THX-1138: George Lucas Goes Feature-Length


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
April 8, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 14

White on White
By William Paul

The most successful science fiction films like “The Thing” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” have used their science fiction conceits as metaphors for an actual state of existence: “The Thing” is not so much about a vegetable monster from outer space as the conflict between intellect and instinct as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is not so much about pods from outer space as the conflict between individual identity and mass conformity. If I find films like “2001” and books like “1984” less interesting it is because the science fiction trappings exist as metaphors for a projected state of existence, how we could become rather than how we actually are, metaphors of metaphors too involved in speculative reasoning to provide any sense of first-hand involvement.

George Lucas’s “THX 1138,” expanded to a feature-length from a 15-minute student film he made a few years ago, lies somewhere between these two types of science fiction. It is most effective when it is about drug culture, a futuristic reflection of our hypochondriac society that seeks with obsessive self-absorption to cure its ills, physical and spiritual, through a variety of drugs, from antacids to acid. Lucas’s man of the future achieves a chemical Nirvana which wipes out all neurotic conflict, denies will, and creates a bland existence which is reflected in the film’s smooth white surfaces. This world is coldly impersonal but not without its sensual pleasures — the hologram-tv programs erotic dancers for its viewers’ delight — but sexuality is entirely passive and self-serving. THX, the hero of the film, becomes a criminal in his society by turning outward in his sexual drives to another human being, transforming sex into love, accepting human existence as a constantly shifting mixture of aggressive and passive impulses.

More conventional and less interesting are Lucas’s attempts to portray a 1984-ish government that controls every aspect of an individual’s life. The most boring section of the film takes place in a white-on-white prison for people who refuse to be part of the machine-like society. These individuals express their individuality through ticks of personal expression, but because of Lucas’s direction of surfaces is more inventive than his direction of actors, his characters’ ticks seem too calculated, too mechanical to be really personal. The film gains momentum toward the end, however, with the first introduction of some humor in the form of a hologram who decided to come to life (the only charmingly acted character in the film) and melodramatic excitement in the form of an extended car-and-motorcycle chase. The chase most resembles Lucas’s short film, but it is more powerful in the feature-length version because of the concrete meanings Lucas is able to attach to plastic forms which seemed to exist for themselves in the short. In the penultimate shot of the film, THX climbs an air-duct pursued by robot-police: the duct is seen in a wide-angle long shot extreme enough to give the most fearless viewer a sense of vertigo. The empty space surrounding the vulnerable man emphasizes the exertion involved rather than the goal of escape: like the hologram who came to life because he wanted to, THX finally achieves his humanity by an assertion of will.

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