February 11, 2008

Movies for Grown-Ups: THX 1138

(Tired of seemingly all discussion of movies in this country anymore sliding towards poop fests and other kiddie fare? Me too, which is why I decided to dedicate my Netflix account to nothing but "grown-up" movies, and to write reviews here of each one I see. For a master list of all reviews, as well as the next movies on my "queue" list, click here.)

THX 1138 (1971)
Written and directed by George Lucas

George Lucas. Sigh. To paraphrase the famous quote, never before has someone done so much over so long with so little -- a director of only six films in 37 years now (and only three if you count the Star Wars series as a single unit), he is nonetheless the creator and owner of several billion-dollar entertainment franchises, singlehandedly saved Hollywood in the '70s just to have the formula he created grow to eat itself by the '90s, plus in the course of three decades went from infallible god in the eyes of millions of fanboys to Satan Himself. But really, the most astonishing part of Lucas' entire career is just how lightweight it is when examined in any depth; his entire ouevre, as a matter of fact, consists of not much more than a series of vamped-up big-budget children's action serials, one nostalgic look back at his '50 hot-rod youth, and one experimental dystopian sci-fi thriller that started it all. And that's really not a lot of output from an artist over the course of a lifetime, especially one who now has more money and power than freakin' God, or at least when it comes to the ability to green-light a $200 million kiddie flick about kidnapped princesses and rocket ships.

THX 1138

That's why I've been wanting to see that early-career experimental dystopian sci-fi thriller that I mentioned, after all, technically named THX 1138; it's the only film of Lucas' at this point that I haven't seen, arguably the most "grown-up" one of his entire career, one that reflected his supposed intellectual mindset towards cinema that he had right out of college, back before his years of wallowing in the world of laser guns and Burger King tie-ins and the building of bizarre mini-cities in the hills of northern California. At least, this has always been the story of THX 1138, one of those fabled films that seem to get talked about a lot more than actually watched; that it is a surprisingly complex, surprisingly dark film, a forgotten gem of the '70s that got Lucas his first notice in mainstream Hollywood, leading to the green-lighting of first American Graffiti (the '50s hot-rod nostalgia piece previously mentioned) and then Star Wars. In fact, Lucas himself re-released the film in 2004, but not without first doing his usual ol' switcheroo trick of adding modern CGI elements and entire new scenes to the original '70s footage; it was the DVD of that version that I recently saw myself, not the original which had garnered the cult status in the first place.

THX 1138

But after watching it myself now, I can only sum up the experience with a disappointing "meh;" although technically ahead of its time in terms of effects, it's obvious that it was based on a half-baked undergraduate exercise from Lucas' student days, a clunky plot that not only ultimately goes nowhere but takes forever to get there. Plus, there's this very interesting thing as well that I noticed, that when all is said and done, Lucas just isn't a very smart writer or much of a visionary; the film feels forced at a lot of points, a frustrating attempt at the kind of trippy, heady, "intelligent" film that was so in vogue with his film-school buddies in California at that particular moment in history, but that Lucas himself just isn't very good at. No wonder he turned to silly retro serial non-stories as fast as he could, I thought after watching this, where it is the effects that sell the entire thing and with a plot that is only shoehorned in afterwards; because that's exactly what he did with THX 1138 too, but in that case with a supposedly sophisticated and erudite story about free will and society, which just doesn't succeed in the same way as basing your effects-heavy film off a space opera.

THX 1138

It is of course a story of the future; a fascist, dystopian future, to be precise, one that apparently missed the Information Age and still requires millions of humans to do the work usually done by robots and other machines. As with other fascist societies, the best way to accomplish this is by breaking down the will of the individual, and convincing them to subsume themselves to the State; in this particular case, such a thing is done through mandatory libido-killing drugs, mindless entertainment meant to divert instead of provoke, and of course the drab late-Modernist surroundings of all 1970s dystopian science-fiction thrillers (in this case mostly shot in San Francisco's then-new Bay Area Rapid Transit system, or BART). In fact, it is in the set-up of this environment where you can find one of the only truly smart elements of this script, in that unlike a lot of other dystopian movies about fascism, Lucas acknowledges that such a society works better when citizens are given the illusion of choice -- people are allowed to watch different television channels, for example, even though they all show essentially the same thing, and people are even encouraged to go to "confessional" at a "church," in reality a booth with a tape recording that spits out random phrases every few seconds such as "Go on" and "I see."

THX 1138

But alas, this is where the originality pretty much ends in the actual script, with Lucas off and already obsessed with the visual look of the film by this point, and not really caring from there on in what the actual story is being told. Because make no mistake, this is a great-looking film, something you can scarcely believe got made in the hippie, colorful, psychedelic early '70s that it did. In fact, this might be the most interesting thing about THX 1138, is for Star Wars fans to see the germination of so many of the effects that were eventually used in the much more famous sci-fi series; from the 3D holographic images, to the tracking shots of TIE fighters flying down a trench in the Death Star, even to various sounds that are heard throughout the movie's length. It's clear with this film that Lucas has had a consistent creative vision since the very beginning of his career, and that he's truly been on the forefront of flabbergasting visual effects since literally a teen; unfortunately, though, given here the only chance of his career so far to take on a smart, dark, modern story, he proves that he's simply not a very good storyteller when all is said and done, all the more reason for him to spend the rest of his career in the genre ghetto of space aliens and adventurer-archeologists.

THX 1138

It's an interesting movie to be sure, fascinating to any hardcore Star Wars fan, and a must-see for any lover of that unique subgenre I like to call "'70s Cinema Gone Wrong;" but be warned that this is also a slow, plodding, meandering artistic mess as well, with heavy-handed political metaphors and digressions that sometimes go nowhere at all, and an ending that will make you want to throw sh-t at the screen in frustration. And also be warned that the modern CGI additions simply jump at you while watching this, as glaringly obvious as you would imagine slick expensive computer effects would be to a 37-year-old small-budget art film; according to dozens of angry comments I've read online, the additions drive fans of the original version nutso crazy, something you may want to keep in mind before renting. Oh George, George, George, what are we going to do with you, I swear?!

Out of 10:
Writing: 5.2
Acting: 5.5
Directing: 7.6
Cinematography: 9.7
Overall: 6.4, or 7.9 for science-fiction fans

Random notes:
--Rumor has it that this movie's title comes from Lucas' old telephone number in San Francisco -- 849-1138.

--As a publicity stunt, before production started Lucas had all his major actors shave their heads in unusual locations, which he then filmed and released as a short comedic "experimental" film unto itself called Bald. It's included now in the Special Edition DVD.

THX 1138

--And that great-looking scene at the end, with Robert Duvall climbing the side of a giant pipe, is not a modern computer addition, believe it or not, but rather a physical effect from the '71 original; that's a giant horizontal pipe you're looking at, yet another part of the BART rapid-transit system, with the camera simply pointed sideways.

Best viewed: As a double-feature with Sleeper, a Woody Allen science-fiction comedy made just two years later, which aped many of the images seen in Lucas' original.

Next on my queue list: Sunshine, the big-budget science-fiction thriller from just last year, by CCLaP favorite Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, 28 Days Later).

Read even more about THX 1138: Amazon | IMDb | Netflix | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 11:26 AM, February 11, 2008. Filed under: Movies | Reviews |