GEORGE LUCAS BEFORE STAR WARS
“Blessings of the state, blessings of the masses.”
THX 1138 is director George Lucas’s first feature length film, expanded from his award winning student short film Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (which can be watched in its entirely on YouTube).
Supposed to be one of the flagships of the then newly formed independent indie studio/film production house American Zoetrope, founded by Francis Ford Coppola and his movie associates, the movie was a commercial flop at the time and seriously jeopardized the survival of the newly formed indie film outfit, which fortunately managed to survive thanks to Coppola’s own commercial success when he took a studio job in directing The Godfather. But this is not a review about that much better known latter film, or Lucas’s own better known films, but about the quite obscure Lucas’s first feature length directorial effort.
It seems paradoxical that THX 1138 should still be such a little known film given Lucas’s later success and fame, but in fact the earlier movie has been completely overlooked thanks to Star Wars. Star Wars so overshadows and overwhelms George Lucas’s career that even few of his fans know or have watched his earlier THX 1138, and even fewer managed to enjoy it, given how different in all aspects it is from Lucas’s more famous film works. For many, “THX” and “1138” is but a quirkiness found in Lucas’s films, be it the name of a sound system pioneered by LucasFilm or a constant number referenced in Star Wars, Indiana Jones and other Lucas’s produced films and TV shows.
But beyond the reference is a film, a remarkable film, sadly ignored, overlooked or under-appreciated. And if I may be so bold as to say so, it is, by far, my favorite George Lucas film. By far.
“Are you now, or have you ever been?”
Title: THX 1138
Running time: 86 minutes (original cut)
Distributor: Warner Brothers
Production company: LucasFilm/American Zoetrope
Director: George Lucas
Writers: George Lucas and Walter Murch
Editor: George Lucas, Walter Murch (sound editing)
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Cinematography: David Meyers, Albert Kihn
Starring: Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasant, Maggie McOmie, Don Pedro Colley, Ian Wolfe, Sid Haig.
In an unknown future date in an unnamed underground city lives a citizen numbered THX 1138. In this termite like society, the inhabitants do not have names, instead they are alphanumerically licensed.
THX used to be content with his lot in life as an efficient factory worker who builds the constabulary robots that police the anthill urbe. But lately he hasn’t been feeling so well. It’s getting harder to concentrate on his job, which is quite dangerous, as proved by the constant reports of mortal industrial accidents. Shopping no longer offers relief from a hard day’s work, and the viewing erotic, informational and comedy programming from audio-visual media at home no longer entertains him. And his female roommate, LUH 3417, who he “shares nothing but space”, has been acting strange lately.
Thankfully, there’s still the drug dispensary to provide the necessary medicament relief for THX. But unbeknownst to him, LUH might not be entirely on the level whenever she gives him his daily prescription, as if she is changing dosages or the order the pills have to be taken, or even suppressing them altogether and replaced with far less effective and weaker placebos.
Making matters worse, THX is invited to visit SEN 5241, LUH’s co-worker at a Surveillance Center, at his lodgings. It so happens that SEN is “widowed” from his former roommate, and he wants to convince THX to live with him because, as SEN informs, they are compatible. SEN even states that it would be easy for him to make the change happen and free THX of LUH’s companionship. THX is distraught and confronts SEN with the fact that mating of roommates is determined by a computer program, SEN says he has ways to circumvent and bend the system. THX is shocked, runs away from SEN and reports him to the authorities.
But his troubles are not yet over as he starts showing obvious symptoms of withdraw. The state religion booths dedicated to the divine figure of OMM can’t give THX the needed comfort to what is now a very physical condition. Arriving home, he collapses. LUH succors him but she shut downs the services of the drug cabinet by closing it with the words “never mind.”
Freed from the drug influence, THX has discovered his libido and he makes love with LUH. She tells him she had been deliberately suppressing the state prescribed drugs to THX, in hope to “wake him” from his stupor, for she had been lonely for a long time. It does look like LUH has been off the drugs for an undetermined time, but while THX enjoys his new found emotions and love for LUH, he does state he used to be happy as a drone, and now they are in danger with the authorities for committing a drug evasion and sex crime.
THX and LUH’s idyllic romance is not to last as, deprived of the necessary drugs to keep him controlled, THX commits a fumble at work that nearly causes a nuclear accident.
Arrested, all of THX’s crimes quickly came to light, together with his partner in crime LUH. He’s forced to be tested for behavior and drug imbalance in what amounts to be both an attempt at therapy and torture. THX is allowed to be with LUH again in his cell, where they resume their love affair, but are interrupted, as it is obviously noticeable their reunion was engineered to see if they would relapse. THX is put to trial, where he is declared unrecoverable and sent to a void-like prison which seems to extend forever.
There he meets SEN again, who was also sentenced as an unrecoverable. Their prison mates are a collection of the dregs of society. An over-philosophical elderly who debates everything and does nothing, a catatonic woman and her would-be rapist, some mental deficients, and SEN who just doesn’t shut up with his attempts at ingratiating with THX. THX finally snaps and decides to escape and go look for LUH. SEN thinks the idea suicidal and lunatic, but faced with the prospect of being alone with the prison’s lunatics, he joins THX in his great escape.
As they walk on the seemly infinite white void, they meet with another wanderer, who claims to be SRT, a hologram who accidentally escaped from one of the media programs and is now eager to taste life in the real world. Give his artificial nature he can spot a subtle beacon that leads them to the escape door. There, THX and SEN gets separated due to a crowd transit, and each go their separate ways, THX with the hologram in search of LUH and SEN wandering the underground city, looking for answers to his feelings of alienation from life. The events then culminate on a climatic car chase and the close pursuit of THX by the robot constabulary.
“Economics must not dictate situations which are obviously religious.”
Back when THX 1138 was released, this film, together with 2001: A Space Oddyssey, were the two most modern science fiction films ever made. Today, THX 1138 can be seen as retro. Especially in its original version, of which this review concerns with. And while this film does indeed scream of the type of style used in SF made in the 1970s, I think there’s something temporal about this film that allows it to have both a retro charm from the times it was made but also an element of contemporary that few other SF movies manage to achieve.
It will be impossible for me to write about this movie without going to spoilers. So, for those who have not yet watched the film and want to remain unspoiled, I sum up all I will write below with a simple direct phase: I urge you to go watch this movie, please. Preferably in the original theatrical cut.
For a more detailed opinion piece, read below.
THX 1138 belongs to a group of films made in the 1970s who share common characteristics: archetypal stories with deceptively simple plots but rich complex subtexts, told in an elliptic style. This were films, both mainstream and genre, made by filmmakers who were inspired by the avant-garde films made in France, Germany and Italy, and also by the developments of new advancements in technology in regard to electronics, computerization and the new format of recording video and audio with tapes, which brought an unprecedented flexibility to editing that had never been experience before in cinema. The results of this experimentation resulted in some of the most radical progressive changeling films made, movies which even by today’s standards are ahead of the loop. This was a group of filmmakers who wanted to re-write cinema, to redefine the vocabulary of cinema and bring something new, never seen before. THX 1138 is one of the most glorious radical examples of that type of cinema made at that time.
As mentioned above, THX 1138 is not alone in its radical approach to storytelling, but was part of a larger movement. And not just limited to genre films but also to mainstream fare. Movies of this kind one can also include such titles as Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz’s Messiah Of Evil, Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, Douglas Trumbul’s Silent Running, to name a few. These were films who wanted to challenge film narrative not just with implementations of new technology but a new way of telling stories and the inclusion of richer subtexts. It was a time of change, in society, in arts, in entertainment, in filmmaking, and that wave of change didn’t escape science fiction as well, quite the contrary, it found in that genre a fertile ground forward. Science fiction has always been a friendly genre to sport innovation, as THX 1138 can attest for.
“Remember, thrifty thinkers are always underbudget.”
THX 1138 can be examined both for its technical and thematic aspects. I shall start with the filmmaking technical side.
The film score was composed by Lalo Schifrin. Schifrin is a legend in film and television score. So many iconic memorable music themes for movies and television were composed by him, thanks to his creative fusion of jazz with orchestral music. Think of a famous theme from a famous TV show and chances are, Schifrim did it. But his score for THX 1138 is the most atypical work of his career. Gone are the pulsating ear worm identifiable themes. His music for the film is a tonal landscape of multi-layered minimalist long notes of a choir and orchestral played build to create a intense mood piece that can be as claustrophobic closed rooms that dominate the film’s imagery. A solo music piece with a melodic piece is the theme for THX and LUH’s love, but itself is a simple single note tune, portraying its naivete and isolation in the middle of the austere and automatized world they live in, with a note of sadness that foreshadows the doomed romance. Then it all culminates in one of the most original renditions of J.S. Bach’s Saint Mathew’s Passion. It’s one of the most fantastic examples of the perfect marriage between images and music I have ever experienced in a film and it counts as one of my favorite scores.
“How shall the new environment be programmed? It all happened so slowly that most men failed to realize that anything had happened at all.”
The most notorious thing about the film is the editing, with film editing by George Lucas and sound editing by Walter Murch. The importance of editing in THX 1138 can never be underestimated.
The sound editing by Walter Murch is an example of the extreme that could be achieved with the technology of the time. And even by today’s standards it’s a very sophisticated sound design. We get wall of sounds for some scenes which are then cut to scenes of silence. There’s overlapping sounds, some of which dissonant to the scene in question. Barely understandable radio communication and discombobulated voices are heard throughout the movie, like a sort of surrealist Greek chorus to the story. All in the service of creating a mood of a strange and alien world, as if to imitate the way computers layers information in the portrait of an automated society obsessed with communication and efficiency. Walter Murch later showed his considerable sound editing skills when he worked on Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, another movie that’s a masterpiece in the use of sound design to tell a story. I believe that Walter Murch, both as a sound and film editor, to be the best of the business in Hollywood.
The film editing by George Lucas is no less admirable. Editing has always been Lucas’s strongest asset as a filmmaker. It has been often said that his movies are made in the editing room, and THX 1138, together with Star Wars, are his two greater achievements in how to construct a film through editing. In some scenes, the best way to describe the editing style is oblique. The beginning of the movie is one of the best illustrations of the editing style of the film. For quite a while you are not exactly sure what it is you are watching, there is a sense of disorientation, which while obfuscates the narrative, it creates tension and the right amount of mood, which pays off, as it serves the needs and style of the story this film tells. The parent non-linearity of the editing constructs a tapestry of emotions and experiences that are of extreme importance to the depiction of not only the world the movie is set in but also the disorientation that the protagonist is feeling through the story. This also creates a challenging experience to the viewer, which is very welcome, as it helps create a participant mood to the viewer, making them immerse into the story. Truth be told, this is not a film in which you experienced merely as a passive spectator, and as true it was to the times the movie was released is as true today. Hopefully, viewers of today are savvier about alternative film narratives then the people of the day when the film hits the theaters. I believe this film is George Lucas’s crowning achievement as an editor, though that is not to belittle his efforts in Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back, and Raiders Of The Lost Ark (all movies in which he took charge of the editing process). But it’s THX 1138 in which his editing skills run supreme.
“Hey, I think I ran over some – I think I ran over a wookie back there on the expressway…”
And in no other scene does Lucas’s skillful use of editing then in the car chase sequence. Going against the perceived wisdom, Lucas goes for a slower pacing for the car chase, and it makes it no less exiting, quite the contrary, to the point I consider this to be one my top favorite car chases on film. The perceived slow pacing of the chase emphases the tension and desperation felt by the protagonist THX, giving the notion that he just might be caught at any minute. The slower pacing also helps extends the cool shots of the cars and motorbikes accelerating in their pursuit. It’s quite evident, watching the film that Lucas knows how to film cars and bikes, and also his love for those automobile machinery and the thrills of speeding, in which time seems to dilate. The slow pacing of these scenes simulates the experience of somebody who drives at top speeds, where time seems to dilate to the point each second last like a small eternity. I find the car chase in this movie to be utterly thrilling for this very reason. It’s quite unique.
“Changeable. Alterable. Mutable. Variable. Versatile. Moldable. Movable. Fluctuate. Undulate. Flicker. Flutter. Pulsate. Vibrate. Alternate. Plastic.”
The cinematography is another interesting aspect of THX 1138. As expected in a dystopia of the kind portrayed in the film, many of the shot compositions are exact and geometrical, emphasizing the automation of the society depicted in the film. But mixed with this is other shots in which the framing is off center, the angle is askew and where the shot seems to have its focus on the wrong frame element. These “wrong” shots do serve a purpose and to sell the idea that for its obsession with efficiency and exactitude, the society of the story is fighting a losing battle against entropy.
But the most striking aspect of the film’s cinematography was an innovation which while today it taken for granted at the time it was unique: the direct shooting of a video screen. Up to that point, filmmakers avoided filming video screens and they used superimposition to depict shots showing images from televisions and video screens. The reason was the frame difference between film cameras and video. Whenever a television of video screen was filmed with a film camera, it caused the showing of a darker bar running up or down the filmed video screen. Most filmmakers considered this ugly and something to be avoided, with the use of special effects to depict images from a television. But some filmmakers did used those “ugly” images by filming video screens and allowed to have those faulty images in an attempt to give their films a realistic feel. George Lucas with THX 1138 went one step further and not only he allowed the filming of video screens with the frame differential effect shown onscreen, but he even incorporated it as a visual stylistic. For the first time, a film had the framing show a complete image of a video screen, but even has it as a close up so thigh often times the video screen filled the whole frame. Later directors used this as a stylistic choice as well and help give their movies a sort of realism feel, like how Ridley Scott did with Alien, James Cameron with the sequel Aliens, and Paul Verhoeven with Robocop.
“Performance perfect is perfect performance.”
The production design of the film made strengths of the limited budget and used existing architecture from recently opened malls and other modernist buildings to represent the efficient minded underground world of THX 1138. The choices of sets and the costume design sell the idea of a regimented society. And the coup de grace was when Lucas managed to get some racing Lola cars to depict the police cruisers for the climatic chase and the use of a stretch of yet to open highway tunnel for the climax chase of the film.
The acting in the film is as good as it gets for the story it tells. Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasant are actors who dispense all introductions and their talent is undisputed. They give each of their characters a richness that goes beyond what would to be expected of such drug induced comatose characters. Duvall is charisma personified, and the mere presence in the film makes you sympathize and root for THX. Pleasant himself is burdened with the more difficult character, a seemly unsympathetic and annoying character who has the bulk of the film’s dialogue all to himself, but his excellent acting gives the character an unexpected dimensionality and sympathy to the character which would had too easily been made into a caricature in other’s hands. Newcomer Maggie McOmie is quite memorable as LUH, and as the sole major female character and the instigator of the whole plot, she gives her role the vulnerability the character demands, and makes us understand why THX would fall in love with her, despite all the troubles she indirectly causes him. Sadly, this was McOmie’s only major film role, as she practically gave up acting and only showed up in minor roles very sporadically.
Other actors in much smaller roles also shine, like Don Pedro Collie as the cheerful hologram SRT.
“If you feel you are not properly sedated, call 348-844 immediately. Failure to do so may result in prosecution for criminal drug evasion.”
THX 1138 is a multilayered film which leaves most of its themes and world-building to subtext. Few things are described about the world that THX lives in, and one has to intuit them from the movie’s many details and clues shown throughout the running time. Things like shots of apparent random items or details and barely audible conversations or radio communications and announcements do carry with them a subtext meaning to inform us the world of the film.
The film depicts one of the most original depictions of a dystopia by subverting what until then was the imagery of a utopia of technological bliss. So influential is the depiction of the white walled dystopia that today it’s practically impossible to imagine a future dystopia without it resembling the underground city from this film. But at the time this film was made this imagery was a subversion.
The best predecessor examples of a individuality crushing dystopia in science fiction was from the novels We by Yevgeny Zamyatin and George Orwell’s 1984. In We, it presents a world which is run smoothly and perfectly efficient, with technology offering bountifulness to everybody, and where the problems to the system are the divergent abnormal behaviors by a small minority of non-conformists. In 1984, it’s a world of scarcity, where all the problems are blamed on enemies, both internal of the state and foreign powers and a non-stop state of warfare, where resources are deviated to the war effort, or so it claims the state.
THX 1138 offers an alternative view of a dystopia from those seminal works. Watching the film, one has the notion that while everything is done in the name of efficiency, there is sufficient clues shown throughout that entropy is a serious problem to the isolated underground world where humans live in. Things are constantly breaking down or under-performing. This society is in a losing fight against entropy. It’s as if soon in his life, Lucas had already learned that all machinery breaks down, and a whole society subservient to the functionability of machinery will be faulty and entropic. Entropy, the great inevitability of the universe. This notion might have been caused when he survived a car accident back in his days of car racing, when a mechanical malfunction nearly cost his life.
The imagery of spotless white cleanliness seems to be imported from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. But where in that film such stark visuals were to illustrate efficiency and a hopeful technical future, THX 1138 subverts it by making such imagery invoke sterility of humanism. HAL is no longer a mere malfunctioning machine, it now rules the world.
Still, entropy and human frailty endures. A savvy operator can take advantage of the system’s flaws and hack into the computer banks. Industrial accidents are so common that a casualty figure of the low hundreds deaths is considered a successful month of accident prevention. One shot in the film shows a lizard in the middle of bunch of cable connections of a massive computer. It’s as if nature is infiltrating and reclaiming the human artificial world. And there’s an hint that sex crimes are a fairly common occurrence, no matter how hard the system cracks down on infractions.
And the humans in the film, contrary to popular belief, they are not human automatons devoid of emotions. In fact, all to often we do see characters, specially secondary and extras, emote such as boredom, surprise, annoyance, admiration, irritability. What this film’s society tries to suppress is sentiments, especially such things like love, especially for a sole object of affection. The rational is all too obvious: it creates a desire for individuality on both the lover and his object of affection, which jeopardizes the nurturing mentality of collectivity. This society works as long everybody’s minds is dedicated to the collective.
It’s easy to see the collective society presented in the film as nightmarish and a hell, especially for us who especially in the western world take our individuality as sacred. But one has to imagine that given the conditions that humanity lives in the film, the extreme collectivity and forceful abnegation of individuality might be an imperative necessity for the human race to endure in such conditions. Watching the film beyond the superficial presentation, one feels that the society in THX 1138 is not inherently malevolent, in fact their intentions are benign and of everybody’s best interest, but as applied to a less than ideal situation, it forces a form of conformity and behavior in humans which are counter to our own nature. Or is it? The film shows some characters rebelling against the conformity of their society, but many more are perfectly happy and adjusted to their world. But in truth who’s the more right? The film is ambiguous in that regard. We side with TH’s desire to first emancipate from the shackles of his condition and later to escape from what he now sees as a world turned prison. But as he says in the film, he used to be happy, and now that he is wiser and free, he lost his happiness and his own place in the world. The film avoids the easy narrative trap of stacking all the philosophical cards in favour of the protagonist. THX’s escape itself causes at least one death. Is the hero’s freedom worth the death of an anonymous bystander and mass destruction of property? The answer is left to each viewer to figure it out for themselves.
The film is also filled with moments of dark and sarcastic humour. It might sound strange, but even in the heavy mood of the film, there’s many moments of humour spread out, some more subtle then others. There’s something to be said when we see THX goes to a shop buying some nondescript consuming product and when he arrives home, the first thing he does is send it to the trash collector. Mass production consumerism taken to its logical conclusion to the point of absurdity. Commerce is encouraged by religion by way of soul cleanse. Later in the film, SEN reaches a church and tries to communicate with his god in what is an obvious television studio, in his mind perhaps begin closer to his god. He asks for a spiritual guidance for which he has no tongue for it. When a monks/religious figure arrives, instead of soul counseling he gets rebuked and a threat of being reported to the authorities. Religion seems to only offer comfort as long you do not trespass! There’s shots of people looking for pests and other vermin infesting the delicate electronic devices, even during the climatic chase, showing a world that is lived besides the happening of the protagonist. Kids play games in the middle of a busy subway station. A robot policeman walks with a child in hand and affably teaches him to call for an elevator. The very affability of the robots themselves could had slapstick levels of comedy were it not for the somber tone of the film, be it when they capture and round up criminals humans or when chasing THX, always talking to them in very polite calming terms with soothing voices, everything is being done for their own good, would you please just come with us don’t make things worse for you and your credit card balance, etc…
For me the most delicious element of the film is when during the climatic escape of THX, a budget is allocated to his capture with a margin of 5% over the estimated budget, pass that and going after THX’s credit, the thing will be called out. I can’t help but laugh at this wonderful piece of absurdity, but in the context of the story of the film it does make some sort of sense. If played more broadly, it could have been a sketch by Monty Pythons!
I feel like I could talk for hours about this film and its qualities. But there are limitations. And maybe that’s for the best. It’s time to finish this article and let the film speak for itself. But suffice to say, I dearly love this film, I’m at awe of it, I’m so grateful it exists, and I count it as one of my favorite science fiction films I ever seen, even one of my favorite films, period.
As always, thank you for reading. This is Asimovlives signing out.
“Thou art a subject of the divine, created in the image of man, by the masses, for the masses. Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more. Buy more now. Buy. And be happy.”