A Film Review
Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005
Many of the most conservative representatives of establishment used to be radical revolutionaries in their youth. This phenomenon can be observed in many institutions, including Hollywood. Probably the best example is George Lucas whose feature film debut, 1971 science fiction drama THX 1138, represents the very antithesis of everything his current filmography is associated with.
George Lucas based THX 1138 on his student film ELECTRONIC LABYRINTH THX 1138 4EB. The beginning of the film is ironic prologue – small clip of BUCK ROGERS, 1940s movie serial set in 25th Century. What follows is Lucas’ own version how the future will really look like. The plot is set in huge underground city where the society tries to suppress emotions and individuality – people wear the identical clothes, have codes instead of names and are bared from falling in love and having sex. Their urges are controlled through obligatory drug use and visits to automated confessors, but the protagonist THX 1138 (played by Robert Duvall) somehow manages to slip taking pills and talk his female roommate LUH 3417 (played by Maggie McOmie) into doing the same. Two of them fall in love, but are soon arrested and tried for their crimes. THX 1138, with a help of his new roommate SEN 5241 (played by Donald Pleasance) and runaway hologram SRT (played by Don Pedro Colley), manages to escape prison and begins his long journey towards the surface and freedom.
In 1960 serious filmmakers discovered science fiction as the most convenient medium for addressing the important social, cultural and political issues of the day. George Lucas was one of the few who actually knew the power of science fiction firsthand, simply by growing up on B-movie serials of that genre. Like many young men of his generation, Lucas felt alienated from everything – worldview, values, institution – his parents cherished. This alienation can be seen in the dystopian vision of THX 1138. The futuristic underground world is natural progression of everything which was wrong with Western civilisation in 1960s – faceless and bureaucratic state is as oppressive as those behind 1960s Iron Curtain, while the consumerist culture is as tasteless and worthless as in 1960s West. People are supposed to act the same, look the same and think the same, losing not only their individuality, but also their humanity in the process. Film also suggests that this underground society is a result of environmental disaster or nuclear war – while the decaying equipment and non-existent safety standards cause endless accidents, thing are even worse on the radioactive surface where the protagonist wants to escape.
Lucas was not only radical in its criticism of 1960s society, it was radical in the way it threw away Hollywood filmmaking conventions. The protagonists are not only bald but also shot in a way to make them as unattractive as possible. The film lacks conventional villains – the robot policemen (which look conspicuously similar to law enforcement officials encountered by radical students in 1960s California) often look ridiculous in their mechanical inhumanity. Lalo Schiffrin’s depressive soundtrack is accompanied by cacophonic chatter of futuristic world technicians, which adds to the inhumane and disturbing atmosphere of the film. This work of Walter Murch, Lucas’ brilliant sound designer, has set the standards any science fiction film had to meet in next decades. Because of that, THX 1138 is thought-provoking and very powerful film.
When Lucas reissued THX 1138 in 2004 as “director’s cut” with digital makeover, many could see a bit in irony in that. In a way, Lucas became the very embodiment of the establishment he had so thoroughly criticised in THX 1138. His films became the mindless entertainment for the masses in which not a single trace of unconventionality and social criticism could be found. Many saw his “director’s cut” treatment of original STAR WARS trilogy as a way to recreate his radical past to the standards of his conservative present.
In case of THX 1138, he had some valid reasons to put that film to digital makeover – in many scenes the film shows its age and it is difficult to imagine futuristic society being equipped with elements of early 1970s technology. But, on the other hand, the scenes with CGI are visibly different from original 1971 footage and this takes away the magic and the impact of the original film. However, this version is unlikely to be as controversial as new incarnations of STAR WARS – the general bleakness of the film, its themes and the author’s youthful anger could not be erased with digital technology. And, because of that, THX 1138 is as relevant today as it was three and half decades ago.
RATING: 8/10 (+++)