Written & Directed by George Lucas, produced by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Robert Duvall, Maggie McOmie, Donald Pleasance, and Sid Haig.
In a bizarre future, the last remnants of humanity survive in a subterranean city. To keep the population from exceeding the limits of the city, everyone takes a regimen of drugs to control their thoughts and emotions. Keep the people doped up and thinking they’re happy and they’ll keep working rather than making more babies than resources can provide for. Wouldn’t ya know it, THX (Duvall) goes off his meds, and experiences love and sex for the first time in his life. In doing so be becomes a fugitive from an army of RoboCops.
An expansion of Lucas’s thesis film, THX-1138 was the first feature made under Coppola’s American Zoetrope banner. Coppola and Lucas created Zoetrope to counter the corporate take-over of the studio system. They made THX-1138 to counter what they saw as an impending and dehumanizing commercialization of society.
It’ll finish Wednesday.
AFTER THOUGHT from 8.22.2011
The Cold War provided no shortage of post apocalyptic survival movies, from Robert Altman’s beguiling QUINTET to George Miller’s visceral MAD MAX trilogy, with a legion of forgettable exploitation movies in between. H.G. Welles’ screen adaptation of his novel THINGS TO COME remind us that tales of who would survive, and how survival would look, have been around nearly as long as the movies themselves. Modern audiences regard the epic scale modest proposal of LOGAN’S RUN as seminal. How closely these films mirror reality, when the future in which the film is set comes to pass, often becomes a chief barometer of their quality. I hesitate to support this theory since we tend to focus on minutiae rather than the soul of a story: Atari may be long gone, and I doubt we’ll have flying police cars by the end of the decade, but these minor points don’t make BLADE RUNNER any less impressive.
We are certainly not living in the underground maze in which THX-1138 is set. We are also, as recent bedbug infestations and E.coli food recalls illustrate, not living in the antiseptic environment Lucas imagined. This film is prescient however, in areas pertaining less to production design, and more to Lucas’ aspiration to examine the steady homogenizing of our existence. THX-1138 has more to say about language, how we will interact with each other and how we will see ourselves, than the vast majority of speculative fiction films. I don’t mean we are there yet, but we are on our way.
BRAVE NEW WORLD introduced us to SOMA in 1932 and the Rolling Stones outed Mother and her Little Helper in ’66. THX-1138 foresaw widespread use of stimulants and sedatives, fertility drugs and chemical castration, and anti-depressants. Lucas also imagined a society where criminal prosecution is used to enforce a drug regimen. We may be heading in that direction when paroles and probation have hinged on citizens being court ordered to accept prescriptions. Sometimes we say this practice is necessary. Sometimes we hear about drug recalls when unexpected complications arise. Daily we see drugs advertized with side effects that sound as bad or worse than the ailment which they are marketed to cure. A handful of multinational conglomerates make money faster than we can print it by selling us drugs designed to help us achieve some elusive zone of normalcy. We have not only stepped knee deep in the dehumanizing commercialization of society we are co-paying for the privilege.
The inhabitants of this particular city are know by a sequence of letters and numbers rather than traditional names. Robert Duvall is THX 1138, his lover is LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie), and LUH’s coworker is SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasance). For years I accepted fan speculation that these designations were an extension of the numbers tattooed in Nazi concentration camps. Co-writer Walter Murch has suggested that THX was chosen for is resemblance to “sex,” SEN to “sin,” and of course LUH to “love.” Lucas offers an even more mundane interpretation: THX-1138 was his phone number.
Over the last generation we have seen varying phenomena relating to names echoing those in THX-1138. The music world has given us KRS-One, O(+> and J-Lo. Supermarket tabloids attempt to make conventional names similarly unusual: K-fed, Brangelina, Bennifer. (Why is the guy’s name always first? JenniBen has a ring to it!) I didn’t pay this much mind until news reporters got into the act. Pundits hoping to appear the least bit hip will now refer to The President and the First Lady as POTUS and FLOTUS. For years the terrorist with the dialysis issues has been known simply by his last name but recently he has become OBL. If I mentioned bin Laden you would have no doubt who I am talking about; OBL sounds like a large tampon or an airport code. The final straw for me was the recent hotel sex scandal involving DSK, a French financier whose born name is far less known than POTUS or OBL. Ask someone in the street six months ago who Dominique Gaston André Strauss-Kahn was and a significant percentage would probably guess he’s a guest judge on PROJECT: RUNWAY. We’ve gone beyond hip to flat out laziness.
THX-1138 saw all of this coming, not only the manipulation of identity via the maximization of controlled moods and the minimization of our names, but even the reclassification of where we live. In the film we hear that THX works in “operating cell 94107” which is coincidentally the zip code of Zoetrope’s offices during production. People around the world recognize the zip code 90210 and the area code 212. We can identify where in our neighborhood, city or nation we live by a hand signal of three fingers representing a single letter. We live in a world that has seen borders fall by the power of LAN, 386, 486, 2.0, DSL, 3G and 4G all as fewer and fewer of us actually like to read. THX-1138 saw this all coming as far back as when IBM became HAL.