In THX 1138: The Director's Cut, individuals function to serve the state, with workers forced into pre-determined roles. Uniformity of expression is enforced through a unisex dress code (everyone, regardless of social status wears white jumpsuits, their heads shaved to limit natural physical differences or sexual attraction). Compulsory drug use stifles thought and dampens sexual desire. Sexual desire and its physical expression are viewed as socially transgressive. Transgression poses an imminent threat to the survival of the state. Regimentation is also imposed through the omnipresence of surveillance cameras. The cameras obliterate the distinction between the private and public spheres. Voices echo through loudspeakers, directing the routine, tedious work and exhorting workers to be happy and consume. For those who are still troubled, state-run confessional booths are available. Inside the booths, a soft, soporific male voice intones the beneficence of the state while feigning interest (the voice is pre-recorded).
THX 1138 (Robert Duvall), the titular hero and worker/drone, finds himself gradually awakening to both his individuality (his mind begins to stray from his work assembling robots) and sexual desire. LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie), his roommate/partner, playing Eve to his Adam, has secretly substituted his daily drug dose with a placebo. Sexual desire, of course, leads to sexual expression, which, in turn, leads to self-actualization. For the lovers, separation and incarceration awaits. The film contains only two other recognizable characters, the neurotic SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasance) and a three-dimensional hologram SRT (Don Pedro Colley), who helps THX 1138 escape from a white-walled, seemingly boundless prison complex.
SEN 5241, apparently (sexually) obsessed with THX 1138, engineers the separation and arrest of the lovers. THX 1138, in return, implicates SEN for abuse of power. Both men are incarcerated in vast white expanse along with other prisoners, most of them rejected by society for physical and mental defects. At first, SEN 5241 is presented as the antagonist for THX 1138, posing a threat to THX’s relationship with his roommate/partner, but Lucas instead chooses to make SEN a weak obstacle, then a minor annoyance, and finally an unreliable ally for THX. With the exception of the faceless, robot law enforcers, Lucas doesn’t add another antagonist to work against THX 1138. Instead of personifying and externalizing the conflict through an antagonist that represents the state (and its contradictions), Lucas chose to keep the conflict at an abstract level. The vague, if still menacing, forces of the state oppose THX 1138, an already schematic, underdeveloped character.
The lack of significant conflict or antagonism is part of a larger problem, the absence of a compelling or engaging storyline, with equally engaging characters and problems, at least one sustainable in a feature-length film (it’s no surprise that THX 1138 was first a student film, and then refilmed and expanded to a ninety-minute film under the auspices of Francis Ford Coppola’s production company, American Zoetrope). THX 1138 simply ends with some resolution for the main character, but to minimal satisfaction for the audience (when, per the rules of the society Lucas creates, the law enforcement budget for pursuing and capturing TXH 1138 reaches its limit). It was, to be fair, Lucas’s first film, and it was also an obvious attempt to marry art film pretensions with the concept of a science-fiction dystopia.
While THX 1138: The Director's Cut may be disappointing as narrative, the visual composition and sound design make it a compelling film on another level. Lucas took obvious care with the modernist, geometric production design that suggests the triumph of science and efficiency, the cool, dispassionate cinematography and the mis-en-scéne in his compositions. Evident too is his fetishistic obsession with technology and its myriad manifestations, from tight shots of video and sound recording mixing boards, to the numerous monitors used to spy on public and private spaces, to the line of men in protective suits, manipulating remote robot arms that will, in turn, create their own oppressors. Paradoxically, Lucas suggests that THX 1138's world contains both scarcity (the small, cramped apartments, the various shots of large crowds, the underground setting for the film) and abundance (the constant exhortations to consume resources). Aurally, Lucas and his sound designer, Walter Murch (who also co-wrote the screenplay) create a constant barrage of electronic drones and overlapping, distorted soundscapes that underline the film’s stifling, repressive atmosphere.
Given, however, that this theatrical re-release has been subtitled the “Director’s Cut,” it should come as no surprise that, in addition to the digital restoration of the film and a new sound mix (to THX specifications), Lucas has also chosen to insert numerous CGI backgrounds to “enhance” the film and, apparently, the audience’s experience of his film. Unfortunately, the CGI inserts, while credibly a part of the world depicted in the film, are still noticeable, and thus a distraction for the audience. Adding CGI enhancements to individual scenes are jarring for another reason: they simply don’t mix well with the primitive, pre-digital technology on view in the film. The final result, like the narrative, is deeply unsatisfactory. Lucas’s obsession with re-inventing the visuals of his earlier film also points to a more troubling issue: his obsession with technological innovation and spectacle has seemingly compromised and eroded (some would argue irreparably) his storytelling skills.
© Mel Valentin, 4th September, 2004
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