Last of the Monster Kids

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Monday, November 9, 2015

Director Report Card: George Lucas (1971)


The weirdest thing about George Lucas is that most people probably don't think of him as a director. The man made three films in the seventies, one of which happened to be maybe the biggest movie ever, and didn't direct again for twenty-one years. Lucas instead turned his sights towards writing, producing, and overseeing the multi-media franchises he created. I tend to think of Lucas less as a filmmaker and more as the all-purpose father of "Star Wars." Suitably, he's retired today, enjoying his billions.

I've never been a huge fan of the "Star Wars" movies, though I do enjoy a few of them. This report card will take me through that entire series, even the ones Lucas didn't direct (and a few you might have forgotten about), as well as the movies Lucas made before "Star Wars" became the defining film phenomenon of our time. The journey doesn't start a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away but on Earth, in a very dark future...


1. THX 1138

In 2015, it seems impossible to think of George Lucas as anything but the man who made “Star Wars,” simultaneously the most beloved and hated man among film nerds. Some fans would probably mention “American Graffiti.” Almost no one is going to remember “THX 1138,” Lucas’ debut film. Released in 1971, and based off a short film he had made four years earlier, “THX 1138” is a very different type of science fiction film then the ones Lucas would find fame for making. Unlike the sci-fi/fantasy action of “Star Wars,” Lucas’ debut is a slow, unnerving tale of future dystopia, dealing with mature films of sex and emotions.

In an alternate future, humans live in a rigorously controlled society. All the people sport shaved heads and wears unisex white jump suits. Everybody’s actions are closely monitored. Society is controlled by robotic policemen. Mostly, every citizen is told to ingest pills that repress emotions and sexual desires. THX is a worker in a factory, living with his state-assigned mate LUH. LUH, doubting the state’s rules, changes THX’s medication. Overwhelmed by feelings of lust and love, THX is captured by those in charge and forced to pay for his crime of feeling.

Compared to the fun sci-fi antics of the “Star Wars” universe, “THX 1138” occupies a totally different style of universe. The film is a dystopia, in the mold of “1984,” “Brave New World,” or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s “We.” All three of those novels obviously influenced Lucas. The dehumanizing names, composed of a string of letters and numbers, was likely taken from Zamyatin’s novel. Society being controlled with an on-going supply of drugs was probably inspirited by Aldous Huxley. As in Orwell, romantic attraction and passionate sex is outlawed and infractions are punished by the state. An aspect connecting the film with all three novels is ever-present observation by the state. Seemingly foreseeing his future as a maker of pop corn adventures, “THX 1138” opens with clips of older, more na├»ve sci-fi movies. Depending on which version you’re watching, it’s either “The Shape of Things to Come” or a “Buck Rogers” serial. The future won’t be like this, the movie says. Instead, the future is more likely to be like this, the following film counters.

The most impressive thing about “THX 1138” is how effectively it creates this strange, future world. The film begins with plain text scrolling across the screen. Lalo Schifrin’s musical score is droning and disquieting. From the beginning, the movie establishes an unnerving tone of chilly isolation. Everyone is dressed in depersonalizing outfits, with matching bald heads. The walls all around are a sterile white, the world seeming clean but empty. Soothing words of banal comfort come from every monitor. There’s no room for personal expression in the world of “THX 1138.” The pacing is low and deliberate, creating an uneasy sense of displacement. The combination of music, the production design, and the sound effects creates a convincing dystopian world, not quite like any other put on-screen.

The treatment of sex in the world of “THX 1138” is interesting. Carnal desire is not out-right outlawed. After a day at work, THX watches a hologram program of dancing naked people. He masturbates to the display, assisted by a built-in machine in the director’s cut. Everyone lives with an assigned mate, expected to sleep with them. One character might even be gay, depending on how you interpret Donald Pleasence’s request for THX to be his roommate. Sex is not the crime. Instead, love is the crime. The passionate love scenes THX eventually shares with LUH stand in contrast to the depersonalized world the characters inhabit. This is not a visceral world. Though the robotic police can be seen beating those who attempt to stand up to them, the state mostly seeks to control the people through homogenized contentment. Love is something too strong, too powerful, and thus discouraged.

“THX 1138” is more of a science fiction allegory then an attempt to show what the future will be like. Elements of the future society are rather surreal, such as the red companion cubes people sometimes talk to. However, one aspect that seems weirdly plausible is the future’s reliance on medication. Human emotions are oppressed with pills distributed to everyone. The drugs put those who ingest them into a state of bland, calm, contentment. The masses are re-imagined as an endless supply of workers. The drugs are sent out in TV dinner-style aluminum tins, which is a nice touch. Whether or not you believe our society is overly medicated – I don’t – it’s easy to imagine a drug that makes you mindlessly content and subservient being very popular. It’s even easier to imagine this being used as a weapon to placate the masses.

In most dystopias, religion is irrelevant if it isn’t outlawed. Interestingly, religion is a major tool of the state in “THX 1138.” Along with their assigned mates and jobs, the workers are assigned a religious belief. After work, THX stops by a confessional booth. A painting of a bored looking Christ stares at him, speaking in canned responses that could mean anything. Among the programs shown on the holograms is a hooded monk giving some sort of religious service. THX and his roommate kneel in reverence during this service. Later, Pleasence’s SEN finds the studio where these sermons are recorded, praying to the painting of Christ. It’s such an odd choice and one that, in retrospect, seems like a very George Lucas-esque thing. Those in control use religion as just another tool to control people.

The aspect of “THX 1138” that people seem to remember the most are those robot police officers. Clad in blue suits, with white helmets, their silver faces have vague, undefined outlines. They carry black rods that function as both tasers and bludgeons. (“Futurama’s” URL seems to be patterned on them.) While the look is interesting, what’s most interesting about the cops is how they talk. Like everything else in this society, they speak softly, parroting empty platitudes. The technology of “THX 1138” ranges from plausible to totally far-out. The factories were the robots are made certainly seem possible. The indifference the bosses have to their workers’ lives is more then possible. The cars looks like 1980s sports cars, which is plausible if slightly silly. A potentially funny bit of satire is that dissenters are pursued… As long as the budget allows it. Once the allotted amount of money runs out, the robot cops are told to turn back and let the fugitive go.

An example of the less plausible technology leads to one of the film’s most fascinating sequences. Once captured, those who break the law are placed in an isolation chamber with other offenders. It is a seemingly endless white room. The robot officers shock THX with their poles, causing him to flail around in spasmodic motions. Mostly, the criminals sit in a circle, debating ways to escape this prison. However, they never implement those plans, instead staying where they are. Some of imprisoned have been there for a very long time. Some of them appear developmentally disabled. When THX and SEN do decide to leave, they get up and start walking. They keep walking until they finally find an exit. The endless white room makes for a strange, unnerving prison, providing the film with one of its most disquieting moments.

Acting in a movie like “THX 1138” must be difficult. When most of your cast are unfeeling automatons, giving an empathetic performance must be hard. Robert Duvall acts mostly with his eyes, showing a sea of confusion and thoughts simmering behind his medicated surface. Less retrained but more memorable is Donald Pleasence as SEN. Pleasence was an expert at playing eccentric. SEN seems like a genuine oddball, somebody who wouldn’t fit in any society, much less a hyper-restricted one like this. Pleasence speaks in a stilted way while carrying himself with a very strange body language. Maggie McOmie as LUH tries desperately to disguise her emotions beneath an unfeeling exterior. She doesn’t succeed, which is maybe why she is arrested so quickly for her crimes.

When I first saw “THX 1138” a few years back, I found it to be incredibly boring. I watched the film late at night, after a long day. Expectantly, I fell asleep a few times. The film is indeed very slow. It only runs 88 minutes but feels much longer then that. This is intentional, contributing to the film’s unnerving atmosphere. Yet it doesn’t make “THX 1138” the most inviting watch. The movie has other problems too. Lucas’ script is undercooked sometimes. At one point, a major character enters the film with little foreshadowing. The guy just shows up and joins the central duo on their quest. The guy disappears just as quickly, crashing his escape car into a stone pillar, a moment that is so blunt it almost becomes funny. In its last act, “THX 1138” suddenly becomes an action movie. The title character is involved in a high speed car chase, pursued by the robotic cops, crashing through a platform. These sort of stilted scripting decisions and an odd tonal shifts are issues George Lucas would struggle with through his entire career.

Another negative quality George Lucas would become known for is tinkering with his films after they’re released. Though the various re-edits of the “Star Wars” movies are the most notorious, he didn’t leave “THX 1138” untouched either. When the movie was released on DVD, only the "director’s cut” was made available. Though the picture quality was cleaned up beautifully, many scenes were altered in odd ways. Some aren’t so bad, like a few shots that add more people to a crowd or change the scenery a little. That’s fairly unobtrusive. Others are more distracting. All the scenes of THX working in the factory were outfitted with CGI effects and a new golden coloration. A rat was replaced with a CGI sea scorpion. A pet lizard was outfitted with wings and antenna. The most baffling decision inserted a set of CGI chimp-like creatures in the last act. These differences stick out like a sore thumb, obviously not belonging to the film as it was originally shot. Sadly typical of Lucas, a copy of the original version was not included in this new release. The only way to see “THX 1138” without the CGI monkeys is to seek out an out-of-print VHS or an expensive LaserDisk. Why does he do this shit?

Post-release tampering aside, “THX 1138” is a difficult but interesting film. It’s production designs are impressive and truly unearthly. While some aspects of its dystopia are clearly derivative, others are odd and memorable. The movie has a definite effect on the viewer, putting them in a very chilly, unusual mind set. The script is annoyingly vague at times and what exactly the filmmaker’s intention were are not always easy to read. Just for being so different from everything else he would produce, “THX 1138” is worth seeking out. Had it been successful in 1971, perhaps George Lucas would have become the next Stanly Kubrick, instead of shifting science fiction into a very different direction. [Grade: B-]

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