THX 1138

Starring:
  • A Pretty Good Sound System
  • Robert "Full Frontal" Duvall
  • A Rather Pleasence Performance
Directed by The Lucas Swarm
"Does anyone want to see my big hairy Wookie? Just kidding. That was digitally erased by Lucas. "
Rethinking George Lucas...Again

I officially fell off the "George Lucus-is-a-Cinematic Icon" wagon on December 19th, 2002. Two nights earlier, I had caught the 12:01 a.m. showing of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and was thrilled by the effort. The initial wonder of the first film in the series had worn off, but the power of the storytelling was still there. I used my four-star review of The Two Towers primarily as a vehicle to retract my four-star review of Star Wars: Episode Two I had written earlier in the year. I simply looked at the detail and the effort a director like Peter Jackson put into his mythical epic and felt that Lucas was simply exploiting my nostalgia for his earlier work in order to make a quick buck. Where Jackson attempted to create imagery in his film that worked in concert with the themes and emotions of Tolkien's prose, Lucas' visuals felt like techno-bang experiments that pandered to computer academics. Put in elementary terms, Jackson made my jaw drop in a way it hadn't since my younger days watching movie like... well, like Lucas' Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. The Lucas of 2002 felt out-of-touch and cold to his audience. As though the years he spent fostering the evolution of special effects and sound technology had far removed him from the role of King Storyteller with American Graffiti and Episode Four. A part of my childhood died, and all I would have was a crappy box-set to show for it.

But I officially climbed back onto the "George Lucas-is-a-Cinematic-Icon" this September 12th with a heightened sense of respect and a new, mature view of the man's work. Two things happened this weekend. First, the "Director's Cut" of Lucas' first film - 1971's THX 1138 - was released in theaters almost simultaneously with its debut on DVD. There were new scenes with cleaned-up frames and a newly enhanced soundtrack but that was of little relevance to me. I sheepishly admitted to some friends earlier in the week that I'd never seen this "weird, cult film" Lucas had done. I found out later, through a little bit of IMDb "insta-research", that the film had fallen out of video distribution and hadn't been shown on television for several years. I felt like I was on level-playing ground again. But then I became worried that, like most revivals of flicks I really wanted to see, it would by-pass the KC Metro area for more lucrative and frankly swankier venues. And since it's re-release would be regulated to twenty theaters, I was certain I would have to catch THX 1138 on DVD. But not only was the film coming to the Kansas City area, the only place it played this weekend was in Lawrence (KS). And it was literally two minutes away from my apartment. My first thought was: Is this town finally going to regain its "Hip" status it received in the mid-90's when William Burroughs lived here, Eddie Vedder hung out at the local concert hall, and Rolling Stone voted our rock station one of the "Ten Best in the Country"? (For the record: Burroughs is dead, Pearl Jam won't even play in KC, and the radio station was bought out and now plays Justin Timberlake and Nickelback. So no, in other words.-ed.) But then I gave up on that pipe dream and simply thought: Something must be telling me to see THX 1138. And let me say that this "weird, cult film" really says a lot about Lucas as a filmmaker, his vision for the future of cinema, and the history of science fiction.

THX-1138 plays like an Orwell or Huxley novel crammed into the science fiction serials of the 1930's. Indeed, director Lucas acknowledges this with a brief prologue featuring clips of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century and their promise of "excitement and adventure in the distant future"! This opening exists as an elaborate joke when Lucas then cuts to his film's vision of the 25th century. The people of the future all look alike with shaved heads and matching white uniforms. The workers perform their tasks underground as the world goes about above them. They are given sedatives through a controlled measure of pills and citizens are persuaded to purchase useless consumer goods as a comforting measurement. Like any science fiction, this was really about the "prescription psychology" and the "Me" attitude of the economy back in 1971. Lucas is clearly mocking those trends, but history has proven that he was ahead in his time in treating that particular material as satire. The film focuses on THX-1138 (Robert Duvall), a worker who deals with his diet of pills and material objects with the same worker-bee disdain as everyone else. But slowly, he becomes dissatisfied with his mindless work and becomes more interested in matters like his roommate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie). Sex is also prohibited in the future, where males are only allowed to "discharge" with the aid of this big machine that pumps up and down on their laps. When the film rolls this "masturbating machine" out, I knew this was not the Star Wars Lucas I was raised with. Despite the mechanics, THX and LUH engage in some rather vivid sex (added to the "Director's Cut" that raised the film from a PG to an R rating.) and to begin losing interest in their normal lives. Frankly, if I had a masturbating machine, I would never resume my normal life. Anyway, THX finds out that LUH was replacing his sedatives with "stimulants" which led to the hunger in his libido. This means Lucas came up with the idea of Viagra over thirty years ago. As punishment, THX is tried and imprisoned. He gets to spend time with SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasence), a man who is all theory and no action. With SEN's help, THX escapes to the outer world where he is pursued again. He keeps going and going until he can escape. There's no traditional story arc to THX-1138. The film simply involves three acts where THX must escape from a different level of pursuit and imprisonment. The first level is the mental prison of the underground working class. The second level is more physical, as he flees prison and seeks to be with LUH for who he now feels genuine passion for. And the third level is suggests spirituality with an ending that makes the audience the purpose and the ultimate conclusion of THX's journey.

THX 1138, in retrospect, serves as a fascinating blueprint for Lucas' technique. The first production from Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope studio, the film shows off Lucas' influence from Buck Rogers, the more high-minded science fiction of literature, and the cinematic styling emerging from Europe in the works of Truffant and Godard. Lucas critics lambasted this film and his subsequent work by describing his style as mere posings and insulting to these earlier influences. But Lucas is much more than that. He is clearly influenced by other movies; clearly he tips his hand in the prologue of THX-1138. And he talks about the Westerns, jungle adventures, and Japanese epics that are woven into Star Wars and Indiana Jones. He uses the familiar elements from these genre films to create comfort among the audience as the new story with the new ideas emerge. There are some striking distinctions about THX 1138 that rises it above the older material that helped to shape it. The references to consumerism and prescription drugs has already been touched upon. Then, there are the authority figures. "The Man", if you will. Most science fiction treats the forces of order as overly aggressive and violent. Certainly Lucas, who crew primarily came from Berkeley, would follow suit. But the police and the overruling society are surprisingly polite and docile. When THX opens up his medicine cabinet for pills, an ominous voice nicely asks, "Is everything all right? I hope everything is all right." Almost as though this passive authoritarian approach is far more controlling and deceptive. Lucas also uses the science-fiction genre to discuss sex and religion in more frank terms than allowed before the European wave. In THX 1138, the depravation of sex is added to the layers of control inflicted upon society and clearly makes it more plausible to believe THX's desire to escape his perpetual captivity. And there's two great moments involving the underground's "confessional booth." The workers filter into the Movie Hut-type structure and speak to a television image of Jesus. When they confess their sins and concerns, a voice chims in reassuring them that "everything will be all right." Yes, Jesus talks back. During the escape later in the film, SEN breaks into a recording studio and sees the picture of Jesus from the confessional booth and begins to pray. All of a sudden, a scary-looking figure in a black robe with Jesus's voice chases SEN off and accuses him of trespassing. Religion is just part of the control, argues THX 1138 and this is one of the first Americans films to attack religion's use of modern communication. The whole film has this interesting and artistic view on existence and society that has been used over and over since. But from a historical perspective, THX 1138 is as important as it gets.

In addition to the film's weight, THX 1138 also exhibits Lucas' creativity in developing new worlds on screen. Details of the future's technology (although clearly outpaced by modern reality) are given a stunning amount of screen time. And Lucas nicely contrasts the blank slate of the underground world with the more traditional and bustling "science fiction" city on the outside. The thought put into the world of THX 1138 clearly shows a respect for the audience who crave to know more than just basic plot and character development. Science fiction requires this kind of persuasive detail. This is the type of detail Lucas later revolutionized in 1977's Star Wars Episode Four. Which gets me to my second point about my Lucas conversion this week. (Remember how I talked about that earlier?) Later that night, I cured my insomnia by watching A & E's special on the making the Star Wars Episode Four -Six. As Lucas describes the process of creating the story, I remember something The New Yorker's Anthony Lane said about the original films. Before they became legendary and kind of mythical on their own, several critics lauded the film as a hilarious satire of corporate culture. You know, the poor farm kid takes on the Big Contractor (or "Evil Empire") that's ruining the galaxy. Listening to Lucas talk, I'm not certain that he remembers this being an influence on the story. But this documentary, coupled with my viewing of THX 1138, made me think of Lucas as a darkly intense cultural visionary that could have only been produced out of the cinematic and political upheaval of the 1960's. No longer the fantastical storyteller of my youth, this guy had a really funny and really messed up view on society and the future. I love that. It's like rediscovering something that still seems familiar. That rarely happens in film since we get revivals so infrequently. (Message: Go see this older stuff in the theater. It's still important. And it's cooler than watching it on TV. Trust me!) It's just too bad that Lucas has clearly bought into his own myth since then. Of course, anyone would if Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers started hanging off your every word. But, even Lucas seems to acknowledge the irony of his career's trajectory. In a CNN interview this week, Lucas sees himself as the guy who wanted to be the independent maverick who ended up becoming his own corporation. "In order to make my own work, I kind of had to become the studio system I wanted to so desperately tear apart." He said that Episode Three would be the last of the Star Wars films. "At this point, I'm at the age and the financial comfort where I can go back and make movies like THX 1138. A point where I don't care if anyone else likes it and no one else will release it. I'll show up to a film festival and say, 'Here it is.'" Wow, talk about Lucas' Brave New World. If Lucas is serious, I feel confident with sticking up for him as the new Dark Force (pardon the pun) in cinema. If we get more movies like THX 1138, then I'll sit through another Jar Jar Binks junk-fest. But this is the last time. I'm serious. If this doesn't work out, I'll wash my hands of Lucas for good. Now, when is Episode Three coming out? May 19th? Can I start lining up for my ticket?

The Pitch:
2 A New Hope
Plus
2 Aldous Huxley
Equals
4 THX 1138
See It For:
The "Gays Against Bush" (Hee-hee) Getting Hauled off at the Republican National Convention.