THX 1138; A Cinema Static Classic Reflection

by on February 10, 2012

in Entertainment, movie reviews

This is a movie review with some reflections on the classic sci-fi movie, THX 1138, in another chapter of Cinema Static Classic Reflections.

THX 1138

Amazing but true:  I did not see THX 1138 until 2006.

I had been meaning to see THX 1138 for a long time but you know how it goes when you’re busy and distracted, you forget to watch important movies.   When I first sat down to watch this film, I was blown away by the fact that it was made in 1971.  The look of THX 1138 was way beyond what I usually think of as the late sixties/early seventies style for sci fi movies.  (I was also blown away by how young Robert Duvall looked, but that’s a different story.)

I saw the director’s cut and there were some scenes that George Lucas had tweaked or changed using technology that wasn’t available to him the first time around.  But that’s just a sidebar and doesn’t really intrude or change the true essence of the film.

THX 1138 is both the title and hero of the film which is divided into 3 acts and takes place some time in the future.

THX 1138 still

Humans live in a subterranean world where their every move is watched by monitors.  They are devoid of emotions by their constant (state regulated) diet of drugs, their individuality is non-existent; they don’t even have hair and we never even see the nameless, faceless authority who runs the place.  THX (Robert Duvall) works in a dangerous factory making the robots that police the society and he lives with a roommate, a woman named LUH (Maggie McOmie).

At some point she’s stopped taking her drugs and decides to replace the drugs that THX takes so he can experience what she experiences: true human emotions.

They fall in love, but the complications come from a “monitor” named SEN (Donald Pleasance) who has been watching them.  He reports them for illegal sex.  It seems that he wants THX as his roommate and just needed an excuse to get rid of LUH.  In act 2, THX and SEN are both imprisoned (THX reports SEN for unauthorized monitoring) in jail without bars, just white nothingness that goes on and on.

Act 3 begins when THX decides to escape “jail” and look for LUH.

Robert Duvall in THX 1138

This film is a visual feast and an excellent example of colors, textures and sound and how they can be used to tell a story.  In many scenes the characters are partially outside of the frame or purposely not centered, and what’s happening in the scene won’t match up with the sound.  These are devices meant to disorient you, but this is audience participation; Lucas wants you to experience the movie not just watch it.  He’s stated in the director’s commentary that he was influenced by some of the directors coming out of France and Europe at the time.  These directors were experimenting with non-linear story telling, montages and other film styles that were not as well known or used in American films.

The concept for the movie grew in the counter-culture of the late 60’s, so consumerism without purpose, the police state, drugs and illegal sex were current events (kind of like they are now).  He, with the help of Walter Murch (sound design and co-writer on scrip), created not just a movie, but a work of art.

Interesting tidbits about THX 1138:

The story was taken from an outline written by his friend (fellow film student I think) Mathew Robbins (Don’t be Afraid of the Dark; At the Mountains of Madness).  Lucas then made a short student film called “THX-1138:4EB” which won an award and acclaim, enough to get him noticed by none other than fellow USC film school alumni Francis Ford Coppola.  Coppola had just started his own production company “American Zeotrope” so with Warner Brothers as a co-producer, Lucas was given the green light to make THX 1138 into a full-length feature film.

THX 1138 - PacBell Switch Room

Lucas originally wanted to film in Japan.  He thought he’d be able to find the austere, minimalist look he had in mind for the film.  But the budget was not enough to cover all the expenses this would incur.  So he ended up here in the Bay Area shooting many scenes in – of all places – the newly built BART system tunnels, stations and control room.  He also got use of a giant switch room from PacBell and a nuclear power plant (but I’m not sure which one).  He wanted to film as far away from Hollywood as possible and says in his film commentary that he was glad the studio was not able to watch the daily rushes or they may have shut him down.

THX 1138 Tunnels (Posey, I think) between Alameda and Oakland

Some of the bald extras in the film are from a (then) local drug rehabilitation center that required new members to shave their heads.  He also hired a San Francisco improv group (in the commentary he calls them the “Committee” but other sources call them “the Corporation”).  Their job was to do the various voices and commentary you hear in the background of the film.  Lucas encouraged them to ad-lib and some of their comments are hard to hear the first time you watch the film, but they do an excellent job.  (The title of the film, THX 1138, is supposed to be Lucas’ old phone number but I wasn’t able to find where that reference came from & he makes no mention of it in his commentary.)

It’s interesting that Lucas made this film in the very beginning of his career because it seems so amazingly sophisticated for a guy just starting out (he was 24 at the time).  He’s said that he likes the theme of “leaving a safe environment and going out on your own,” and this theme is in all of his movies.  It’s also lucky for him (and us) that he kept away from Hollywood while making this film as mentioned above, the studio heads were not able to see any of the film until it was finished and they did not like it.  It didn’t do well when it premiered and almost bankrupted Coppola’s production company.  But he bounced back a year later with The Godfather and Lucas went on to create American Graffiti which gave him the momentum he needed to start the Star Wars franchise.

And the rest, as they say, is film history!

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