George Lucas remains both the God and Devil of sci-fi film enthusiasts. A God, because he gave the world Star Wars in 1977, and in the process changed both science fiction movies and Hollywood film making forever.
Just look away when the CGI monsters start showing up...
"Our relationship is normal and conforming."
The State also keeps tabs on its citizenry with video surveillance monitors, knowing everyone's location and activity at every moment. There are even cameras mounted behind bathroom medicine cabinets.
In this future world, the differences between men and women are also intentionally minimized by the State...a unique speculation on where "political correctness" could lead if legislated enthusiastically and allowed to run amok. In the world of THX-1138, unisex hair-cuts and wardrobes mask all gender differences so that the people can concentrate only on work and "produce" goods. Sex, or even sexual attraction are distractions from production.
In terms of work, citizens toil in robot-making factories and at other mundane tasks seemingly around the clock. And they are entertained at home by strange, pornographic holograms produced by "The Fantasy Bureau." Their sexual needs are fulfilled individually, by what can only be described as masturbation automatons
Additionally, the citizenry are constantly encouraged to shop in their spare time. One of the Government's mantras is "Buy more and be happy."
In the end, THX-1138 does escape to the surface, not because of his own resourcefulness, necessarily, but because continuing the pursuit would cost the government too much money.
"Remember, thrifty thinkers are always under budget..."
Lucas embodies the world of the future, the world of The State, using a potent combination of good editing, excellent camera work, insert shots and also alien-sounding jargon or dialogue. In conjunction, these facets of the film's presentation render it an almost overwhelming sensory experience. This mechanized, impersonal world never feels faked or phony. It is a believable in a most disturbing fashion. In some ways, THX-1138 is very much a mood movie. The overall impression of visiting this grim future world is as powerful (or more so..) than the character interaction or specific details of the narrative.
Most interestingly, Lucas non-conventionally and routinely breaks up the frame space of his characters by focusing obsessively on close-ups of computer print-outs, insert shots of sine-waves, and minimalist sets. All of these high-tech shots enhance the impression of a world that has lost touch with nature; with Mother Nature herself, and human nature too. It's a fascinating approach. As we seek to identify more and more with THX-1138, that quest is often stymied -- intentionally -- by insert shots of technological gobbledygook, by shots of numbers, or read-outs, or electrical impulses coruscating on screens.
And the dialogue is a stew of futuristic nonsense, unintelligible and deliberately inhuman. "Don't use the 714," "Wait for 32," "Skip the 1114," "See Index 24-941," and so on. The obvious conclusion -- enhanced by the ubiquitous presence of robot police enforcers -- is that machines have overtaken this world, and human nature is being snuffed out by drugs, by conformity, by the tyranny of technology itself.
Ironically, Lucas makes this tyranny rather beautiful by the use of holograms, sine-waves, surveillance camera footage and close-ups of read-outs. The only thing I can compare his approach to here is Robert Wise's use of similar high-tech imagery in The Andromeda Strain (1971). In both cases, an artist's eye is applied to the machine world, and a strange sense of non-human beauty is fostered.
THX-1138 also visually transmits the ideas of humans as being unimportant in their own world by applying a consistent white-on-white color palette. Only the black robots and the flesh of bald human heads stand out from the washed-out, immaculate, computer-perfect background.
This is one reason why I object so much to Lucas's twenty-first century revisionism. In the new version of the film he layers on lush coloring (particularly gold) and this diminishes the movie's visual transmission of his theme: that humans have become background noise in their own culture.
One of THX-1138's most beautiful and emotional scenes -- the sex scene between THX And LUH -- reverses this approach, and for the right reason. Here, shades of human flesh dominate and Lucas provides beautiful, extreme close-ups of passionate, remarkable human faces (and also bodies) intermingling.
This heightened, human moment represents the very antithesis of the world largely portrayed in the film, and so it's right -- and clever - that Lucas reverses techniques to depict the love scene. It becomes infinitely more powerful this way, almost epic as a rebellious statement against society's rules and regulations. Again, I must point out that this selection of technique is that of an artist who understands the frame, and power of film in a potent way.
There's some beautiful paranoia in THX-1138, and it contributes a suffocating tension that drives the film. Individual rights have been taken away to such a degree by this overbearing Big Government that a beautiful woman, LUH, is replaced by a man, SEN, as a roommate, and Duvall's character is supposed to have no feelings about that.
Although homosexuality is never broached explicitly in the film, Pleasence's effete performance adds another layer of interest to the proceedings. SEN seems as obsessed with THX as LUH was, and we aren't sure that sex isn't on his mind, either. The message isn't anti-gay, to be sure, but anti-freedom, or anti-individual. In this world, you can't choose who you co-habitate with; and the government could just as well hook you up with a man as a woman, and expect you to quietly conform.
THX-1138 is also clever in the fashion that the screenplay stresses how the surface appearance of individuality actually reduces the overall sense of human connection in the future metropolis. Here, there are no churches where communities can gather to listen to sermons or lift collective voice in hymns. The confessional kiosks, pointedly called "unichapels," determinedly seat only one; meaning that the communal aspects of spirituality have been deleted from the culture.
It's very much the same story with sex in the film. By offering pornographic home holograms and masturbation robots, the State has also made sex a single-serving, one-person activity. Again, what's lost in this but essential human connection; the intimate link with another being.
The mantra about shopping -- about conspicuous consumption (buy and be happy) -- also makes the citizenry focus on self; not community. What do I want to buy today? What would please me? The most important thought isn't "how can I make the world better," but how can I make my life better.
There also appear to be no families in the film. The Government has thus removed community and human ties to such a degree that the individual has only one meaningful connection in his or her life: to the goods-selling, religion-spouting, sex-providing State.
Visually, THX-1138 is undeniably stunning. Late in the film, Lucas imagines a prison with no walls. It is just an endless vision of white...nothing. This is a canny image that again undercuts convention and buttresses the movie's theme. If a person is trapped in a jail cell with walls and bars, he knows that there is an outside; an escape. If a person is trapped in a jail cell that seems infinite -- with no end and no beginning -- there is no hope of escape; no possibility of a way out. In microcosm, the prison thus symbolizes the State: it is so all-encompassing in the lives of its citizenry that nothing else is visible. There is no hope on the horizon. There is nothing.
Stylistically, then, THX-1138 is a dazzling film experiment. Even if the narrative resembles, in some way, Orwell's 1984, Lucas's visualization of this dystopia grants the material a unique aura. This really is a one-of-a-kind sort of science fiction movie, and one that continues to have resonance today.
For instance, we have been told explicitly by our own government to go out and shop (after 9/11). Our government has just re-authorized the Patriot Act, which allows the government expansive powers of surveillance without judicial oversight. And in an attempt to reduce discrimination (always a good cause...), we have often been told that men and women are exactly the same, and THX-1138 reveals the logical end point of that belief: sex differences are hidden, and made unrecognizable in public so no prejudice can exist.
Even the idea of a society wacked out on drugs isn't so far off either, since we have been called a "Prozac Nation," from time to time. Our society's way of dealing with unruly children is also to prescribe behavior modification drugs like Ritalin. Again, THX-1138 spells out a future where such trends continue...and overwhelm us.
Today, there is wide ranging discussion, debate and anger about what constitutes a "Nanny State" and how much government is too much government. That idea too, is broached in George Lucas's first feature.
"Consumption is being standardized"
Given the immediately apparent strengths of THX-1138, it is bizarre how the Director's Cut undercuts them. In the original THX-1138, the film's trod-upon hero, THX (Robert Duvall) escapes from a totalitarian society in the last act, and in the super structure of his future megapolis encounters a rat.
In the Director's cut, he encounters a CGI scorpion instead.
In the original THX-1138, THX also runs into some some strange surface dwellers while attempting to escape captivity.
Today, those raggedy men have been transformed into hairy humanoid creatures who resemble the Lycanthropes from the Underworld film series.
The film's climactic chase scene has also been touched up with digital fx work to make it appear more modern, pacey and spectacular; and there also are plenty of new "vistas" of the underground city that would not have been possible to forge in the early 1970s. Digital people have been inserted to make the world seem more populated than before.
It's as if, for some reason, George Lucas is obsessed with one-upping Logan's Run (1976).
But here is the real problem: These special effects "upgrades" simply make THX-1138 neither fish nor fowl. Those who would find THX-1138 a fascinating enterprise are not in it for the monsters or creatures; not in it for the chases or special effects. And those looking explicitly for such superficial qualities won't have the patience for the rest of the film anyway, which is a thoughtful meditation on freedom and love, not a fantasy cartoon set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.
I unhappily write this denunciation as an ardent Lucas fan and frequent defender, and also a longtime admirer of THX-1138, as I hope you can see that from this review. I still believe the director's freshman film is something of a masterpiece, a great dystopian film from the age of great dystopian films (Soylent Green, The Omega Man, ZPG, Zardoz, Death Race 2000, Logan's Run, etc.)
But I also submit there was no need to update THX-1138 in this fashion, and indeed, to do so violates the text of the film in some crucial way. The new cut is re-packaged in a way that the film's Big Brother would heartily approve of; making the sublime obvious and unnecessarily removing the austerity of the piece. Our imagination once did the heavy lifting in THX-1138, augmented by a director's powerful artistic choices; now it's just ILM flexing its imaginative chops.
Another inescapable fact: this is a vision of the future as imagined in the early 1970s. THX-1138 is a product of that time, down to every last decision Lucas made in terms of editing, wardrobe, camera movement, sound effects etc. Why, Lucas even calls it in the special features, a "parable of the year 1971" and careful listeners may recognize President Nixon's speeches informing some of the dialogue. That's the context, of the picture according to the director himself.
So to insert a rich and warm golden filter over several sequences of THX on his job at the assembly line, for instance, or to expand beyond the restrictive sets for expansive digital vistas, only muddies the thematic waters. Lucas can add new special effects till he is blue in the face, and this will still be a film he made in 1971.
Why? You can't untangle a film from its creation, from its historical context, no matter how hard you try. All you're doing is re-vamping it with the latest fad. This isn't artistry. This is some kind of need to have your work perceived as "current" or "contemporary." In ten years, THX-1138 will require another special effects paint-job, if all you care about are special effects.
Or more simply put, what was so wrong with the 1971 rat?
Why is a CGI scorpion better?
All of this is four-decades-later tinkering is immensely troubling, and THX-1138 "The Director's Cut" is a textbook example of how Lucas's latter-day choices actually cloud and compromise his prodigious, natural skills as a filmmaker.
So to put the matter succinctly, I remain incredibly impressed with what Lucas imagined and delivered on a limited budget in 1971.
But the 2004 version? It's an unnecessary revision of a great work of art.
Somewhere, in the glittering gold spanking new special effects of THX-1138, you can almost hear a little voice -- perhaps that of Lucas himself -- urging us "Buy more now. Buy and be happy..."