‘A Love Story Filmed On Location In The 21st Century’
Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Maggie McOmie, Don Pedro Colley, Ian Wolfe, Marshall Efron, Sid Haig, John Pearce / Soundtrack Lalo Schifrin /Cinematography Albert Kihn & David Myers / Produced Francis Ford Coppola / Written & Directed George Lucas
‘Blessings of the state. Blessings of the masses.’
THX-1138 stands as the only product of the ill fated ‘American Zoetrope company, formed by Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and their group of like minded young cinema revolutionaries in the latter half of the 1960’s. The original intent was to Write, Produce & Direct their own independant films with studio backing, as a kind of cinematic ‘Think Tank’, of new generation artists who understood what the hip new audiences wanted from Hollywood. Whilst Coppola was fermenting ideas for ‘Apocalypse Now’ & thinking about Gangster movies, Lucas was given the 1st Directorial chair for the remake of his bold student film about State control & xenophobic reactions to the new budding technologies on the horizon. American Zoetrope’s combined powers backed Lucas’ cold, frightening vision of the future without compromise. The result was a stunning creation that was every bit as shocking as it’s earlier predecessor ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, but twice as far from the type of popularist product that the studios expected. In short, they hated it, pulled all support from Zoetrope & THX-1138 recieved an ugly edit & highly minimal release.
Robert Duvall heads the cast as our protagonist numbered (‘The Prisoner’ style), THX-1138 in a futuristic nightmare society of post apocalyptic machine control. Mankind lives a doped up Orwellian existance beneath ground in a series of tunnels and Malls where every aspect of their lives is observed and controlled by a computerised State that shuns individuality, enforcing it’s will with a mechanised Police force. Like some Victorian Workhouse or dehumanizing Concentration camp, Lucas shaves the heads of his world’s occupants and films them against stark grey or bleached-out hospital like settings. The severing of the hair in the age of the Hippie was all the more shocking upon it’s release, especially for it’s actresses to undergo. A little documentary made prior to filming, shows the traumas that the cast experienced having their heads shaved, giggles soon turning to tears (this fascinating documentary was included on the recent THX Special edition by the way).
Duvall is employed in the production of the very tools that defend this totalitarian State, namely the maintainance of a mechanised Police Force. THX’s theological needs are fulfilled by a God programme that frustratingly pacifies the population with an empty selection of phrases delivered behind the still image of a mediaeval Christ, who finishes each sermon with a Capitalist liturgy :
‘Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more. Buy more now. Buy. And be happy’.
This disembodied Confessor has the monotone, emotionless tone of the ‘Hal 9000’ Artificial Intelligence from 2001, and later inspired ‘Mother’, the central computer of ‘Alien’, who’s crew are frustrated by their desire for an emotive, human response from a machine that is incapable of such sympathies. Lucas presents us with some unsettling questions about our own religious upbringings, with Man creating his own wardens, instrumental in his own incarceration, and religion as literal ‘Opium of the people.’
There’s an extraordinary performance from Maggie McOmie, playing THX’s mate (for love is forbidden), who is instrumental in freeing Duvall from the drugged ambivalence of his fellow inmates. Her desperation to emote in such a sterile atmosphere is powerfully conveyed in one of the most convincing performances in the entire science fiction genre. She releases THX to question this society and to seek what is beyond the immediate limitations set by the machines. There is the suggestion of a great war or deverstation that made the planet uninhabitable, and THX struggles for liberation in a bid to reach the surface. Mutations mark one of the outer barriers of the city, and are briefly seen in the latter half of the film. Lucas had endless arguments with Studio executives who wanted to cut the film, to ‘Put the freaks up front’ in the title sequence. This later became an in-joke reference for studio interferance.
The technology presented is in stark contrast to that of the Star Wars films, with bare functional machinery, that is all the more futuristic for it’s simplicity..alot of what we see looks as if it were designed by Apple. Man himself is ultimately reduced to a machine in this future, devoid of individuality. Later films like ‘Logan’s Run’ and most recently ‘The Island’, took the THX scenario and throwing in some colour, guns and tagging on an upbeat ending made a popular film of it..but of course along the way they drained the concept of all inteligence and meaning.
It really is nothing short of miraculous that the creator of the Star Wars franchise was at one time a serious arthouse Director. But it was precisely because of his experiences with studio interference on THX & his second film ‘American Grafitti’ (1973), that the disheartened Lucas turned to a career in nice safe, popularist cinema, with 100% appeal for investors. Coppola inspired in his followers a tenacious independance, but Lucas drifted away from serious cinema to ally himself with the young Spielberg, abandoning his old ambitions. There’s nothing wrong with light entertainment films like StarWars, but when a young Director proves himself with work such as THX, it’s something of a let-down to see him descend to such lightweight fare. With his appetite for the money spinning franchise, Lucas has become the voice of his own creation.. ‘Buy more. Buy more now. Buy. And be happy.’