Thursday, July 10, 2008

THX- 1138 4EB

I don't actually know if anyone is planning on watching this movie, but uh... spoilers? XD

A couple of weeks ago, when Shannie, Justin, and I drove out to Westfarms Mall to bother our friend Brandy at the Disney store, I picked up a copy of the director's cut of THX-1138. It was five dollars and I've always wanted to see it, so I figured, why not?

For those of you who don't know, THX-1138 was George Lucas' first written/directed feature length film. It was based on the 11 minute student film he made in college called THX-1138-4EB. THX was the first movie made by the company American Zoetrope (founded by Francis Ford Coppola and Lucas almost straight out of college and it was home to some of America's most innovative film-makers to date) and one of the first movies to be filmed entirely outside of a big movie studio (Coppola and Lucas had been trying to get away from having to film in the Warner Bros. sets for years). It was also one of the first films where the director, and not the studio, had complete creative control during the movie's creation process (later, when Lucas and Coppola showed the film to WB, they cut five minutes out for seemingly no other reason than to exercise some control over these young radicals).

It was also where Lucas first demonstrated his idea of the "used future," which was later praised and recognized in Star Wars. Science fiction, until then, was always portrayed in this bright, clean, shiny new settings and Lucas- asking why if things don't look new now, why would they look new in a thousand years- made his sets dirty and gritty and real.

Like George Orwell's 1984m the characters in THX-1138 are sedated, zombie-like citizens being told exactly what to believe. They do not question the system- they obey. Food is automatically dispensed for them, accompanied with the calming red pills. Everyone watches the same four hologram programs, wears the same white suit, and works the same assigned job until told otherwise. Every human being is shaved bald to preserve conformity. There's even an automated religion- when feeling troubled, citizens are told to go to the Om booths, where they are presented with a picture of Jesus and a soothing recording of a series of "Oh, I see"s and "Please, go on"s. These people do not even have names- only serial numbers.

THX-1138 is the serial number of the man character. His assigned "mate," LUH 3417, stops taking the sedatives and surreptitiously begins removing the same pills from THX's food tray. The two of them, hiding their new found emotions and intellectual freedom, begin exploring such forbidden things as sex and affection. They are inevitably discovered via video recording and they are arrested. THX is tortured and tormented by the robotic guards, and he is only allowed to see LUH one last time before she's taken away to have her unborn child removed for growing and she's killed.

THX is then placed in a special ward for dissenters and mentally ill, where he and a former co-worker SEN 5241 escape their prison. At some point, they meet a former hologram who decided to escape the system one day to learn how to be human. Now that they can see the horror of complete control over the human race, the three of them are determined to escape. SEN is captured after being separated from the other two, and the hologram is killed when his escape vehicle crashes and explodes.

THX steals a squad car for a spectacular chase scene through the unfinished BART tunnels of San Francisco with robotic guards on motorcycles in pursuit. Two of the guards make it far enough to climb up a shaft leading to the surface of the Earth, and the pursuit of THX is called off do to budgeting. THX opens the outdoor hatch, a free man, and he stands, alone, in the sunset of the desert.

This movie never had any commercial success, and it's not hard to see why. This film doesn't explain what's going on; in some of the bonus materials, Lucas compares it to how Japanese films are made- rituals and habits are there, but never explained, as if the viewer would already know why they are happening. Because of this, most of the background of the story is in the little details. A glance at a sign, the Om booths, the red capsules... The viewer has to determine for himself exactly what these things are and why they are in place. It jumps right from scene to scene, trusting that the viewer will be able to figure everything out.

It's also not a happy movie. Not at all. At best, it's uncomfortable, at worst, it's depressing and a horrific foreshadowing of what we could become. Oddly enough, this might be one of the qualities that made me like this movie. Too many similar stories try to wring a happy ending out of it, but this left me with the right kind of bittersweetness. As Americans, we value freedom, so we are glad that THX is free, but you look at that last scene and you feel that helpless kind of 'now what?' that everyone feels when faced with open possibility. Granted, the film shows the most extreme example of this feeling, but everyone, at some point, has fought to accomplish something, accomplished it, and then was on that uneasy plain of not knowing what to do.

Another thing that I really liked about this movie, which I usually don't take too much note of in more recent films, was the camera work. The scenes were always set up very traditionally, as if on stage, but sometimes the camera would be very close to them, or it would seem as if the camera was left on a table and everyone in the frame was in the distance to the right. And because Lucas filmed everything on location, he was able to have the camera face different directions. You might start the scene facing the characters, but finish the scene from behind them. The characters haven't moved, but because there's a whole room there, and not a stage, Lucas could allow the setting to tell the story for him.

True to Lucas' style, the sound in this movie was amazing. Electronic, unnatural sounds were sometimes layered in ways to make it sounds like music and the music was sometimes warped to be used as sound effects. Also, as this was his first big jump into full-movie sound and picture editing, you can recognize sounds and synthesized tones of voice that would later be developed for his Star Wars movies.

One interesting thing that I'd like to add here, which I think brought a tone to the movie that would not have been there otherwise, is that all of the extras in this movie were heroine-addicts hired from a nearby rehabilitation facility. They were payed a fee daily, asked to shave their heads, and told to simply walk around the locations in costume. Those drugged-out, pale looks were genuine.

If you like the sort-of dystopian society genre, this movie is a must see. The two movies of the time period that this would be comparable to would be Soylent Green and Bladerunner, and, because of Lucas' directing and storytelling style (he might be losing plot credibility in these recent years, but even the most skeptical has to agree that the way he tells the story is amazing), I prefer THX-1138 over both of them.

Lucas has always found a way to incorporate THX-1138 in his films, and now I know why.

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