Skip to main content

Combined primary economics was a bottle about this big.

THX 1138
(1971)

(SPOILERS) Curious George’s debut is the antithesis of his later Star Wars (A New Hope), and it’s interesting that he should have invested himself in something so austere, “adult” and joyless given his later escapist veneer. One half senses, like Spielberg with Sugarland Express, that this was a self-consciously serious piece, intended to garner respect, rather than being something he was entirely invested in. But in contrast to the berg, Lucas was always a thoughtful young man – the prequel trilogy is deadly serious in theme – and it’s as likely that basic pragmatism took over when it came to delivering ideas that audiences might actually go and see next time. THX 1138 lent its title to his game-changing sound system, of course, and like Star Wars, Lucas couldn’t help but revisit his work decades later and add in some obviously updated special effects (not as egregious as most of the additions to A New Hope, but still wholly unnecessary). The picture remains an interesting piece from several vantage points, not least the striking sound design, but it never feels remotely essential.

I’m not sure if I first saw THX 1138 on BBC2’s Moviedrome, but until now, I certainly hadn’t watched it all the way through more than once. As Alex Cox observed in his introduction, it is not a great film: “It’s a little obscure and stand-offish”. He also suggested you have to be able to relate to good science-fiction. I’m not sure if that’s entirely true, and there are certainly elements here that are very resonant, even if its core plot was more colourfully remade a few years later as Logan’s Run. Here we have your standard-issue reset society (presumably after some nuclear event). It’s a DUMB one to boot, while giving us a very persuasive depiction of transhumanism in full swing, taking its cues from both Orwell and Huxley. A cynic might suggest Lucas was right in there with the predictive programming from the off.

Computer: If you feel you are not properly sedated, call 348844 immediately. Failure to do so may result in prosecution for drug evasion.

Gender identities are blurred, most visually via the identikit haircuts, the population is kept doped up – not to take the pills is an infraction – while sex and pregnancy are illegal. When you’re condemned to death, you’re put up as an organ donor. Citizens’ normal functioning can be artificially taken over by mindlock. Holo porn, torture and er, debates constitute the entertainment diet, so one might suggest nothing changes. What we have in THX 1138 is, then, your classic cliché of the dystopian future. It’s just that it currently looks like some very acute, low-budget prophecy (again, there’s an argument that none of this is accidental, although you have to set that against the “No one knows anything” William Goldman factor; it’s not as if anyone went to see Willow. Or Howard: A New Breed of Hero. Or this – Lucas effectively killed American Zoetrope's first big bid for conquest).

The stark, stripped-down construction of this regime is Lucas’ greatest achievement; it has that in common at least with Star Wars. Indeed, THX 1138’s first forty minutes or so are engrossing, showing the traces of familiar societal tropes but effectively and sometimes quite creatively distorted. For example, the confessional booth of OMM 0000, the state deity, who gives unempathic programmed responses to the sinner in a scene steeped in irony as Robert Duvall’s radiation technician expresses his guilt over a work place accident.

There’s further irony that, despite Robert Duvall’s presence and a reliably weasely Donald Pleasance as SEN 5241 (who has designs on Duvall’s THX), it’s one-off lead Maggie McOmie as LUH 3417 who invests the picture with an emotional connection as she awakens THX. Which means that, once she exits and the focus is all on THX, there’s much less to sustain our interest. The extended white void detention centre sequence is visually arresting, certainly, but the picture soon devolves into an extended chase where it’s difficult to get too engaged. There are Lucas amusements along the way, such as THX’s pursuit by robot cops eventually ending because they have exceeded their budget (quite how economics figure in this society isn’t really explained). Then there’s SEN explaining to kids being mainlined their latest educational dose how in his day the same learning took a whole week. And the very soothing-sounding cops, even when they’re inflicting ultra-violence.

It’s notable that THX 1138 opens with a clip from a Buster Crabbe Buck Rogers (both set in the 25th century), since it would be Lucas’ failure to secure the rights to Flash Gordon that led to him thrashing out his own hugely influential mythology. And one can’t help but compare and contrast this debut with another low-budget, influential science-fiction picture made by another film school graduate extending his student film project. In Lucas’ case, this was the 1967 Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, chaperoned by Coppola. A few years later came Dark Star. John Carpenter’s film is decidedly less polished, but in every other respect, it is enormously memorable (and hilarious). I also hadn’t twigged before that The Shamen sample “My Time is Yours” on Omega Amigo derives from THX 1138.

Reputedly, Lucas picked his college telephone number for the title/Duvall’s character. And co-writer Walter Murch reckoned THX meant Sex, SEN was sin and LUH was love. It’s curious then that both THX 1138 and LUH 3417’s name/numbers break down to 29/11. Coincidence? Ultimately, THX 1138 is conceptually solid but dramatically distancing. “Some talent but too much art” said Pauline Kael. Not something Lucas would later be accused of so much (the art bit).


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019) (SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

I never strangled a chicken in my life!

Rope (1948) (SPOILERS) Rope doesn’t initially appear to have been one of the most venerated of Hitchcocks, but it has gone through something of a rehabilitation over the years, certainly since it came back into circulation during the 80s. I’ve always rated it highly; yes, the seams of it being, essentially, a formal experiment on the director’s part, are evident, but it’s also an expert piece of writing that uses our immediate knowledge of the crime to create tension throughout; what we/the killers know is juxtaposed with the polite dinner party they’ve thrown in order to wallow in their superiority.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds . Juno and the Paycock , set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

They'll think I've lost control again and put it all down to evolution.

Time Bandits (1981) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam had co-directed previously, and his solo debut had visual flourish on its side, but it was with Time Bandits that Gilliam the auteur was born. The first part of his Trilogy of Imagination, it remains a dazzling work – as well as being one of his most successful – rich in theme and overflowing with ideas while resolutely aimed at a wide (family, if you like) audience. Indeed, most impressive about Time Bandits is that there’s no evidence of self-censoring here, of attempting to make it fit a certain formula, format or palatable template.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985) (SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “ the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984 ”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “ The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal ”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “ if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination ”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and glee

Oh, you got me right in the pantaloons, partner.

The Party (1968) (SPOILERS) Blake Edwards’ semi-improvisational reunion with Peter Sellers is now probably best known for – I was going to use an elephant-in-the-room gag, but at least one person already went there – Sellers’ “brown face”. And it isn’t a decision one can really defend, even by citing The Party ’s influence on Bollywood. Satyajit Ray had also reportedly been considering working with Sellers… and then he saw the film. One can only assume he’d missed similar performances in The Millionairess and The Road to Hong Kong ; in the latter case, entirely understandable, if not advisable. Nevertheless, for all the flagrant stereotyping, Sellers’ bungling Hrundi V Bakshi is a very likeable character, and indeed, it’s the piece’s good-natured, soft centre – his fledgling romance with Claudine Longet’s Michele – that sees The Party through in spite of its patchy, hit-and-miss quality.

I'm an old ruin, but she certainly brings my pulse up a beat or two.

The Paradine Case (1947) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock wasn’t very positive about The Paradine Case , his second collaboration with Gregory Peck, but I think he’s a little harsh on a picture that, if it doesn’t quite come together dramatically, nevertheless maintains interest on the basis of its skewed take on the courtroom drama. Peck’s defence counsel falls for his client, Alida Valli’s accused (of murder), while wife Ann Todd wilts dependably and masochistically on the side-lines.

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983) (SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bond s in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball , but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again , despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy .

Sir, I’m the Leonardo of Montana.

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013) (SPOILERS) The title of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s second English language film and second adaptation announces a fundamentally quirky beast. It is, therefore, right up its director’s oeuvre. His films – even Alien Resurrection , though not so much A Very Long Engagement – are infused with quirk. He has a style and sensibility that is either far too much – all tics and affectations and asides – or delightfully offbeat and distinctive, depending on one’s inclinations. I tend to the latter, but I wasn’t entirely convinced by the trailers for The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet ; if there’s one thing I would bank on bringing out the worst in Jeunet, it’s a story focussing on an ultra-precocious child. Yet for the most part the film won me over. Spivet is definitely a minor distraction, but one that marries an eccentric bearing with a sense of heart that veers to the affecting rather than the chokingly sentimental. Appreciation for

Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know, if you ripped the fronts off houses, you'd find swine? The world's a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?

Shadow of a Doubt (1943) (SPOILERS) I’m not sure you could really classify Shadow of a Doubt as underrated, as some have. Not when it’s widely reported as Hitchcock’s favourite of his films. Underseen might be a more apt sobriquet, since it rarely trips off the lips in the manner of his best-known pictures. Regardless of the best way to categorise it, it’s very easy to see why the director should have been so quick to recognise Shadow of a Doubt 's qualities, even if some of those qualities are somewhat atypical.