Sunday, November 25, 2012

THX-1138 (review)

What the heck is THX-1138, you might be asking? It's the feature directorial debut of one George Walton Lucas Jr., expanding on an avart-garde short film that he did in film school. It was produced by Francis Ford Coppola, as the first feature from their American Zoetrope independent studio... and pretty much buried it, just as fast. Warner Bros., the distributors and financiers, hated the finished movie so much that they re-cut it, gutted the marketing budget, and demanded back the money they'd given to Zoetrope for future projects.

What's it about? Well... that's a harder question, in a way. It's presented in a rather obtuse way, but the short version is that sometime in the future, society has become so sterile and commercialized, that pretty much all we live for is to buy things and do what authorities tell us to do. People are drugged into feeling no emotions whatsoever, religion only tells them to show up for work and keep buying things, and no one even has proper names; THX 1138 is the main character's name. His roommate/love interest is named LUH, and a foil for them is named SEN. Every one is shaved bald, and wearing what is basically a pair of white pajamas, there's almost no colour or detail in anything... pretty much the only good thing you can say about this society, is that there's no crime as we know it.

But it is a crime to have feelings. Or to have sex -- you're supposed to get it off with holograms and mechanical pumps (it's rather sad that THAT might have come true, more than anything else in the movie). THX and LUH do both, after she talks him into skipping their drugs, and when it causes accidents at THX's robot assembly job, they quickly find themselves in prison. They then decide they have to leave, once and for all.

I'm not sure how much that synopsis just made this thing sound like a thriller, but to be honest it's not a particularly exciting or intense movie. It's very much an expensive art movie -- in the sense that it is very cerebral, discusses intellectual issues in abstract ways, and makes very little literal sense. This is especially so during the middle section, addressing THX and LUH in prison. There's a semi-comical sequence where unseen doctors manage to make THX go into convulsions by pushing buttons... it's only when you see the movie again, that it would probably dawn on you that some device was presumably inserted into him, during a medical test preceding this. Just plain laughable, is how THX "escapes" from the prison itself -- HE JUST WALKS OUT THE FREAKING DOOR. There are guards everywhere, fully capable of subduing him, not to mention a total lack of architectural landmarks, and HE JUST WALKS AWAY! Accompanied by a a HOLOGRAM WHO'S BECOME REAL... yet we never find out HOW. Thematically, it works just fine, but if we're meant as an audience to believe that this is really happening, I'm sorry but my bullshit meter breaks really damn fast.

All of that being said, it is a rather unnerving movie overall, and it's actually quite well acted (with Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasance carrying much of the picture). The dialogue... well, good luck making sense of it. You see, the single-biggest problem with THX-1138 is that there is no proxy for the audience -- every single person is firmly a part of this future world, so there's no reason to explain anything (which Lucas is historically reluctant to do, anyway). I understand that the point was to be disorienting, and artistically they were running with the concept of this being "a movie shot on location in the future", but realistically that only works so well. To give Lucas some credit, he seemed to have learned his lesson by the time he did Star Wars, as that movie featured characters far enough out of the loop that there was excuse for a bit of exposition to help the audience get by. Hell, even the prequels had enough sense to do that!

With this being a George Lucas picture, it probably wouldn't surprise you to learn that he changed the thing at least twice, since it was originally released. The home video releases restored scenes that were cut by Warners' (the theatrical cut hasn't been seen since the early 70s), and more recently the DVD version used CGI to expand the locations and fill in some gaps in the story. Unlike the infamous Special Edition changes to the Star Wars movies, these were generally well received, and I don't have any huge problem with them (apart from the CGI sometimes drawing too much attention to itself). In fact, on occasion they help make certain scenes more clear. However, I do think that making every establishing shot look ten times bigger, was a thematic mistake -- we're meant to believe that this society is oppressive as hell (and in fact, it turns out that this whole civilization is underground), and personally I think that was more effectively conveyed with the more confined shots in the earlier releases.

(if you're wondering, the non-altered version isn't on DVD, but someone has digitized the VHS versions of those scenes and put up comparison videos on YouTube)

This movie is rather hard to find, even now, but if you can find a copy of this cheapy (or if you can find it online) I suggest giving it a look, if you like intellectual sci-fi movies. Just keep in mind that besides Lucas' handicaps with dialogue and discomfort with actors, maybe his biggest failing as a filmmaker is that he's a little too smart for his own good.

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