DVD Review Of THX 1138
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 6/24/07
Many years ago I came across a VHS tape of THX 1138, the first film from George Lucas, released in 1970, and was amazed by it- not only for what it was, but because of who was responsible for it. It certainly was unlike any other film he subsequently made- the lightweight American Graffiti and the Star Wars films, both in tone and quality. It was more like a Samuel Beckett work than the schlock that his later films represented. It had a combination of Oriental zeitgeist and European technique, and moved at the pace of the Eastern European animated sci fi film Fantastic Planet. It was thoughtful and literate and, vis-à-vis his later crap, only begged the question, ‘Whatever happened to George Lucas?’
How could a man that created a terrific film like THX 1138, which was a scathing criticism of group think, consumerism, and state control, be the same person who has spent the last thirty years churning out junk food-like commercials for toys under the guise of film, laced with a poisonous touch of Joseph Campbellian charlatanry? And, when I condemn the whole Star Wars franchise I do not limit it to the second trilogy of films, which, having just recently watched the final film, is significantly better than the grossly overrated and puerile Flash Gordon wannabe first trilogy. The fact is that while the second trilogy occasionally scratches mediocrity, the first trilogy has aged so poorly that even its camp factor is wan.
Yet, THX 1138 is, if not a great film, damned close to it, and one of the greatest directorial debut films ever made. The story is rather simple, and archetypal, broken into three discernible parts that pretty much recapitulate each other. In some futuristic dystopian world, where humanity has been forced to live underground, and the state is controlled by a leaderless hegemony run by a computer that prescribes medication to all its shaved bald citizens, thus allowing effete chrome-faced robots easy control over them, something is awry. THX 1138 (Robert Duvall- looking very much like Robert De Niro) is being tempted out of his stupor by his rebellious female roommate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie), who slowly seduces him into foregoing his meds and exploring sex and love. This scenario is as old as Adam and Eve, literally, but is also used in tales like George Orwell’s 1984. What sets THX 1138 apart, though, are the splendid visuals. The underground scenery, especially enhanced by skillfully and unobtrusively placed CGI, really gives a futuristic feel to the film. After THX and LUH are inevitably discovered, and tried as felons, they are thrown into a large white room one last time, where they have sex under the watchful eyes of the state, eager to understand just what this sexual attraction is. Presumably, their society has been shorn of such passions for centuries, and with machines in charge, not unlike the later Matrix trilogy, there seems to be a yearning to understand the potentially disruptive nature of strong emotions. In this way, THX 1138 harkens back to a staple of alien invasion films.
After sex, though, LUH is taken away by robots and killed, and THX is thrown into an area with other ‘criminals’, including Donald Pleasance, as SEN 5241, an impotent would be philosopher who speaks in weaselly Nixonian apothegms, and longs to have THX as his new roommate. He is a schemer, who hates the system, but is too cowardly to actually rebel, and merely tries to game it for his benefit. THX, on the other hand, was a reluctant rebel whose resolve is only heightened by the death of his lover. After some great discourse between philosophical combatants, which shows that Lucas was once capable of deep, non-leaden dialogue, THX and SEN leave their white prison, and seek a way out. Eventually, they meet a huge black hologram named SRT (Don Pedro Colley) who shows them how to escape. SRT goes with THX while SEN ventures off alone, after they are separated. He heads lower, into the bowels of the vast underground complex, and discovers some secrets behind the false god that the society worships, but eventually returns to the system he knows so well, for despite his claims to the contrary, he is a follower, not a leader. THX and the hologram, however, try to escape. SRT fails to master driving a car, and crashes, but THX heads higher and higher, closer to the surface, pursued by the rather ineffectual robot police.
In one of the most benign chase sequences ever filmed- sort of an impotent Logan’s Run, THX merely has to get far enough away so that the state determines that it is not worth the expenditure of funds to force his return. He does escape, despite the pleadings of the robots to return, in an eerie power reversal of a scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, a film THX 1138 shares more than a passing stylistic and thematic affinity with, just two years earlier, where HAL the computer is begging for his human adversary to go away, as his innards are gutted, while the robot here begs for the human to come back into the fold. THX, however, ignores the pleas, and climbs higher and higher up a long tunnel to the surface of the earth, just as the sun is setting huge and red on the horizon. It seems like an arid landscape, but a bird flutters by, promising life. The scene contains the power of an early scene from The Planet Of The Apes, where the stranded astronauts, led by Charlton Heston, believe the planet they’ve crashed on is utterly lifeless, only to discover a small plant in the desert. The eeriness of the immense sun, and the silhouetted shot of THX 1138 rising from the tunnel, and into the center of it also prefigures the end of the 1985 New Zealand sci fi end of the world classic The Quiet Earth, whose hero also fundamentally changes his reality, and is likewise overwhelmed by what he discovers by film’s end. The whole film also had a great influence on the sleeper Canadian hit film of a few years back, Cube.
Having just rewatched THX 1138 on the two disk Director’s Cut DVD the film brought me back nearly twenty years to my first viewing of it. In true Lucas fashion, though, he has seen fit to tinker with the original. Many fans have decried this as butchery, but frankly, there were only a few cosmetic alterations that generally enhance the film, such as adding more people to crowded scenes, tweaking the futuristic look of the film, and adding a little polish. The only addition that really did not work, vis-à-vis, the original version I still have on VHS, is a scene of some CGI mutant monkeys that attack THX as he nears his exit from the underground. As far as I could tell, there were no additional dramatic scenes, only a few CGI shots that give a feeling of the size of the underground world, which now also resembles the underground abode of the Krel from Forbidden Planet. The rest of the features on the DVD are good, Lucas is surprisingly candid and detailed in his commentary track, along with the film’s co-writer and sound designer Walter Murch, although there is one glaring flaw- Lucas’s total lack of discussing the CGI tweaking, and speaking of the DVD version as if it were the actual original film.
The duo also discuss the naming of characters, with the pronunciation of THX’s and LUH’s names to represent sex and love, while SEN represents sin, and the names of the other characters in the white prison sequence representing philosophers like Nietszche, Plato, and Sartre, as well as the possible homoerotic attraction SEN has for THX. Other features, on the second disk, include an informative hour long documentary, A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope, featuring Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, John Milius, and Walter Murch, on the early days of American Zoetrope, the company founded by Coppola, which financed this film. There is also a vintage piece from the period on the film, Bald, as well as Artifact From The Future: The Making Of THX 1138, a thirty minute featurette, the original film trailer, and five re-release trailers from 2004. Best of all is the original 1967 student film of Lucas’s, Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB, which, like the feature film, stands as a tribute to genuine creativity over the narrative copping out that too much CGI fosters.
The flaws worth talking about in this version of the film are all carryovers from the original film, such as the fact that SRT says he’s a hologram, yet he eats food, and has a material presence. Things like that, and a few other even lesser niggles, are real problems with the film, not the CGI enhancements, but even they are minor, compared to the excellent touches the film deploys, such as scenes where people are told to buy things, relentlessly, only to quickly destroy them so they can be recycled and bought again; or the fact that confessional booths are not operated by priests, but by a blank Renaissance image of Jesus Christ, rendered as Big Brother; or, best of all, concerned medicine cabinets that ask people opening them and reaching for meds or just an aspirin, ‘What’s wrong?’, as if these things, or the state behind them, really care. These, plus the rather simple techno-barren effects, help the film retain its futuristic look, where far more gaudy sci fi films of the era have dated badly. One of the truisms of reality is that technology only gets smaller, simpler, and more simple in appearance as it gets powerful. A truly futuristic technology would simply not be huge and hulking, but streamlined, small, and sleek, and THX 1138 seems to get that, even if only subliminally.
In the commentary, Lucas vows that now that he has finally done with the Star Wars films, he is set to return to avant-garde filmmaking of this sort, and his heroes from the French New Wave. Let’s hope so, because after three decades of dumbing down the art of film with his simplistic and pallid Joseph Campbellian rot, the man owes literate filmgoers, and owes us big time for he became, wittingly or not, the very thing that his great first film excoriates, and, if the commentary is to be trusted, he still does not get it. Let’s toss him a softball and pray for the future.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Unlikely 2.0 website.]
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