THX 1138 (1971) dir. George Lucas
Starring: Robert Duvall, Maggie McOmie, Donald Pleasence, Don Pedro Colley, Sid Haig
By Alan Bacchus
Oh George Lucas, what happened? What happened? Let’s look back at who was once one of the most exciting, ambitious, cutting edge Hollywood filmmakers. This first film from George Lucas, an expansion on his revered student short film, is an amazing piece of cinema. Intially dismissed by both critics and audiences, I think, has finally gained its due appreciation.
The film's lasting power and legacy is not just because of the success of Star Wars, nor the fact that its central theme of human nature breaking away from the consumer-driven soul-crushing authority and uniformity has been retold in numerous science fiction films since (Gattaca, Truman Show, Moon, Matrix), but because 40 odd years later, other than the youth of Robert Duvall, and maybe the cars used in the final car chase, it’s almost invisible to time.
THX 1138 has the hallmarks of a young ambitious director, trying to tell stories with big themes, and with a fuck-you auteur attitude which at the time was wholly against the aesthetic mainstream. The existential Orwellian themes existed in literature, but not so much in cinema. The success of the trippy art house sci-fyer 2001: A Space Odyssey definitely helped this get greenlit, but it was also the 70's when filmmakers were challenging just about everything we thought about Hollywood filmmaking.
We don’t know much of where the film takes place, who the characters are that we are following, or how they got there. All we know is that a drone named THX (Robert Duvall) is one of seemingly thousands, maybe millions of drone-like workers who have shaved heads, wear all white and make robots using remote controlled joysticks. Are they captives or slaves? We don’t even see their leaders, only their expressionless voices over the omniscient sound system, beating into their heads about efficiency and cost saving. The only semblance of authority are the mysterious giant silver faced robot policemen who roam the hallways of this underground world.
THX's enabler is his roommate LUH (Maggie McOmie) who secretly changes his drug supply which releases him from his submissive state. It also releases their suppressed carnal lust resulting in some very satisfactory lovemaking. The police are watching though and immediately arrest him and place him in a very cooky prison cell/asylum consisting of an all-white infinity. With the help of a giant black man SRT (Don Pedro Colley), who may or may not be a hollogram, THX escapes eventually climbing up out of his underground prison into the real world.
For Star Wars fans it's fun to see elements of design in the visual makeup of this film which would appear in his 1977 film. The robot policemen of course, look like C3PO in a cop’s outfit and there’s a regilious undercurrent whose followers or priests wear jesuit-like cloaks like Obi-Wan Kenobi or the Jawas.
Also look for a consistency in Lucas' supremely acute eye for composition, a style which moves from this film through American Graffiti and Star Wars. Lucas almost exclusively shoots this film with long lenses which crushes the background, removes all the depth from the frame and creates a voyeur effect. As a a result when the camera is on one his characters, it’s difficult to see around his or her space. And so it’s Lucas’s own editing which pieces together this unique and fucked up world. When Lucas takes us outside the whiteness of the workplace and domicile he jumps to extremely wide lenses showcasing the inventive locations used to visualize the outside world. Lucas manages to make regular parking lots, carefully chosen modernist architecture of the 60’s and the yet unfinished Bay Area Rapid Transit system look like hundreds of years into the future. And so, remarkably, without much artificiality, it’s the visual design of these simple compositions shot with these specific lenses that transport us into the future.
To reinforce his themes of dehumanization Lucas’s close-ups of flashing cursors, read out screens, flipping analog numbers most of which are meaningless and not narratively significant, serve to beat us and the characters down with the overly scientific and calculated nature of this near future existences. This penchant for numbers would even bleed into his screenplay for Star Wars, naming many of his characters, solely as numbers – C3PO and R2D2 for instance.
After the very purposeful pacing of the first two thirds, the dramatic escape by THX and his compatriot SRT (Don Pedro Colley), increases the pace leading up to a stunning final car chase. Of course, we all know Lucas’ penchant for cars through is second feature American Graffiti, but watch how the combination of sound and the visual juxtaposition of THX’s rickety racecar with the elegant stealth of the two policemen on motorcycle resembles the feeling of Darth Vader’s tie-fighter chasing Luke Skywalker’s X-wing fight in the final assault on the Death Star.
Unfortunately after three great films (incl Graffiti and Star Wars) Lucas lost the directing bug and stopped directing movies. Perhaps his creative juices burnt out after three pictures. Certainly from reading and listening to interviews he never really liked the actual the process of production – which helps explain why his new Star Wars films were more computer generated than actual filming and working with actors. It’s a shame because despite little dialogue there’s some great performances in THX 1138 and American Graffiti.
THX 1138 is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video. Of course it's the director's cut which contains added CG effects, which like the original Star Wars, was really unnecessary, as the original stands tall on its own.