Saturday, 9 February 2013

THX 1138 (1971)

THX 1138 is a strange and rather unique sci-fi movie directed by George Lucas, his first feature film.

The story is set in the distant future in a city populated by shaven headed individuals, clad in white robes and tunics. Sex is outlawed and the administration of psychotropic drugs is compulsory in order one presumes to take the inhabitants' minds off their joyless existence and keep their libidos at bay. The stringent laws are upheld by cyborgs who are dressed a bit like motorcycle cops with metal masks. All inhabitants of the city are referred to by a series of letters and numbers, and our focus is drawn to the THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) of the title who's menial job involves the dangerous manufacturing of the law enforcing robots involving plutonium and explosives.

THX has a roomate LUH (Maggie McOmie), whose job is to maintian CCTV monitoring of the city's population, basically to make sure they are taking their drugs and not copping off with each other. However LUH herself hasn't been taking her medication and consequently forms a crush on THX. When she substitutes his pills for dudds her feelings are reciprocated and the two begin an affair. But LUH's superior SEN (Donald Pleasence) realises something is up and thows suspicion on the couple alerting the authorities to their misdemeaners.
Although there is a fair deal of hi-tech gubbins going we are mainly in the realm of a dystopian future with many references to sex crime and Big Brother. And like Orwell's classic novel 1984, the many powers and committees that oversee THX's world aren't exactly infallible. Bureaucratic errors are made on a daily basis. Many of the city's inhabitants are imprisoned wrongly for the most minuscule of crimes. And health and safety would have a field day with the lack of preventative measures in place to keep the dangerous workplaces accident free. This is not a wealthy society either. Fighting crime and punishment is on a definite budget with law enforcers instructed to give up the chase once finances go over a certain amount.

Religion also plays a big part in THX 1138. The city is littered with tiny uni-chapels where unhappy citizens can repent, confess and seek advice to the ever-watching, ever present deity OMM 0910. These portatemples resemble phone boxes and give out automated advice such as "Work hard. Increase production. Prevent accidents and be happy." Shades of Radiohead's mantra from OK Computer... "Fitter, Happier, More Productive"?
THX was released at the turn of the 70s but it was actually conceived as a student project by Lucas in the late 60s along with his friend and Hollywood sound guru Walter Murch (who provides a curious soundtrack of machines, cars, intercoms and computerised noises). It very much has the feel of a student film with a lot of art house, anger and politics as well as a strong scent of the revolutionary times from whence it was borne.
As a result it's also a bit pretentious and slightly unfathomable at times, a bit like Last Year at Marienbad set in the future. What saves it is Lucas's original vision of a world set mostly in stark, pure white. In fact you'll rarely see so much brilliant white lovingly photographed on the screen as you will in THX 1138, and for that reason it's pretty unique and worth sticking with.

It's also one of a handful of films made in the 1970s that depict future dystopias. The Planet of The Apes series set the bar for post-apocalyptic civilisations throughout the decade and Soylent Green and The Omega Man followed suit to varying degrees of success (all starring Charlton Heston strangely enough). Logan's Run also takes a lot from THX thematically and in concept.
If Orwell is a major influence on the themes at the heart of THX, then Philip K Dick is another sci fi writer who's mark is there to see. The idea of hallucogenics and pharmaceuticals being dished out by authorities to keep the public's minds sedated is an idea used in Dick's classic novel A Scanner Darkly (published after THX was released). Surveillance and levels of reality are also prevalent motifs in Dick's work, although he instills a lot more humour into the darkness than Lucas does here.

George Lucas's name has been in the movie news a lot recently but I'm trying to work out what exactly it is he does these days apart from earning pots of cash from the Star Wars franchise (although passing on the baton to JJ Abrams is a good move). Makes me wonder though what happened to the fresh faced ingenue who was at the forefront of the 70s US Brat Pack along with Coppola, Scorsese, Speilberg and all those other legendary filmmakers.

Don't get me wrong, you can't really knock the man who created the ultimate cinematic cult and revolutionised the way we look at technology in movies. But a look at IMDB shows that creative output as a film director over the years has been low and even on his more prominent production side, George Lucas's name sits next to a fair few turkeys (Howard the Duck anyone?)

THX 1138 is no turkey. It shows an original vision on a large canvas. I just wish that we'd seen more of that vision over the last 40 years.