially. His work with John Carpenter was still a few years off, but turns in this and Soldier Blue, the year before, seemed to cement his unique gift for character-acting in a wide range of genres. His creepy looks and insidious demeanour were perfect for the role of SEN, another drone who seeks to pull one over on the state, and who becomes something of a catalyst for THX's big escape. There are ethereal, but unmistakable homosexual undertones simmering just beneath the surface of SEN's strange eagerness to bond himself with THX. He abuses his own position of hand-me-down authority – his vocation is to watche the city-wide security monitors, scrutinising the every move of the populace to report upon sexual crime, drug evasion and other misdemeanors – until finally keying-in on the prospect of something altogether new and taboo with THX. His methods are desperate and possibly a touch unsavoury, but his needs are just as valid as those of LUH and THX. He needs real companionship, he just doesn't understand what to do with it once he finds it. Together with a hologram-made-flesh, Don Pedro Colley's SRT, they will go on an adventure and an odyssey of societal-awareness and self-discovery. Not all will like what they find, but the spirit of revolution will not be dampened once it has awoken.

    Lucas effectively tells the same story three times over in THX. His film is, therefore, composed of three acts, with each taking on the appearance and visual thematics of a different style of filmmaking. This was experimental in every sense, because Lucas, still just finding his own creative feet and still heavily influenced by the filmmakers he had studied at college and worshipped on the big screen – Godard, Truffaut, Kurosawa – had absorbed certain attributes of theirs and was seeing if he could add his own spin to their elaborate styles. Funnily enough, having just reviewed Studio Canal’s Blu-ray release of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 classic Breathless, it is all the more apparent that Lucas was using the same elusively composed photography and direction as the master of the French New Wave, especially during the weirdly affecting love scenes. Most famous, of course, is the middle section of the film in which THX, incarcerated in the pure white limbo of a formless prison, is subjugated, tested-upon, and then left to wander, mumble and meander in stark, dazzling nothingness with other inmates. The elongated sequence, which also sees a young Sid Haig (Busting, House Of A 1000 Corpses, The Devil’s Rejects) give in to sexual temptation and attempt to force himself upon a hapless female prisoner, as well as stamping on a police-droid’s head, is fantastic, abstract, philosophical and darkly amusing. It is, of course, a satirical side-swipe at the unfathomable laws that the US enforced upon those minorities it deemed as being politically or sociologically dangerous during the tidal wave of the sixties, and the resonance of such an ironic hard-line approach will not be lost on modern audiences who have seen imagery from Abu Grahib, and Guantanamo Bay. That THX and his companions are nothing more than lab-rats in a maze that is, very cleverly, nothing more tangible than a cell of their own creation is one of the film's more audacious conceits. Lucas is surely implying that each man constructs his own prison and that we all have the ability to see the way out if we only choose to look for it.

    “Everything will be all right. You are in my hands. I am here to protect you. You have nowhere to go.”

    The big stunt, when ace motorcycle rider Duffy Hambleton, in full chrome-cop garb, takes an exhilarating head-over-heels at super-speed during the tunnel pursuit of THX must have been eye-popping back then, but is still a terrific moment of physical mayhem in a film that is predominantly concerned with mental and emotional conflict. Although fans like to cite that this is where Lucas got the idea for the speeder-bike chase in Return Of The Jedi, this chase is also quite unusual in that we never see the bikes and THX’s stolen police car racing after one another in the same shot. The sensation of breakneck speed and hell-for-leather action is pure and undiluted, yet compared to many other wild pursuits from around the time – Bullitt and The French Connection, say – this is an unusual approach to take. Mind you, a lot of the reason for such a move may well be down to the low budget as much as to the logistics of roaring around a partially completed Californian subway tunnel. But this fascination with adrenalized vehicular aggression was already very close to Lucas’ heart. Being an ardent fan of dragsters, hot-rods and motor-racing anyway, and with this passion creeping into nearly all of his films in one way or another, it is not surprising that he chose to spend most of his last, and most “conventional” act of his first full feature in such an indulgent way. Plus, when compared to the mind-frazzling subjugation of emotion and physical expression that THX has lived under for most of his life, this is like an explosion of newfound personality and an emphatic statement of individuality. It is conceivable that, after this sudden surge of self-will and dramatic mutiny, THX doesn’t even need to actually escape from the city. Now that he has proved himself as a person and not just a drone in the thrall of a sensation-robbed society, he could just turn that car around and go straight back to either raise hell or raise an army. But it is Lucas as much as it is THX who needs to escape and break away from the constraints of normality, of the rat-race and of banal conformity. Lucas who needs to lift the lid on the grey implacability of soul-destroying and unnecessary industry, and to climb into the sublime sunshine of possibility. And even if he only really makes that triumphant lunge complete with Star Wars – the jump to hyperspace for the Millenium Falcon and a surefire leap of faith for his own visionary belief - he makes his intentions clear with THX.

    Unsurprisingly, the film didn’t make much money. With its avant-garde style and cold, clinical mood, THX 1138 was only going to appeal to a corner of the audience who were up for concepts that the mainstream would scarcely dare embrace. It fit perfectly with the genre’s mind-bending vogue of moral warnings and cancerous futures, but it lacked the empathy and the escapism that would provide an agreeable access for many. Logan’s Run (BD reviewed separately) was all about another dystopia (dressed up as a utopia, of course) that quelled the masses with false doctrine and kept humanity locked away in city-wide lies that shunned the real world, but whereas that was colourful, comic-book and outwardly fantastical, THX was introverted, sterile and punishing. Viewed together, they both paint a terrific and intellectually bravura picture of bogus authoritarian rule, but it is THX that lingers in the mind a lot more. Lucas’ imagery was a mixture of the obvious and the fresh, the abstract and the pertinent. He admits that some elements were not supposed to be analysed and were put in there merely to either perplex or embellish the theme of crushed emotions and the choking of ideology and human spirit. For some people, the film is difficult to watch. Some think of it as simply another Orwellian offshoot and, as such, clichéd. Others find the coldness of the environment and the pathetic nature of the characters horribly unappealing. And some just find it boring. I think THX is a fabulous piece of smart sci-fi that actually gains more vigour and importance with each viewing. We all prefer our heroes to “go ballistic”, but there is surely something enervating about Duvall’s portrayal of a soul-denied human-drone awakening to the beauty and the anguish of genuine emotions and learning to become the man that Mankind has long-since forgotten. In many ways, he is like Caesar in the enlarged Planet Of The Apes canvas– the downtrodden Spartacus who can find the inner-gumption to lead the justified revolution against the oppressors in a land of fantastical allegory. In essence this is what all SF is about at a purely fundamental level - breaking free to explore. Perhaps George Lucas needed to break the mold of filmmaking and of the genre's status quo in order to provide himself with the liberty and the confidence to create his own iconic mythology with Star Wars.

    “Maybe there's something wrong with the computer. I don't know, it's a strange life. Cybernetics, genetics, lasers and all those things. I guess I'll never understand any of that stuff. Guess maybe holograms are not supposed to.”

    Now we get to that usual bugbear of George Lucas tinkering-about with his digitally manipulative hands. A lot of people don’t like him doing this and I do see their point. But the thing is, I also see his. If you’ve made a movie – especially a movie that requires special effects and technology as an intrinsic element of the narrative – then why shouldn’t you be able to go back into it and re-do certain things that you weren’t able to accomplish initially, or weren’t able to accomplish to the degree that you wanted? You’re only trying to make a film look better, or flow better. And with the movies from George Lucas, especially, which are pan-generational, undying stories that will probably be looked at until movies become extinct from our way of life, this becomes a far more relevant notion. His films, whether you consider them fluffy fairytales or profound cultural phenomenon, are evolutionary spectacles that seem designed to move with the times. I totally agree that he should, if he chooses to, return to Star Wars and improve the effects … just so long as he leaves the clumsy-trooper whacking his head on the door-frame where it belongs! (Still a shame about Solo shooting first, though.) And, here, with THX 1138, I don’t have a problem with his spruced-up action sequence, or the CG-created critters that have replaced the old shell-dwellers that attack THX as he makes his way to the upper levels of the city. I don't mind the little alternate patches of dialogue or the expanded imagery of THX’s Homer Simpson-inspiring nuclear factory-floor, or the swollen crowds and vehicles that pulse through the antiseptic realm. However, I do think that it is remiss of him not to have allowed us the option of seeing the original cut on this release, as well. It would have been nice to compare and contrast the two.

    But, when all said and done, THX 1138 is a visionary and aural achievement - the latter aspect owing gratitude to the groundbreaking sound design from Walter Murch that plays an even bigger part in the film than Lalo Schifrin's original score. Chilling and amusing in equal measure, this is the film that set George Lucas on a path that would lead to a galaxy far, far away and a destiny that would see him become one of the most powerful and influential filmmakers on the planet.

    THX 1138 is, therefore, highly recommended.