What’s Wrong?: George Lucas’ THX-1138

thxIt’s easy to call a film prescient in hindsight — especially when the filmmaker plays a considerable role in shaping the future their work portends. When it comes to George Lucas, it’s just as easy to succumb to the lazy consensus, which suggests he was a talented young filmmaker who calcified into brand monolith; a pop innovator consumed by the technology of his very own Frankenstein’s monster. But this thinking undersells the idealistic pioneer operating across his entire body of work. Lucas has always been driven as much by his passion to revolutionise the means of cinema as his pursuit of narrative storytelling, a progressive dedication to enterprise that meant merging with his beautiful machine and the money that made it possible. A popular imagination, it turns out, can be an expensive hobby.

This career tension — between art and the technology with which to deliver it — goes all the way back to Lucas’ first feature, 1971’s dystopian sci-fi THX-1138. The movie’s chapter in Lucas lore has been well inscribed. Based on his University of Southern California student film and fostered under the aegis of Francis Ford Coppola (whose fledgling American Zoetrope came to the movie’s rescue when puzzled Warner Bros. execs baulked), it was a box-office washout that pushed its then 26-year-old creator toward the more audience friendly (but no less dynamic) American Graffiti, while quietly laying the technological groundwork for his commercial juggernaut and lifelong millstone, 1977’s Star Wars. The film also famously lent its name to Lucasfilm’s hi-tech theater sound system THX, and — in perhaps Lucas’ most prescient cultural vision — the appreciative SMS contraction ‘thx’ (okay, that one’s… probably not true.)

At first glance, the film doesn’t necessarily herald its director’s intimidating legacy. THX is predicated on mankind’s age-old anxieties over enforced conformity and oppressive techno-states, with obvious antecedents in Orwellian paranoia and late-’60s California-lite radicalism, in which “the man” was seen to be running the madhouse. But closer inspection reveals a very modern twist to this tapestry. In the film’s bleak 25th-century, Robert Duvall’s eponymous THX-1138 is a factory worker drone in a society where feel-good sedatives are administered as a matter of course. Sex may be outlawed, but most of the underclass is too doped up on medication to notice.

The film’s creepy opening line of dialogue — an inhuman yet strangely soothing voice asking, “What’s wrong?”— prefaces both THX’s existential crisis and the cuddly indifference of a state in which its subterranean working class are plied with medication to discourage such wayward thought. It’s closer to the overmedicated America of the anti-depressant near future, where contentment is a myth peddled by pharmaceutical companies and individual freedom is a one-size-fits-all dream — a culture of prescribed consumerism in which citizens likewise pray to digital screens.

THX’s digital booths, to which employees make regular pilgrimage, involve confession to a projected image of Jesus — or “Ohm,” as he’s known here — whose phony concern and all-purpose algorithm is swift to dispel any psychic worries. “Blessings of the state, blessings of the masses,” Ohm assures his subjects. It sounds like Lucas is dissing state-corrupted socialism, but it might also be applied to his own cult of populism. Now that Lucas’ escapist baby is being corporatised by Disney into perpetuity, has Star Wars — with its similar holographic emissaries in ancient cloaks — become the all-powerful opiate of the proletariat that THX foresees? And is Lucas — like the Oz-like sham of Ohm — doomed to sit forlornly behind the façade, an electric god consigned to spiritual ruin?

Religious folderol isn’t the only method of suppression. In THX, the sexual urge is harnessed by way of mechanical release. According to the film’s co-writer and sound designer Walter Murch, the name “THX” was Lucas’ code for sex, and there’s certainly no shortage of troubled imagery to illustrate this. At one point, Duvall is seen hooked up to a masturbatory pump that resembles a robotic cow milker, and jerked off to a lurid hologram of ‘exotic’ African imagery — the kind of grotesque vision that even Kubrick couldn’t conjure for his similarly themed A Clockwork Orange (which would follow Lucas’ film into theatres later that year.) Yet maybe the most disturbing of the film’s predictions is how it depicts white workers laughing at the comedic antics of black actors on holo-television. “That was really funny,” THX deadpans, almost performatively, in response to one such yuk-fest, as though he’s expected to laugh despite having no idea what’s going on.

THX-1138’s future is thus both chillingly plausible and sensorially immersive, in no small part thanks to Lucas’ ingenious eye for design. If Electronic Labyrinth announced his thematic concerns, then this feature version suggests Lucas’ early affinity for memorable world building, with its shock corridors and android police troops and low angle bureaucratic spaces, themselves echoing one of the films visual and sonic forebears, Jean-Luc Godard’s cryptic Alphaville.

The film’s audio-visual richness is also testament to that master of montage, Walter Murch, whose contribution to the industrial ambience of the soundscape — with its chattering voices, machine drone and off-screen weirdness — effectively serves as the screenplay for much of the film’s duration (Murch is credited as co-writer, in addition to his other editing and sound roles.) Murch’s so-called “theatre of noise,” a living, breathing organism of technological terror and spiritual decay, gives full dimension to Lucas’ imaginings, and reflects the latter’s ability to nurture collaborative relationships with industrial innovators (witness his later curation of the industry-changing effects house ILM, and as a result, Pixar.)

Despite this dystopian nightmare, THX is perversely hopeful. The film cold opens with a tease for an old Buck Rogers serial not only because the film is set in the 25th century (very droll, George), but because Lucas is as excited by the idea of a utopian space rocket future — and the technology deployed in its service — as he is in painting a chilling dead end for humanity. Like so much captivating science fiction, THX at once decries the dehumanising potential of a future gone array while delighting in the tools and tech that go into its creation. It’s no surprise that, when THX and his holographic buddy SRT 5752 (Don Pedro Colley) make their eventual escape, their preferred vehicle is a sleek, souped-up racecar from some high-tech tomorrow. The film’s final act of defiance is electrified by the thrill of speed and motion — Lucas himself had raced cars as a youth — where sometimes the only response to state oppression is to put your foot on the gas and engage the hyperdrive.

Still, it’s tempting to imagine an parallel world, as some have, in which the potential success of THX-1138 set Lucas on an alternate trajectory of radical science fiction experimentalism, and indeed Lucas himself has expressed his desire on more than one occasion to return to what he called “weird art films.” But that’s also to suggest that he didn’t do that, that the course his career took wasn’t commensurate with the vision expressed here. As Lucas says on the director’s commentary to the 2004 reissue of THX, Star Wars was very much an experiment — albeit in making an old-fashioned entertainment in the manner of Walt Disney — and the subsequent permutations of his résumé reveal nothing if not a restless adventurer, tinkering on the far fringes of technology and spectacle to push forward the modern cinema. Ideologically, this has been viewed by some as retrograde. But to tar Lucas’s films with the brush of their commercial success is to ignore the unifying thread of anti-authoritarian distrust that takes root in THX and runs directly through the status quo agitators of American Graffiti, Star Wars and even Indiana Jones — characters at odds with prevailing hierarchies who are driven to bend fate to their dreams.

And just like Buck Rogers — announced here as an “ordinary human being who keeps his wits about him” — THX ultimately becomes one of Lucas’ anointed nobodies who become almost superhuman in the face of the system. By the time Duvall’s drone emerges from the claustrophobic tunnels and into a sulphurous orange sunset, heroically wrapped in Lalo Schifrin’s choral orchestration, he may as well be standing shoulder to shoulder with Luke Skywalker against Tatooine’s twin suns, or cruising off on a jet with Richard Dreyfuss, or galloping into the horizon with Henry Jones, Jr. Where those iconic moments are infused with the magic of abstract romanticism, however, the scene here makes for a curiously muted victory, tinged with the uncertainty of an unknown tomorrow. Has THX emerged into the future, or the future-past of Lucas’ empire of escapism — a false optimism that stretches out into infinity?

Originally published at SBS Movies, August 2017

 

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