THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971)

“I just feel that I need something stronger.”


With the recent posts on Star Wars, I have recently completed the next post on Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (due to be on Man, I Love Films this Thursday). In the process I have been reading the BFI Film Classic on Star Wars by Will Brooker. He defends Star Wars by arguing how, in many ways, it is a natural progression from THX 1138 and American Graffiti. This got me thinking back to THX 1138 and how, even though I enjoyed it, I always felt it seemed a bit too similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey. At any rate, the film was experiemental and art house and, considering the sh*t Lucas has to contend with, it is worth highlighting how good this film is.

Bargain Bin

A friend and I had an afternoon to kill and we decided to select one of the £3 DVD’s in HMV each and conduct a double-bill. I selected THX 1138 and he selected Sexy Beast and, with very little correlation between the two, we nevertheless found parrallels between them. For one … they both had a central protaganist trying to ‘escape’ … both concerned characters who were uncertain about their future … and the people who, to some extent, controlled them. Anyway, they are not the same, and I doubt Jonathan Glazer looked to THX 1138 for influence on Sexy Beast. Having said that, Jonathan Glazer chose UNKLE to do the soundtrack to Sexy Beast, while UNKLE used excerpts from THX 1138 in their music – specifically on ‘I Need Something Stronger’ on UNKLE’s ‘Never Never Land’ album.
Dystopian Future?
Set in a dystopian future, it is not about the future. We watched a directors cut and I believe it is the only one available  on DVD. At any rate, it is a short film clocking in at roughly 90mins. We follow THX (Sounds a little like Sex?) played by Robert Duvall, a mundane worker whose “partner” stops him taking his medication (medication to keep him, to some extent, as a drone) and he begins to develop emotions. He develops the emotion of ‘love’ and makes mistakes. Something that his nuclear profession does not really accommodate – and once a mistake is made, it is all about ‘Big Brother’ trying to track him, capture him and control him.
The film was made two years after 2001: A Space Odyssey so there are shots that I cannot help but connect to Kubrick. The white-sets and tonal duality to this future seems to reek of Kubrick – maybe there were only so many options on how-the-future-looks in the 60’s and 70’s. THX’s love interest is LUH (sounds like Love?), played by Maggie McOmie. This is the partner who stopped THX from taking the medication. She is played with intensity that shows the fear the human feels when they are not drugged-up. All characters are bald so female characters are telling despite the initially androgynous look; they show feminine grace shots of LUH and THX are organic and graceful, completely at odds with the technical and angular backdrop. The police poke characters with sticks and THX and LUH hold each other for emotion and a car chase sequence looks flawless despite the limiting special effects available in 1971. The overall viewing experience is inevitably enhanced on repeated viewings and – akin to Blade Runner – the story becomes second-nature as the dialogue and fascinating environment is what you keeps you engaged. You can spend time dipping into this futuristic world which, in this case, is terrifying.
Its interesting to note that Lucas and Murch wrote the film in three acts – each one focussing on some form of escape. The first act highlights THX escaping the controlled world that he lives within. The second act is more abstract by focussing on THX escaping jail: a jail whereby there are no walls or locks, and is an an open space whereby choosing to be free is all that is neccessary – thus THX alongside the sinister and mad SEN (Donald Pleasance) escapes. The final act is action-orientated by including car chases that are purely down to some exceptional lighting and cinematography. Lalo Schifrin composes the score, which though eerie and expressive I recall it to be quite minimalist – nothing too overbearing.
It is a good film and, if you like Star Wars and the Sci-Fi genre as a whole, then I strongly advise you to watch it, but if not … well, I wouldn’t ‘steer clear’, but be aware that it can, at points, feel a little too abstract. This is George Lucas playing with cinema as the artist within breaks free. There is nothing about this film that appeals to a broad-demographic, it is merely an exploration on a theme of control and escape – an experiment by Lucas building upon the short he created in THX 1138 4EB in 1967. We can only dream about how Lucas would’ve developed if he stuck to this type of filmmaking – or whether he may even go back to this type of film at all. At least now he has the money and the freedom to do whatever he wants,  like THX in the prison of freedom, it is a question about whether Lucas chooses to go back to
what he clearly loves to create.

*This post was originally published on 2nd June 2009 and, like Lucas and his changes to Star Wars, has been improved dramatically since that initial post.


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