THX 1138 / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | May 2, 2006 | Comments ()
In a spare moment between what will hopefully be the final installments of the bloated Star Wars saga, George Lucas has taken the time to spruce up and re-release his first feature, THX 1138. So, what are we to make, 33 years later, of this early work by a filmmaker who, depending on whom you ask, is either a hack thieving his way through both Western and Eastern culture or the contemporary genius of popular entertainment? What, if anything, is the value of this fascistically austere piece of juvenilia? Might it be, in fact, Lucas’ greatest work?
Science fiction is a genre that notoriously does not age well. Look at, say, Richard Fleischer’s 1973 Soylent Green, as I recently did. If it has any value at all, it is only as a camp artifact. Though prescient in its concern for global warming, the technology, the fashions, and Charlton Heston’s performance are relics of a best-forgotten era. Even Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or his A Clockwork Orange (1971, the same as THX 1138) haven’t aged particularly well. Once we near the chosen date and see how little the present connects with the future predicted, it becomes easy to scoff. Lucas showed some insight by setting his space opera “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” but no disclaimer can convince an audience to ignore the 1970s hairstyle of every male cast member.
What’s surprising about THX is how little it’s dated. Lucas’ minimalism in almost every element, whether narrative or scenic, leaves out most of the telling details that age so poorly. The film has no exposition; it thrusts you right into the story, giving Dadaist clues to what’s going on through the characters’ dialogue and the eerie pronouncements of the guardians of society who sit in control rooms intoning, “If you feel you are not properly sedated, call 348-844 immediately. Failure to do so may result in prosecution for criminal drug evasion.”
That line pretty much sums up the story. The movie is set in an Orwellian future in which order is maintained by drugging the populace into submission. All desires are removed save those for mindless entertainment and shopping (seems pretty on-target so far). Spiritual solace is available in phone-booth-sized chapels to OM, a backlit transparency of Christ whose pre-recorded pieties remind the people of their duties to production and consumption (“You are a true believer. Blessings of the State. Blessings of the Masses. Buy more. Buy now. Buy, and be happy.”). Sexual satisfaction is available through the pistons of a masturbation machine. But two people, THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) and LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) dare to defy the system; they go off their meds and experience emotion. There are, naturally, dire consequences.
The plot isn’t especially original, but the performances are generally good, sometimes even quite moving, and the visuals are really something else. Lucas (working with cinematographers David Myers and Albert Kihn and art director Michael Haller) creates more visual interest here with figures in white space than he did in the Star Wars films with access to all the fancy special effects and racist CGI caricatures in the world. For the first time, I found myself asking if I would enjoy a film less if its stars weren’t freckled. The use of tight, intensely focused close-ups on Duvall and McOmie juxtaposed against the blank canvas of the white rooms around them is fascinatingly physical — the flesh of their heads and shoulders is more vivid, more sensual, more celebratory of the joys of the flesh than any ten porn movies. Other scenes pull back, giving us figures brilliantly framed in a distant corner of the screen, subverting all our expectations of where the action should take place. I enjoyed THX somewhat in the same way I enjoyed Hero, only inverted. What Zhang Yimou does with a rich color palette and beautiful, swirling action, Lucas does here with white and black and flesh and shiny metal. If Donald Judd were a filmmaker, this might be the movie he’d make.
But this is a George Lucas film, and, being Lucas, he’s gone in and added a bit of computer-generated gimcrackery for the re-release. Yes, it’s clear where it’s been added, and, yes, it does look tacked-on. But, like his latter-day embellishments to The Empire Strikes Back, it mostly adds unnecessary complexity to backgrounds and offers little competition for the film’s truly interesting moments (though there are distracting Gollum-like creatures near the end). There are sometimes intermissions between those moments, though, and parts of the story don’t make a lot of sense. Still, for sheer visual risk-taking, THX is by far Lucas’ most impressive work, and one well worth seeing on the big screen. At least once in your life you should see Robert Duvall with freckles as big as your head.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.