BFI Days Of Fear & Wonder Sci-Fi Season – THX 1138 (1971)
Six years before a certain, small, swashbuckling in space picture descended upon cinemas and changed the culture forever George Lucas had already explored the cosmos of the SF genre, with his initial student film remade with a modest budget and renamed THX 1138. If Star Wars was Lucas assimilating the theories of Joseph Campbell through the lens of Flash Gordon and Republic pictures adventure serials then his first foray into Science Fiction is a far darker and politically minded proposition, a melding of Orwellian oppression and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In some unspecified cold and sterile future world the human population is enslaved by technological surveillance and the mandatory digestion of emotion deadening drugs, with even names and personalities replaced by a code to denote the inhuman hive mind mentality of our future civilization. All devoid of hair and garbed in identical white jump suits only THX1138 (Robert Duvall) begins to quietly question the system and eventually embarks on a desperate mission to escape the subterranean oppression, encountering a procession of characters and incidents laced together in an abstract cocoon, with scant interest in the soon to be embedded fixtures of the form – blaster battles, interstellar dogfights, bizarre alien worlds and creatures, the wonders of the cosmos.
In that sense THX 1138 is very much a science fiction film with an emphasis on the science, of how technology and automation impresses itself on the human animal and wider human society, and from Lucas’s pessimistic perspective the prediction is not in the least attractive or desirable. I was very happy that the film which was presented as part of the BFI’s Days Of & Fear Wonder SF season was an original 35mm print, the only copy in the country according to a brief introduction from some knowledgeable boffin, as opposed to a digital projection of the 2004 directors cut where as usual George fucks his film with pointless tinkering and obsolete additions as illustrated here. It was a degraded print which had significantly shifted to a pink spectrum as discussed and explained here, it was also quite glitchy around the reel changes but a perfectly serviceable print nonetheless, on a somewhat related note this crossed my social media stream today. I can’t say much for the film itself as truth be told I really didn’t respond to it, it was much more abstract and distanced than I remembered, a rather turgid collection of scenes which didn’t seem to have any overlaying principles or specific allegorical intent. I think it was Francis Ford Coppola (who mentored Lucas and helped produce and finance his early films) who observed that George was terrific at design and editing, the intrinsic and interrelated subconscious elements of film communication, and perhaps he wasn’t quite as strong with actors or dialogue (which is a diplomatic comment at best), so while I’m glad I saw the film on the big screen and admire some of its elements it is a film which struggles to reach the head and certainly doesn’t engage the heart.
A cursory glance at the credits presents a roster call of legends in the field, alongside Coppola there is of course the great Walter Murch on sound montage duties and he has certainly crafted an aural labyrinth, Lucas was always good with sound and consistently surrounded himself with the best and most visionary technicians in the business. THX 1138 reminded me for some bizarre reason of Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor which was a similarly savage snarl at the state of the nation, perceived through the lens of a lunatic asylum, while this future world is clearly an allegory on the perceived direction of society and a repressive state contorting to social change and pressures from the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movement, a statement that you’d expect from any left leaning liberal arts college graduate emerging in the shadow of Woodstock and the hippie movement. The images of those leather garbed, jackbooted silver-faced stormtroopers instantly evokes images of the state beating protesters during the civil rights struggle in the previous decade, with the state organ ritually warning the populace that it is a crime not to take your mandated diet of daily drugs, a satiric inversion of the ‘tune in, turn on, drop out’ mantra. It’s fun to see Robert Duvall in his first starring role before he was the Robert Duvall who would go on to work with Coppola on The Godfather the following year, Donald Pleasance is always fun and cult exploitation actor Sid Haig even gets a look in as some aggressive, loosely rebellious wretch.
The use of negative space is starkly designed and executed in the film, framing characters in isolation on the periphery of the plane, to subconsciously communicate their claustrophobia, the repression and suffocating burden of oppression. It makes you wonder how this sparely efficient director who understood these critical concerns came to be the man responsible for digital maelstroms of visual pollution in his latest films, as sometimes budgetary restrictions lead to solutions which can cleverly meld into a films overall thematic aura. I did admire the touch that the hunt for THX 1138 is abandoned not because of his cunning or strategic evasion, but purely due to the fact that due to some accidental circumstances various units are damaged or destroyed in the melee, meaning that the budget to apprehend him becomes too high so the chase is suspended due to purely fiscal concerns – that’s capitalism writ large in all its cold, dispassionate cruelty. Some say that following the social tremors of THX 1138 and the warm, genuinely affectionate and amusing American Graffiti indicate that Star Wars was the worst thing that ever happened to George Lucas the ‘filmmaker’, as of course it has utterly eclipsed his career and been his central emphasis for almost forty years, at the expense of other projects and stories he could have brought to the screen. Maybe so but we shouldn’t forget that whatever the merits and failures of his films they organically birthed Industrial Light & Magic, the THX sound system and a little animation studio called Pixar, positing technology as the reactor core of Lucas’s work and life on a textual and industrial level.