Wednesday 1 April 2009

Sci-Fi Spotlight #2: THX 1138

Fresh from experiencing Tarkovsky for the first time, the second film in my Sci-Fi Spotlight is from a director that I need no introduction to, one George Lucas. The funny thing is, watching THX 1138 caused me to question if this was actually the same Lucas I knew from the Star Wars films, as the only link between his blockbusting series and this near-avant-garde film is the sense of technical innovation. THX 1138 is something of a revelation as far as my perspective on Lucas is concerned, and it seems a shame that he has never returned to making this kind of film.

The story is very simple. In an unspecified future society where everyone is sedated to the level of emotionless consumer-drones, THX (Robert Duvall) neglects to take his prescribed drugs and begins to see the reality of his predicament. His room-mate LUH (Maggie McComie) has already broken free from her sedation, in fact she intentionally caused THX to miss his required dose, and as the two awake to emotion they fall in love and have sex; illegal activites in this society. They plan to attempt an escape, but are already being pursued by the beaureacratic system of government and its police droids.

Lucas unfolds this story using a very pared-down style, not attempting to draw the viewer in by conventional storytelling methods. Working with the now-legendary editor/sound designer Walter Murch he cuts together images and voices, often unsynchronised, in a nonlinear style. Lucas uses very few establishing shots and mostly close-ups, so the individual performances and character actions become the audience’s main guide through the story’s landscape.

While there is a simple story thread running through the film, THX 1138 is most effective and memorable for individual moments, sounds and images. In a scene where police droids beat THX with electric prods, for example, they repeat the mantra “everything will be alright” even as he cries out in pain. It is a powerful image of brutal and unfeeling authority, both disturbing and absurdly funny, and Lucas injects the film with many of these moments.

On his DVD commentary Lucas insists that everything in the film is metaphorical and refers specifically to the political situation in the late 1960s. He makes a good argument for this being the case, but I don’t think it’s necessary to identify these correlations to take anything of value from this story. Many of the images and ideas in THX 1138 are arguably even more relevant today than on the film’s 1971 release, and it seems to me a great example of science fiction’s timeless potential.

Next up, The Man Who Fell To Earth. David Bowie is an alien - I knew it!


  1. if by Tarkovsky you mean you saw "Solaris", then bravo, dude; that was quite an experience.

    i think you should see the Soderbergh version, though, it offers a few more explanations as to the nature of the... well, no spoilers this time, and back onto topic.

    for some odd reason, i was drawn to "THX..." when i was nine and i know i wouldn't have understood it back then, my parents wisely didn't take me to see it as i had asked.

    when i finally saw "THX..." "uncut" as an adult, it also took some getting used to as Roeg's "Man..." did, but for different reasons.

    to pose an idea that The State keeps a large number of the populace under control using legalized drugs (and forced population control) is a hard pill to swallow; not that it's a new idea ("Brave New World" by Huxley), but Lucas' vision is more austere, sobering and mostly hopeless-looking.

    one thing i do remember from seeing the "uncut" version (something i think i should mention in your review) is that there is very little dialogue in this film which would indicate that "THX..." is a director's film.
    it is a visionary film in its own way, but not nearly as commercial as "American Graffiti" and, well, "Star Wars"; probably a reason he never went back to doing this kind of film again, i think.

    off-topic again, Lucas' "American Graffiti" featured actress Candy Clark as Roeg's "Man Who Fell To Earth" later did.

    perhaps another reason that Lucas never made another film like "THX..." could be that he wanted to nod to a more friendly and colorful past (a nostalgic view), such as "American Graffiti" was and possibly "Star Wars", as well.

    there was a definite and scholarly nod to Joseph Campbell in making "Star Wars", but i also remember Lucas said that he wanted to make a film that dug back up the joy he had from watching serialized adventures as a child, a motif he would further realize working on "Raiders...".

    i should see "THX..." again, this time a director's cut, and exhume more of the details.


  2. well, i see you reviewed Tarkovsky's "Stalker (1979)" and not "Solaris (1972)"... hmmm, i never heard of it before, maybe i'll look into it.

    anyway, here are a few more thoughts i'd share about "THX":

    one of my cousins graduated from USC film school (ok, "School of Cinematic Arts"), George Lucas was just getting his due at the time, and i asked my cousin what he thought of "THX..."; he told me that it was Lucas' student film and hardly paid attention to at USC.


    what the heck were they thinking? this was also Coppola's production, as well.

    i read that Lucas reworked a few scenes for the director's cut on DVD; i'd like to see it for myself, but i'll stick with the version i like the most.