Wednesday, September 9, 2015

THX 1138 (American Zoetrope/Warner Bros., 1971)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Two nights ago Charles and I watched the TCM showing of George Lucas’s first film, THX 1138, which began life as a student short in 1967 and attracted the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, who sponsored it as the first production of his studio, American Zoetrope, and arranged for Warner Bros. to release it. (Coppola was riding high at Warners in the late 1960’s with the success of his cheap youth movie, You’re a Big Boy Now, only to lose his standing at the studio with the flops of Finian’s Rainbow in 1968 and The Rain People in 1969, which put him in “movie hell” until he was redeemed by Paramount production chief Bob Evans, who gave him the assignment to direct The Godfather and had a blockbuster mega-hit.) It’s a science-fiction dystopia that begins with a clip from the Universal serial Buck Rogers in the 21st Century (ironically a lot closer to the Star Wars saga Lucas is best known for today than the film it prefaces!) and shows THX 1138 (Robert Duvall — as in Just Imagine, the characters all have alphanumeric “names”) at work at some unspecified job that involves remote-controlled handling of radioactive materials (we see him moving glowing pellets of something or other by electronically operated tongs) and which is highly dangerous — at one point one of the many unseen announcers (played by members of San Francisco’s legendary improv troupe The Committee) congratulates THX’s unit because they’ve only had 195 casualties to their rival unit’s 242 and implores them to “keep up the good work, boys!”

Both at work and wherever else they go — we see great crowds of people moving down futuristic hallways (actually played by the Marin County Civic Center that also served as the insane asylum in Mel Brooks’ Hitchcock spoof High Anxiety, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit system just before it actually opened for business in 1970) but it’s unclear what the people of THX’s future do when they’re not working or sitting in their homes watching three-dimensional holographic TV. THX has a roommate, LUH (Maggie McOmie), but they’re not sexual partners — indeed, in this future sex is forbidden (which begs the question of how people reproduce (there’s reference to “birth-born” people, and we also see robots and holograms as well as people who presumably were not “birth-born” but were manufactured artificially à la Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World) and people are put on mandatory drug regimens to make sure they kill their sex drives — only THX and LUH decide to cut their drugs in half and end up getting it on with each other. THX ends up a wanted man, along with SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasance, who actually gets top billing over Duvall), who — well, it’s not clear whether he has a Gay interest in THX (and we can presume that a society that severely punishes ordinary heterosexual relationships would go into paranoid orbit over any hint of Queerness!) but it’s certainly hinted — who requests to replace LUH as THX’s roommate and ultimately ends up fleeing with him through vistas of stark white interiors that probably influenced the Wachowski siblings when they made The Matrices (key scenes of which also took place in a subway).

The second half of the film is a long chase scene interrupted by cutbacks to the computer boards run by the people administering the search, who note that the budget for THX’s capture is 14,000 credits and any operation that exceeds its budget by 5 percent must immediately be terminated — so we know, but THX doesn’t, that if he can keep the chase going until the pursuers expend their allotted budget plus 5 percent he’ll be home free. What makes THX 1138 is that, even though it’s clearly a dystopia, it’s the sort of dystopia of Brave New World rather than 1984 (though some of the early scenes, particularly the ones depicting the ubiquity of the surveillance the people running this future society keep their citizens under, suggest Orwell’s masterpiece, and Charles was reminded of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the precursor of both Brave New World and 1984); among the voices are announcers imploring the people to keep themselves happy by constantly consuming things (though when they have the time or opportunity to consume anything other than the holographic TV shows beamed into their homes is a mystery) — and it’s hardly the bombed-out ruin dystopia we’ve got used to more recently in cycles like The Hunger Games and Divergent, where the people we see are living in what remains of an industrial infrastructure most of which was destroyed by catastrophic world wars. (The origin story for that type of dystopia was H. G. Wells’ Things to Come — and I saw a parallel with the 1933 King Kong, in which we’re told that the natives on Skull Island have regressed to the point where they could no longer build the Great Wall but they still have the skills needed to keep it in repair.) Charles and I also noted a parallel to E. M. Forster’s haunting story “The Machine Stops,” his only attempt at science fiction, though Forster’s story is a utopia that suddenly turns into a dystopia in which the machines, built by previous generations of humanity to fulfill all their needs, start wearing out beyond their built-in capacities for self-repair and the humans who are left suddenly realize that they’re going to have to rediscover their inventive and mechanical talents if they want to stay alive.

The ending of THX 1138 also anticipates Divergent (though it was used in a later 1970’s science-fiction film, Logan’s Run, based on William P. Nolan’s novel): once the authorities have run out of credits with which to recapture him, THX 1138 emerges from the enclosed city in which he’s lived all his life (amid solemn warnings that whatever was on the outside of it, it would kill him instantly), though all we see of the world outside is a blood-red sun in the sky, either rising or setting (we’re not told which), leaving his subsequent fate powerfully open-ended. The synopsis makes THX 1138 sound like a better movie than it is; though it’s brilliantly staged and parts of it, notably the degree of surveillance to which the characters are subjected 24/7, have actually come true (not just the National Security Agency and other government departments but private companies like Google and Facebook store scads of information on virtually all Americans and anyone else in a society sufficiently industrially developed to have enough money for capitalists to want to separate them from it, and the companies do it just in order to sell things to them more effectively), it’s also an excruciatingly dull movie to watch. I suspect Lucas made it so deliberately — he wanted to show that the world of his movie would be a very boring one to live in, and he succeeded brilliantly — but I can understand what put audiences off about it in 1971 and why Lucas has spent his future career doing a far more audience-friendly sort of science fiction in the Star Wars cycle.