Lucas’s Art Film: THX 1138

THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971) –

Weirdly, this was my first time seeing this film.**  It’s a movie that has hovered around the edges of my awareness, but I always sort of considered it a film for Star Wars complete-ists rather than as something whole and interesting in its own right.  And it is.  Whole, complete, and interesting in its own right.  Like all good sci-fi, it is very much a product of its time, using the speculative to meditate on what makes us human and explore contemporary anxieties.

I was surprised at how arty it was.  And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way.  Rather I was struck by the visual beauty and vocabulary: You could clearly see Lucas’s debt to Bergman running throughout the film—not just in style, but thematically.


Also Godard’s Alphaville.





And of course the silver-faced robot of Metropolis.

There is a dedicated sparseness.  There is never extra exposition or explanations.  It mirrors the emptiness of the antiseptic world. Even the violence is bloodless—isolated in its white world.


Which makes the sensual and the fleshy so much more dramatic and embodied.


It’s not a complicated film, but it is adult.  And exceptionally well-versed in British post-war dystopian fiction: It is a mash-up of 1984 and Brave New World.  Everyone is heavily medicated and the medicine cabinet is the space of surveillance.  Sex is forbidden.

But Robert Duvall as the title character here seems to channel the raw intensity of De Niro’s Travis Bickel.

Or properly, it’s the other way around: THX was released in ‘71 and Taxi Driver in ‘76. In addition to their muddled revolutionary tendencies (one towards sex and one towards violence), they are shot with the same harsh profile shots and head on shots reminiscent of mugshots as much as anything, that provide a frame for alienation.

But the comparison is an intriguing one. Remarkably, Duvall was already 40 when THX was released.  De Niro was 32.  Their similarities can perhaps function as a metaphor for 70s New Hollywood more generally.  Very white. Very male. Very reactionary. And not as young as the mythos and their overly simplistic world view seems to suggest. At the same time, there is the fierce purity of the characters, and an actor-ly commitment to reality of those the characters, that is riveting.

It is certainly not a perfect film. The almost literal erasure of LUH, the sulkily luminous Maggie McCommie***, THX Luh.jpgis certainly problematic. It was all her. She is the one who set all of the action in motion. She falls in love, she does something about it. She is the revolutionary. And her pregnancy is a death sentence.. Not for her the escape into the sunset.  The last we see of her she is dragged naked out of the shared cell they are imprisoned in. And while THX certainly remembers her, and mentions her, the film decides she is not as interesting or as important as he is and gets rid of her.

I got a little lost in the prison/asylum.  Donald Pleasance as SEN, while eminently watchable, was confusing as a character in this world.  This isn’t aided by the fact that Lucas and Murch cribbed a bunch of his dialogue from Nixon.  We watch him watch THX and LUH on the monitors (a classic way to implicate us the audience in our own scopophilia). But he certainly isn’t the only character watching them.  Our vision of their connection is constantly fractured by monitors and shared by observers within the film.

But SEN seems to want to capitalize on their lawlessness. Or he desires it. If his stance is not a put-on, how did he get so far?  Is he sexually into THX? Or is he just weird? Paranoid? Crazy? He is certainly the most human seeming.  Awkward and strange. Even in the dystopian stripping of identity he shines through with personality.


(More echoes of Persona).

So if, as I posed, THX1138, like good sci-fi, is thinking about what makes us human and what makes us afraid, we can certainly come up with some strong-put ideas. What makes us numb, and the institutions that support it, should make us wary. Here, prescription drugs and television (masturbatory holograms), the stripping away of individuality, the homogenization of culture: these are what destroys us. Sex makes us human, love, the desire for human connection.

As I said, it isn’t complicated.  But it is effective.

As a final note, let me avow my undying devotion to Walter Murch.  If you don’t know the genius of this guy, its time you did.  And actually it was his name that pushed me over the edge into finally watching THX 1138.  This guy. Where do I even begin? The Conversation? Apocalypse Now? How about the sounds of light sabers in Star Wars.  Look no further than THX. It’s all there. And that is not even to mention that he’s the guy who brought Touch of Evil back to life from Welles’ notes.  This guy.  He pretty much invented sound design as a category.  And here, working with George Lucas, he brings something unique in his career: co-writing credit (although I credit him personally for a great deal of The Conversation). And I think he balances out Lucas’ tendency towards epic conflicts that tend to erase much nuance (Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing! Star Wars provides a clear and abiding mythos (if borrowed) that vividly resonates with generations of audiences).

**My personal connection to the movie is locational.  Lucas shot a lot in Northern California and area is littered with places he shot. I lived in the Bay Area for a couple of years and spent more time than I like to remember going back and forth to Concord.  The Caldecott Tunnel became very familiar and almost inevitably my partner at the time would mention that THX 1138 was filmed in these tunnels. Which also may account for my delay in watching this film.caldecott I am not a fan of driving through tunnels in general.  It gives me a great deal of anxiety. Not so much the underground part, but the having no place to go part.  So altogether a set of useless associations that caused me to resist watching it.

***Clearly the inspiration for Robin Tunney’s look in Empire Records.



—Kathleen Murray

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