Famous Firsts: THX 1138 (1971)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: George Lucas, writer-director

By Roderick Heath

It’s impossible to talk about George Lucas’ career without doing it in terms of Star Wars. Perhaps it’s fair enough, considering that four of the six films he has directed have been in that series. Even at his least—that would be Star Wars – Episode One: The Phantom Menace (1999)—with his limitations on display, Lucas is a natural-born filmmaker, skilled at filling the silver screen with detail, composing and editing his shots with fluidic skill and pictorial intelligence. Lucas achieved the feat of surviving, when the vagaries of cinematic fate crushed his producer, collaborator, and friend Francis Coppola’s hopes to define a new independence in Hollywood. Coppola’s then-new Zoetrope Studios produced THX 1138, adapted from Lucas’ film school short Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138-4EB. Peeking under the film’s stringent, conceptual façade, Lucas’ preoccupations come into focus, preoccupations that also fed the nostalgic comedy of American Graffiti and the high-flying fantasy of the Star Wars films. THX 1138 is a tale of attempting to escape a world of strangling conformity and seemingly arbitrary rules (and rule) with verve and humanity. THX, the kids of Graffiti, Anakin, and Luke Skywalker—all attempt to blast apart the numbing trial of their lives in Nowheresville armed with fast machines and romantic notions that soon melt in the light of day. How well they survive then depends on their essential characters.

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THX 1138 (Robert Duvall, suitably, intensively dead pan) is a member of a future civilization that has retreated underground. Children are laboratory-grown, and people have been reduced as much as possible to abstract entities. They’re drugged to suppress emotion, allowed to cohabit but prohibited from sexual activity. Hordes of technicians supervise everyone and each other. They’re kept still more numb with media, reduced to the barest of provocations. TV provides either terrible sitcoms (“That was very funny,” THX states at the punchline of a nonexistent joke), or social lectures, or forms of pornography, both violent (one show consists of one of the city’s robotic policemen beating up a man) and sexual (a dancer who flickers whilst THX is worked on by a masturbation machine). Religion provides confessional sessions in a phone booth, with an image of a generic holy man and a recorded voice; priests don’t let anyone into their tabernacles. The workplace regularly sees accidents that wipe out hundreds of disposable employees.

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Like most dystopias, it’s actually a particularly scurrilous version of the era it was made in, whilst owing something to Aldous Huxley and Philip K. Dick. The prologue presents clips from an old Buck Rogers serial, an ironic counterpoint to this vision, but also an affirmation of its themes. Like Buck, THX is an ordinary man who beats his enemies by utilizing his fundamental, ordinary human gifts of bravery, verve, and wit. There is no cabal of ruling elite, à la Orwell, with knowledge and interests at odds with the suppressed populace. It’s not a theocracy, fascist, or socialist state. It’s all those things, with catchphrases of such diverse authorities, like “the masses,” and “religious matters,” jumbled into a mélange of substance-free significance. THX is a technician who works with dangerous nuclear materials, and it’s impossible for him to perform without nerve-deadening drugs. But his assigned wife, LUH (Maggie McOmie), tampers with their pills, prodded by suppressed, illegal maternal urges. She and THX are awakened to a terrifying, daunting new life. THX is beset by violent withdrawal symptoms, but is soon suddenly alive to LUH’s body, sex, and feeling. Not just love, but the ambiguity of love, as LUH wonders whether they were properly mated by the computers. It’s amazing, but, as THX snaps, “It can’t go on!”

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They are observed by computer programmer SEN (Donald Pleasance), who attempts to intervene in their lives, promising to shield them if he can convince THX to cohabit with him. SEN is searching for a kindred soul who, like him, bends the rules. Whilst at his job, an arrest warrant goes out for THX, and he is “mind-locked” at his work station; this almost causes a nuclear disaster, which is only averted once he’s released and can save the day. He is swiftly tried for violating morals and drug-use laws, and sent, along with LUH and SEN, to a vast white void of a prison. When THX and LUH react to this strange, oddly free environment by having sex, officers hurriedly race in to separate them. LUH is later executed. THX is only spared from execution because of his technical skills, and is left with SEN and other long-term, intelligent prisoners. In a note that satirizes the divide between younger, lifestyle-oriented, counterculture folk and older, goal-oriented radicals, SEN wants to be effective in his resistance, and rejects the notion of intellectual immigration. “When posterity judges our actions here it will perhaps see us not as unwilling prisoners, but as men who, for whatever reason, prefer to remain as noncontributing individuals on the edge of society,” SEN formulates to the other prisoners, and warns, “This must not happen!”

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THX doesn’t give a damn. He stalks off into the great white to find a way out, SEN trailing him pathetically. They come across the wandering SRT (Don Pedro Colley), who claims to be a hologram who got bored with his program and escaped into the real world, and he shows them the way out of the prison. Escaping into a throng of pedestrians, SEN is separated from THX and SRT, and panics at the thought of freedom. “I can’t start again. I can’t change,” he confesses, and allows himself to be arrested. THX and SRT brave their way into a transport hub and steal police cars. SRT crashes, but THX hits the road.

Lucas is fascinated by the notion of the ghost in the machine—in a literal fashion, the degree to which fundamental human, sentient characteristics can interact with the technological, and the way they clash. “He’s more machine now than man,” Obi-Wan Kenobi once murmurs in considering Darth Vader, and the crux of the series, as in THX, is the notion that a spark of human spirit will finally overthrow such technocratic usurpation. The crucial moment of this film comes when THX escapes. He stops his car on the threshold of the city. Duvall’s face subtly registers both his fear of the unknown he’s diving into, and his sad realization that his rebel companions SEN, LUH, and SRT won’t be following. He is vitally alone in his confrontation with existence. This is, at last, being human, and he feels it.

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Despite the scifi trappings, THX 1138 has an interior, alienated texture pitched to echo a counterculture atmosphere; it feels like an illustration of a Bob Dylan lyric, like “Visions of Johanna,” or a Borgesian labyrinth tale, with its haiku-spare vignettes and images, and echoes of vast cultural arguments going around in circles. This balances some overt satire and whimsy. As Peter Watkins did in his masterful Punishment Park (1970)—an entirely different spin on a similar parable—Lucas exploits the suspiciously fascistic look of contemporaneous Los Angeles motorcycle cops, styling his robot guardians of the city after them. Yet the policebots are the film’s fount of humor, as they engage in idiotic banter and find themselves easily outpaced by a man without the behavioral restraints they’re used to. In the end, they’re reduced to pleading with THX to come back because they’ve exceeded their allotted pursuit budget.

The Star Wars films are pictorial, illustrative, narrative-driven, whereas THX 1138 is often near-abstract, but both are built from an enveloping mise-en-scène. Lucas cowrote the screenplay with buddy and all-around film wizard Walter Murch, who aided Lucas in creating the film’s suffocating sound textures, an eternal cacophony of blips, beeps, sirens, advertisements, recording voices, droning air conditioning, and a thousand other contributors to subterranean atmosphere. Lucas’ visuals are often fractured, shot through layers of media like video surveillance equipment. The film condenses gradually into a dense blanket of sensory input. This is THX’s world, where private feeling and experience have been reduced to the point where even those who rebel have barely any idea of how they should act or what they should do.

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THX 1138 also owes a debt to Kubrick for its thematic glaze of estrangement through technology and the struggle to overcome it. Visually, however, it owes little to anybody, and images from it haunt the imagination afterwards: Maggie McOmie’s shaven head and haunted face; the vast hordes of likewise bald drones; naked THX circled by the policebots with cattle prods, trying to defend himself and his mate; the dribbling philosophical argument in an endless sea of white; the sudden thrill of movement as THX drives to freedom. Lucas is a savant at home purveying the image rather than the spoken word. His most expressive moments are found in image. The very last image of THX 1138, where newly reborn Man rises to the surface underneath a gigantic setting sun, is bound with the other, most nakedly emotional shot in his oeuvre, where Luke Skywalker stares in yearning at the twin suns of Tatooine. Yet it also echoes the finale of American Graffiti, with the car crash in the early morning light suggesting an end to illusions and the brief window of the thrill of the run—from here on is only survival.

It’s easy to call THX 1138 a serious film, and the Star Wars films play, but they’re built from the same nuts and bolts of parable. Star Wars was bent on being accessible and thrilling, where THX 1138 is allusive and mysterious. If THX 1138 is ragged in places, it’s also one of the best science fiction films of its time. Its influence is undeniable. Scifi dystopias arrived by the bushel in its wake, but the likes of Soylent Green (1971), Logan’s Run (1974), and Rollerball (1975) lacked its rigor of style and mise-en-scène, and I doubt Mad Max (1979), Blade Runner (1981), or The Matrix (1999) would have happened without its example. Lucas occasionally talks about returning to experimental projects like this. I doubt he will. And it’s a shame.

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  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    30th/08/2008 to 8:38 am

    I’m not sure exactly what Lucas’ intentions were as far as political commentary, but one thing that struck me is the recurring use of the question, “Are you or have you ever been?”, which recalls the famous Hollywood Ten question, “Are you or have you ever been a Communist?”. I actually saw Lucas’ original version before the feature version many years ago, and saw the feature three times theatrically back in the olden days before VHS and DVD.

  • Rod spoke:
    30th/08/2008 to 9:30 am

    Peter;
    Yeah, I noticed that too. Whilst I think it’s part of what I mentioned, about the mashed-up political bent of the authority in the film, and I doubt that Lucas ever set out to make political parables, nonetheless I do think his ’60s-lefty tendencies show through consistently. Quite apart from the flower-child philosophy underneath the Star Wars saga and THX 1138 – that technology and power will always, eventually, prove of less mettle than wit, humanity, and spirituality – there’s a consistent attitude of anti-authoritarianism and a cynicism about declining political systems, marked out by political expedients and sloganeering, which reached an apogee in The Revenge of the Sith, which many, including me, suspected of satirizing Bush-isms. I wouldn’t call Lucas’ political flourishes are anything profound, but it they are there, and do lend substance to his tales.
    I’d love to catch Electronic Labyrinth, but it’s thus far eluded me. I re-viewed this in Lucas’ re-jigged version, and it had been so long since I’d seen the film I wasn’t always entirely sure what had been there and what hadn’t. Which, actually, puts it streets ahead of his polished-up Star Wars editions.

  • Ed Hardy, Jr. spoke:
    30th/08/2008 to 1:58 pm

    Beautiful examination of the film that I’m certain is Lucas’ best–and the closest to his heart. The reaction to it seems to have turned him away from intellectual abstraction and towards an emotion that has always seemed a little child-like and a little alien at the same time. I have big problems with Lucas’ work, but this piece made me want to watch all of his movies again, and that’s saying something. Thanks!

  • Michael Heilemann spoke:
    6th/05/2009 to 6:56 am

    The original Electronic Labyrinth short from his USC days is on the DVD. But it’s of course also available on YouTube.
    Good review/retrospective by the way.

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