Thursday, 29 June 2017

Blows against the empire…? THX 1138 (1971)



It’s hard to view George Lucas other than through the prism of the cinematic universe he created and ruled for forty years, and clearly George thinks the same which is why he recut both the Star Wars trilogy but also this film in 2004. I remember the film as claustrophobic and with an empty feel that the addition of computer generated special effects compromises: the dystopia of 1971 did not include such details.

With or without the superfluous explosions and mechanisms added to this antiseptic world, this film still packs a darker punch even than the Force used by Sith lords. It’s George’s first album and a full-scale remake of his 1967 University of Southern California's film school graduation film, produced by Francis Ford Coppola who clearly knew talent when he saw it.


Late sixties dystopian visions have a nostalgia all their own – the future isn’t what is used to be – but in other ways perhaps fifty years hasn’t changed our prospects that much. THX 1138’s vision of a 25th Century in which mankind is controlled by a metallic intelligence and medicated into compliance within an ordered society is a chilling one. We never see the actual rulers of this society only the robotic police force that keeps order on a physical level and the priests controlling the spiritual elements – the opiate of the masses is administered in confession booths featuring a projected image of a medieval Jesus and a calming robotic voice that probes the faithful for information as they confess…

But these machines still need people and even reproduction has been taken out of our hands as people are grown in laboratories and traditional methods are not only outlawed but desire is suppressed by prescribed chemicals. Men still make machines though and THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) is one of those working on the dangerous assembly line producing the robo-cops who keep order.

Retro-fitted assembly line?
Every so often accidents happen and his team is congratulated on only losing 195 lives over the last period, far less than a neighbouring group. It’s not so much about safety as productivity.

Others work at the city’s CCTV control centre including THX’s roommate LUH 3417 played by Maggie McOmie who, in a cast of shaven heads, looks especially stark with her red suede head and bright orange eyebrows, her skin conveying the vulnerability of humans in this synthetic, sharp-edged environment.

Donald being pleasant?
SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasence as quietly unsettling as always) also works in surveillance and as with LUH, has a mind that sees through the chemical constraints of their routines. In LUH’s case, she wants to free THX from his drug-induced submission and to make a real connection with a man she actually, despite all conditioning, loves. She substitutes placebos for his daily medication and before too long he is feeling something different for her too… one thing leads to another and in place of holographic porn he is soon far more concerned with his real woman.

SEN meanwhile has been playing the system and hacking into the city computers to get himself assigned as a replacement roommate for THX. Quite what his motivation is we can only guess but it’s not a move THX welcomes and he reports SEN for the breach even as his own transgressions are under investigation: namely illicit reproductive activity with LUH.

Maggie McOmie
THX is tried and sent to a prison resembling an antiseptic Todd Browning’s Freaks; the inmates all being marooned in beds amidst a seeming eternity of disorientating bright lights. SEN is here as well with more grand schemes of escape, when the time is right… THX can’t be doing with strangeness and prevarication and eventually heads off into the light with an increasingly timid SEN in tow. They encounter an escaped holograph named SRT (Don Pedro Colley) and soon find the crowded “real world” of the city; citizens being forced through corridors like blood through clotted veins.

From this point on it’s a race to avoid the robot coppers and to find their way out, if they have the courage and belief…

Robert Duvall
Dusty Verdict: THX 1138 is all a far cry from Star Wars swashbuckling but even this film begins with some footage from Buster Crabbe in Buck Rodgers, an influence on the later film and used here to show how the future of the Thirties has been replaced with darker possibilities. More time has passed between THX and the present day and the film looks far more likely than Flash Gordon and his ilk.

All credit for Lucas in what is essentially a stripped-down prison escape movie with sci-fi trimmings: THX must find himself through the truth of his and humanity’s existence and that’s a pretty timeless fable that’s little in need of CGI upgrading.


Robert Duvall, soon to feature in his producer’s Godfather, gives a superb performance, managing to convey vulnerability at the same time as the natural machismo of a hero. Our Donald Pleasence plays a more straightforward character, a schemer without THX’s ability to ultimately rise to the occasion: not everyone really wants to escape. Maggie McOmie’s LUH is the one who really sees what freedom could entail, almost a lone feminine voice in this film.

THX is, of course, readily available in its 2004 form on BluRay and DVD, it’s worth catching the original version if you can find it for purists and those who liked their vintage seventies future-scapes to be of their time.




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