‘You have nowhere to go’: A Review of George Lucas’ THX 1138

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When I discuss my writing, I speak about the writings of Orwell, specifically his novel 1984. I’ve always been partial to dreary texts coated with misery. I’ve always enjoyed the non-ending, or the lack of a well-rounded and/or happy ending. I’ve always yearned for texts to treat me like an adult and allow me to piece together the text whilst I watched or read. And like Orwell, George Lucas’ feature film directorial debut THX 1138 filled me with a sense of nostalgia and awe that I first felt when I started reading Orwell.

And that is rather magical.

Written by Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather I, II and III) and Lucas (Star Wars, duh), the plot is as follows:

‘In the future, mankind lives in vast underground cities and free will is outlawed by means of mandatory medication that controls human emotion. But when THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) and LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) stop taking their meds, they wake up to the bleak reality of their own existence and fall in love with each other in the process. But love is also illegal in this Orwellian dystopia, and the act of making love has made both of them outlaws on the run from an army of robotic police.’

Reading the above plot does seem a little concerning. Recently Hollywood has developed copious amounts of young adult dystopian films with very similar themes and plot points hot on the heels of The Hunger Games series. Also, with remakes, reboots, soft-reboots or spiritual successors (I’m equating THX 1138 with the 1984 novel because it’s obvious that THX 1138 is heavily inspired by Orwell’s text), I usually ask myself, ‘is there a reason for this?’. The recent film Life, for instance, heavily lifts themes and tropes from films such as Alien, Sunshine and Interstellar without so much as making an identity for itself. It becomes an amalgamation of such films causing the viewer to reminisce and wonder why they’re not watching *insert above text here* instead. With all that said, I can happily say that THX 1138 does not do this, and carves a unique niche in the cluttered dystopian market, and does this well.

Unlike the more recent films such as The Hunger Games or Drake Doremus’ Equals (which is also heavily inspired by Orwell), THX 1138 doesn’t beat its audience over the head with tragedy, or even clog itself with a banal backstory, and there is no allusion to violent revolutions, or a wanting to uproot the system. There is a whiteness (literally the entire film is obscured by the whiteness of Lucas’ set). A starkness. A melancholia. And when combined with Lalo Schifrin’s creepy score, THX 1138 allows the viewer to piece together the horror and malaise that has occurred in the 25th century and has done so alone with the mise en scène, dialogue and lovely directing (something not usually attributed to modern day Lucas).

‘I think I’m dying.’

This was most evident to me when I learned the names of the characters. THX 1138, SEN 5241, LUH 3417 reminded me of license plate numbers which insinuates that these beings are literally products of the authoritarian government that controls them, their urges and life. The humans are branded by such unwieldy names just as we brand goods with barcodes, and it is a touch like this that makes me giddy. It is a well-thought out manoeuvre by a clever writer (or writers in this case), and it’s something to be commended.

But what really captivated was the mise en scène. Everything in the scope of the camera lens had a purpose and fulfilled that purpose to an expert degree. The use of a small cast to the use of props were expertly coordinated, and this was probably most obvious during THX 1138’s imprisonment when the viewer is only met with a small cast of oddities confined in this bright white hellscape. There is only whiteness for miles, where the characters encompassing the screen, the degenerates and losers, represent the disorder of the machine. What happens when programs are infected? You purge them. And that is what the viewer is met with, a white screen of death.

I believe that I have to speak about the romance genre, if only for a few sentences, because if I’m not mistaken, I have railed against them not only in this review, but others. I don’t have any qualms about the genre itself, but the corporate solution to include it in nearly every film to appeal to various audiences. Currently, I find it to be overused, and something I think we’re getting over as an audience, but something that remains a fixture in SF (Passengers anyone?). But unlike the modern SF of the 2010’s, THX 1138’s romance is Orwellian in nature. It is the slapping of meat against meat, the rediscovery of human sexuality, and doomed from the very beginning. Like Winston Smith and Julia, THX 1138 and LUH 3417 are destined to fracture, and this only adds to the misery of the film. And I love it for dystopias are supposed to be written this way. There is no joy, nor is there sex, but sterility.

‘It can’t go on forever. You know it can’t.’

There are so many of these instances, the film merits many an analysis (perhaps someday if there’s interest!), and I can go on all day about it, but as this is a review, I must remain on track.

The film, like all films, does have its flaws, but they are not so much to do with the directing, writing or filmmaking itself, but to do with the subject matter. I love Orwellian texts, especially when made with the craft of a loving craftsman, but I understand that many prefer their SF fast, pulsating with special effects and (in relation to cyberpunk) retrograde. And that is awesome, I love that too, but this film offers none of that. Sure, there is scene towards the end that can be qualified as “pulsating”, but most of the film can be classified as a slog. The story itself is a little bare bone once you do catch up on what is actually occurring, but again, I didn’t mind that so much because I felt that was the point of THX 1138.

The film ends with the poignant image of the rising sun, the first natural image the viewer has seen over the course of an hour and a half. THX 1138 rebels the only way a solitary man can, and that is by escaping the clutches of the government. Escaping the clutches of one’s brand. Escaping the hole in which he was conceived. The credits rest upon this image followed by a solemn score. There is to be a new day for THX 1138, but there is no closure, allowing the audience member to ponder. What is the eventual fate of THX 1138? We know not, and we can never know just as we can never know the eventual fate of mankind. But as always, the sun rises, and with the rising of the sun, a new day beckons, offering both hope and dismay.

It is a definite recommendation from me, but only if you can see yourself sitting through the quiet, the whiteness and the clanking of robot boots. It is a slow but well-crafted film, and I urge all SF fans to at least give it a chance.

If you’d like to purchase the film, you can certainly do so here, and let me know what you think.

THX 1138 – 7/10

4 Responses to “‘You have nowhere to go’: A Review of George Lucas’ THX 1138”

  1. clocutron

    I absolutely loved this film but, to be totally honest, I don’t think I could manage to sit through it again. It was definitely a bit hard to watch. I’m very happy that I’ve seen it but I won’t be watching it again, at least not soon.

  2. sim1tti

    Love the movie and enjoyed your take on it, but something to point out about the ending: the sun is actually setting, not rising. It’s sinking movement is evident in the final scene.

    Possibly a minor detail, but for me it changes what I’m inclined to believe about the future for THX and condition of 25th century humanity.

    THX is venturing into the unknown, and it is a grim unknown to boot. The surface is likely uninhabitable (why else would they be living below ground). I actually think THX and all the others know and understand this, as in it is not something being hidden from them. Many speculate that the sun is turning into a red giant. I don’t know if I would make that leap, but the warning of the android pursuers may be a truthful one. “You have no where to go.”

    Civilization as it can only sustain itself has become unreconcilable for the sober mind. That’s why the compulsory drug regimen. I believe THX and the others also understand this. They take the drugs because they know it is the only way to handle modernity and the reality of human existence in that time.

    Dissent is truly futile. But for the un-anesthetized, a near certain death on the surface is less bleak than a life below.

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