Written by: Lance Carmichael, CC2K Staff Writer
But a straight-forward plot synopsis of this film is like describing 2001 as “First a bunch of monkeys find a metal pillar, then two guys fly to Jupiter, and a super-computer of the future kills one of them. Finally, a giant baby floats over earth.” The social commentary of THX 1138 is extremely heavy-handed on paper.
What saves the film – not only saves it, actually, but causes its alternate film universe to explode into the viewers mind in all its blank white clarity – is its “abstractness.” Abstractness, a word that by its very definition is pretty damn difficult to define, is the word you’ll see most often used to describe this movie, and it’s inadequate, just like “artsy” and “pretentious” would be. What these words, carelessly lobbed in the direction of THX, are really trying to signify is that Lucas constructed this movie as if it was made in the world of THX. (no great insight, of course: check out the opening quote for this article, which comes from the DVD’s commentary track). No concessions were made to explain this world to us, the viewers, like in most exposition-heavy sci-fi (see Star Wars, six years later). Lucas adapts the mindset of what it would be like to be a person living in this world and attempts to construct a movie that they might find understandable. A good example of this is the scene where THX and LUH, finally shaking the cobwebs out of their heads as the drugs slowly wear off, realize they’re attracted to each other. Unlike what we’d get in a standard big-budget sci-fi movie nowadays, there is no snap moment where Duvall starts talking like (gosh-darnit!) a real human being, or has the world he’s been mindlessly living in explained to him by LUH. The scene is edited with disorienting jump-cuts, with THX and LUH suddenly licking each other’s faces and liking it. It takes you a couple extra seconds to realize that they’re clumsily trying to kiss each other. Remember how confusing and surprising the first time you masturbated was? Multiply that by a hundred, and that’s what it would feel like for THX and LUH. And that’s the feeling Lucas provokes in the viewer. The whole movie is made with this kind of logic, and I could go on and on describing the cold genius of several other sequences like this (perhaps the best moment of the movie comes as THX, locked up in an indeterminate white space prison without walls, has his body contorted through the manipulations of two unseen people watching him on a video screen, one voice lazily trying to teach another how to work the program – whose purpose, use, and even look we are never told – that’s used to make prisoner THX contort in these weird ways), but you’d be best served by watching it for yourself. Just as confused as THX must be, so are we. The entire movie feels like it exists underneath a damp towel, denying you any sort of look at the horizon, muting all rationality in its warm dampness.
And yet the movie is never frustrating to watch, and this is due to the tour de force of set design, editing, sound design, and cinematography on display – all in service of exploring the themes of this society, not just to look cool. The famous look of the film – famous even when it was mostly unseen – is lots of stark white spaces flooded with light (which, often to non-technical film people’s surprise, is deviously difficult to shoot in – all of that white serves as a giant bounce board reflecting and magnifying light past every F-stop on your camera). Nothing is unseen in this surveillance society, where images of THX, no matter where he runs to, are pumped into a huge control room manned by androgynous, emotionless women.
This piece pretty much annihilates the notion that Lucas can’t direct actors. Like Stanley Kubrick, Lucas gets frustrated, disconnected performances, but when that synchs up with what the movie needs to make it work (as it nearly always did with Kubrick, but never again did with Lucas), the results are dazzling. An always-welcome Donald Pleasence shows up in this movie as another criminal, one with a man-crush on THX. His stylized performance, like all the performances in this movie, is another key piece without which the edifice of the entire movie would collapse. The characters are built up in myriad ways: overlapping, indirect dialogue, often at odds with the picture; the words chosen by the writers for the dialogue, using poetry’s tried and true method choosing words more for the effect they evoke than the meaning they convey; and the performances themselves. None of the actors (besides THX and LUH, briefly and awkwardly) ever connect with each other, but instead run around and around in their gerbil wheels of solipsism. Lucas reveals on the commentary track that during a long prison sequence, Pleasence’s dialogue consists entirely of recycled lines from Richard Nixon speeches – and the pride with which Lucas reveals that little chestnut on the commentary track hints that the heart of a young, rebellious 70s auteur Jedi still beats somewhere inside his black Vader armor.
A Slight Digression to Warn Humanity of Its Impending Doom
Though the skill with which it’s made and the themes it treads – just as haunting today as in 1971 – ensure that it’s impossible to dismiss the horrors of this world, it’s easy to look at a future as extreme as the one in THX 1138 and pigeonhole it as a pure horrorshow, a boogeyman animated for us to get cheap thrills and scares from because it could never come true. Lucas obviously isn’t saying society is actually headed in this literal direction; but just for a thought experiment, think about exactly how much the world has changed in the last 50 years … and from that point, in the 50 years before that. Remember that before World War II, most people lived in small towns where everyone knew each other their whole lives. Now most people see their close family members three to five times a year, spend over an hour a day sitting in traffic that would blow a 19th century man’s mind clear out of his tophat, and sit inside under florescent lighting in cubicles that make no attempt whatsoever to hide their hive-like natures for 49 weeks a year. It’s so easy to take for granted just how weird the reality you live in is when it hits you day after day after day. The only times you might realize just how strange things are is the sense of vertigo you get during moments like looking down on traffic from a tall skyscraper or watching time-lapsed traffic photography; or, for me, when a family member from the small town I grew up in visits the metropolis I live in now, and I see the relentless speed at which it moves through their eyes, rather than my desensitized ones. Or when watching a satiric exaggeration like THX 1138. Movies of this quality of craftsmanship and thought have real social value.
The Irony of It All
Of course, Lucas got shellacked for daring to make such an audacious film debut. 2001 may have lucked into a serendipitous score at the box office from the hippies looking to trip out three years earlier, but lightning didn’t strike twice. As the Warner executives who tried to force Lucas to recut his film guessed, there wasn’t much of a market for such a challenging downer of a movie. THX, made as the first of a 10-picture deal Francis Ford Coppola’s fledgling production juggernaut Zoetrope Pictures had made with Warner Brothers to revolutionize film, ruined that deal and ended Coppola’s grand art movie mogul ambitions before they had really started (for the first time, anyway, but certainly not the last).
Even Lucas’s wife, Marcia, jumped on the anti-THX bandwagon. Summing up her feelings in the wake of the commercial disaster that THX wrought, she gave George her honest opinion on the film that he had written, directed, edited, and all but nursed at his own teat: “I like to become emotionally involved in a movie. I want to be scared, I want to cry, and I never cared for THX because it left me cold.”
Check the IMDb: Marcia Lucas has edited every film George Lucas has directed since then.