Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
George Lucas, Michel Foucault, and Radiohead: Who would win in a fistfight?
“What we were interested in doing was making a film from the future rather than about the future. So that it’s as if you were looking at a film from a foreign country who’s customs and habits and cinematic language you were not familiar with.”
– Walter Murch, co-writer and sound designer, THX 1138
In 1971, THX 1138 invited audiences to imagine a world where strong emotions are suppressed with powerful, societally approved drugs; mind-numbing, repetitious work takes place in bland, micro-efficient hives; public spaces are ceaselessly monitored on security cameras; soothing and inescapable messages are broadcast to encourage us to remain calm and continue consuming; and people live in interchangeable, sterile, sexless boxes – a terrifying dystopia which thankfully hasn’t come to pass, except in the United States, Canada, Europe, much of Asia, and the heart-chilling concept albums of Radiohead.
And that’s a good thing, in retrospect. This is an art film, truly. I’m sorry, this is going to sound snooty, but every cell of this movie is made for the college-educated. My younger self would have dismissed it as sort of cool but ultimately boring – and rightly so, for the age I was at. What 16-year-old wants to sit in front of his parents’ TV, thoughtfully stroking his chin over the vacuity of post-industrial life as coldly satirized in Lucas’ ingenious fusing of Waiting for Godot and 2001? It’s almost as if Lucas, in waiting until 2004 to release this DVD, was actually waiting until I, Lance Carmichael, was finally ready to watch it. Lucas has fucked up a lot recently with the DVD releases of his old films, but for the extended wait for THX, I salute him.This movie was previously only available on VHS tapes made during Reagan’s first term in office, usually in the hard plastic tape cases you could actually open and close like a book and faded from 20 years on a shelf in a poorly ventilated video store. Despite my love of Star Wars growing up, this video package – sitting unappetizingly on the shelf in the “Weird and Sci-Fi” section of Wells Family Video next to Westworld and Zardoz – was so singularly unattractive I just couldn’t bring myself to watch it.
THX now comes at us courtesy of a thorough detailing by Lucasfilm. Unencumbered by the humorless nostalgia Star Wars fans are burdened with when it comes to digitally tweaking scenes to smooth away the unmistakable “Made in the 70s” SFX stamp, THX 1138 benefits like Star Wars cannot from this treatment. And it serves as a useful reminder:
George Lucas used to be a hell of a filmmaker.
Lucas paints his dystopic surveillance state with absolutely no concessions to the viewer. What this means is that this film could never find the wide appeal his other sci-fi movies did; but for the more discerning watcher, this is a true freeze-you-in-midstep-as-your-jaw-hits-the-carpet stunner. The imagination and originality of the Star Wars films is too easy to take for granted now, so iconic have the images from the films become in popular culture. It’s impossible to look with fresh eyes at AT-AT Walkers, light sabers, sail barges, R2-D2, etc. THX lets you appreciate just what a brilliant visual artist Lucas was (and no longer is).
If you’re reading the press on this re-release, chances are you’re going to come across a critic skeptically quoting Lucas from this film’s commentary track, talking about how he thinks his true calling was as an avant-garde filmmaker, and then lightly jabbing the reader in the ribs before soldiering on with the review. This is good for a cheap laugh, with Jar Jar Binks and Hayden Christensen fresh in most readers’ minds. But once you watch any stretch of THX, with Walter Murch’s unsettling sound design, where no sound seems to be coming straight at you (many of the extras in the DVD have the filmmakers self-analyze their use of sound in the picture, and Walter Murch, like he did throughout the entire 1970s, puts on a clinic), or watch the sophisticated editing schemes, which are anything but the meat-and-potatoes continuity editing of Star Wars, and realize that Lucas himself is credited as the editor on this … then the claim starts to make sense.
“Work hard, increase production, prevent accidents, and be happy.”
This movie is cold and unemotional, but so are its characters. They live in a world where humans create robots to police and order society so humans can create other robots. There is no mastermind villain behind the plan; the villain is society itself. Drug avoidance is the worst crime committable, for the powerful mood-altering, anti-anxiety pills all humans take – basically turbo-Ritalin – render all questions of violence or rape or robbery moot. The story action kicks in as THX 1138’s androgynous female roommate switches his medication, which eventually leads him to realize that his roommate is a woman, and he’d like to fuck her, and she him. The only characters allowed a flicker of personality in THX 1138 are those who are seriously questioning the world around them. Duvall – as THX 1138 – is perfectly cast as the stock sci-fi dystopian protagonist who wakes up to the living nightmare around him and decides to attempt escape. Duvall sort of becomes the reverse-George Lucas: Did Lucas, after making the very-much emotionally warm American Graffiti and the Star Wars trilogy, start a twenty year regimen of turbo-Ritalin left over from THX in preparation for the DOA Star Wars prequels?