THX-1138: The Director’s Cut – US, 1971
Seven years before releasing his industry-changing film Star Wars, George Lucas made THX-1138, a bleak film which envisions a future that is anything but cheerful. It is a contrast from many of the previous films in its genre, films in which the future could still be saved. Alien may have invaded, but they were repelled, and mankind could now rebuild; worlds may have collided, but mankind had found a new world to start over on. There was still hope. However, in THX-1138, it is hard to see where hope could grow in the first place.
It is telling then that Lucas begins THX-1138 with a brief glimpse of a Buck Rogers serial, for the future Rogers inhabited was a rather utopian one, one involving adventure and exploration, as well as clearly-defined heroes and villains. It was also one with no hints of disease, social problems and inequality. Just moments into the film, Lucas announces his intentions to shatter these idyllic notions. He does this by using ascending instead of descending opening credits - contrary to the audience’s expectations. It is as if he is telling us right away that what he is presenting is a backward world. The impression proves warranted, as our next view comes courtesy of a camera stealthily installed in a medicine cabinet. When opened, a cheerful voice offers its help, and if someone doesn’t know what medicine to take, it is quick to offer a suggestion.
At the center of the film are THX-1138, played by Robert Duvall, and LUH-3417, played by Maggie McOmie. The two are essentially roommates, most likely put together by a computer that matched them using some sort of mathematical equation for compatibility. Their relationship seems one of simple co-existence. They occupy the same space and take their daily legally-mandated cocktail of drugs together, but little else. Intimacy has been banned and made practically impossible by the sedations that they will be punished if they don’t take. One day, LUH changes THX’s cocktail, and he begins having trouble concentrating at work. Some time later, she places his hand to her face. Sex soon follows. During it, she whispers to him, “They’re watching us.” Shortly after, Lucas pulls back the camera and reveals a roomful of shocked and confused men doing just that. It is only a matter of time then before the authorities come knocking on their door.
Donald Pleasance has an interesting role as 5241 Sen, a free thinker who has grand ideas, but neither the courage to act on them nor the following to stand behind him. Somehow he learns of THX-1138 and begins to believe that they could form a partnership. Together, he envisions, they could led some sort of uprising against their oppressors. 5241 Sen sees a lot in the latter half of the film, and he comes to understand just how much he overestimated himself. It is one of the most effective moments in the film.
THX-1138 is perhaps best known for its finale, which involves a high speed pursuit through the city’s underground streets. The scene is impressively shot, and its drama is enhanced by frequent cuts back to a central control room, where a computer calculates how much money is being spent pursuing THX-1138. Apparently, in this world, every human life has a monetary value, and at a certain point, the cost of retrieving him will be more than the value of his production on the assembly line. At one point during the finale, Lucas shows viewers the city’s many levels, and it is almost impossible not to interpret the one THX and LUH occupy as being Lucas’s version of the lowest level of Dante’s Inferno. After all, isn’t hell a place where one works and suffers for eternity without the slightest possibility of love or happiness?
THX-1138 was made towards the beginning of what is sometimes referred to as a golden age of cinema, when directors were experimenting with new modes of storytelling completely free from the shackles of the Hayes Code and Hollywood’s self-censorship. It is therefore not hard to see the film as Lucas’s comment on earlier and present times – on the overmedication of the 1950’s and 60’s, on people’s fears of government intrusion into their private lives (the symbolic year 1984 was only thirteen years away), and on the ever-reliance of governments on consumer consumption. In one of Lucas’s most clever devices, he depicts humans as working tirelessly day after day to produce the robot police force. In essence, they are creating the very instruments of their own oppression.
THX-1138 remains an impressive film, and like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, it leaves the audience with many unanswered questions. However, what I was left with at the end of the film was an overwhelming sense of the need for human conscience, of the need for humans to be aware of each other and to think for themselves. It is not a coincidence that one of the questions asked during interrogations is: “Have you now or have you ever been?” Here the crime is not subscribing to a particular political dogma, such as communism. Instead, it is simply existing, for to exist is to be and feel, and in Lucas’s nightmarish vision of the future, both get in the way of production. (on DVD)
3 and a half stars