Of all the various attempts to bring the literary dystopias of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to the screen, none succeeded in replicating the extraordinary atmosphere and tone of their source novels.
John Hurt may have been magnificent as the doomed Winston Smith, but Michael Radford’s adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four never quite retained the savagery present in Orwell’s stark, terrifying prose. Similarly, the 1998 TV movie of Brave New World couldn’t capture the despair in Huxley’s vision of a scrubbed-up future of state controlled sex and drugs.
George Lucas’ debut feature THX 1138, based on his own student film Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB made four years earlier, captured the sentiment of those classic novels more than any official adaptation ever could. The movie depicted a stark, eerie future of a brow beaten, shaven-headed populace and its clinically white subterranean metropolis.
In a society where citizens are coded rather than named, THX 1138 is a lowly factory worker, played by Robert Duvall. He spends his days quietly building androids, and his evenings watching holographic television shows filled with sex and violence. Intercourse itself is banned, and THX barely notices his female roommate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie).
That is, until LUH begins to secretly withdraw THX’s state prescribed daily dosage of drugs. Gradually, normal emotions begin to seep back into his mind, and after an initial bout of sickness, THX embarks on a dangerous carnal relationship with LUH. With cameras monitoring its citizens’ every move, it doesn’t take long before they’re both caught, and THX is thrown into an eerie, skull-white prison.
Lucas’ film follows the classic template of the dystopian novel, pitting a sympathetic protagonist against an all powerful state. Combining the police state of Nineteen Eighty-Four with the quiet, narcotic control of Brave New World, the young director creates a film that is sometimes startling in its creativity.
Using real industrial locations to save money, the world of THX 1138 is a terrifying subterranean city of android policemen and confession booths. Both the police and the booths speak in soothing yet cold tones. The police urge citizens to stay calm even as they prepare to commit horrible acts of violence, while the booths respond mindlessly to their visitors’ sins with instructions to “Buy more. Buy more now. Buy. And be happy.”
Lucas directs his film through a filter of glitchy video screens and radio chatter. The world of THX 1138 is a bewildering Babylon of murmuring voices and unexpected noises, where citizens are communicated with directly through medicine cabinets.
The cyborg police are like walking silver statues, a spooky precursor to the benign C-3PO of Star Wars.
It’s a sobering thought, in fact, to consider that the man who directed THX 1138 would later direct the creatively bare trilogy of Star Wars sequels. THX 1138 is, by comparison, remarkable in the rich detail of its future world, and filmed with great intelligence.
Note how Lucas contrasts silence with deafening noise. There’s a moment where THX, along with fellow escapees SEN (Donald Pleasence, brilliant as usual) and SRT (Don Pedro Colley) step out of the gleaming white void of their prison and into a coursing, babbling autobahn of people marching to some unknown destination. Later, there’s a shockingly unexpected car accident, whose abruptness is enough to make jaws drop.
Cinematographer David Myers bathes his characters in white space, or traps them in sharply defined blocks of light and shade. Sitting alone in his confession booth, Duval sits huddled in one half of the screen, while the blankly staring image of Christ dominates the next. They’re techniques used by Stanley Kubrick in 2001: A Space Odyssey, but they create a palpable sense of claustrophobia and unease.
THX 1138 is the work of a director who clearly knows and loves science fiction, and enjoys playing with the conventions of the genre. THX is one of the few protagonists in dystopian fiction to escape from the grip of authority, not because of his own ingenuity, but because those in control decide it’s cheaper to allow him to escape.
Like all great dystopias, THX 1138 plays with contemporary fears, and plays them out in an extreme, distant setting. Lucas’ film explores how the rise of technology, for example, surveillance, drugs or robotics, could be used to suppress and control society. In an era where computers and surveillance cameras are ubiquitous, THX 1138 is as relevant as ever.
On Blu-ray, THX 1138 looks beautiful, despite the fact that Lucas shot the film 40 years ago. Indeed, the clarity of the film’s visuals only makes me wish I could see it at the cinema. Like Alien, which I wrote about last week, it’s another sci-fi classic that begs to be watched on the big screen.
It’s not a perfect film, admittedly. Characters become lost among the astounding sound and visuals Lucas creates, and it’s strange that, despite repeated commands to “Buy more now,” its citizens’ homes appear strangely bereft of belongings.
But as a big screen piece of dystopian sci-fi, THX 1138 is, without doubt, a stunning piece of work and contains one of the most visually striking visions of the future in cinema. In what becomes the film’s mantra, medicine cabinets repeatedly ask, “What’s wrong?”
In Lucas’ unsettling future society, everything is unsettlingly, terribly wrong.
THX 1138 is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.
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