So there’s an argument that has done the rounds since the release of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace that has only gotten stronger since Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull and Red Tails. The argument is this: George Lucas is an untalented film-maker who got lucky. According to this theory, Lucas was lucky enough during the Star Wars movies to be surrounded by other talented individuals who straightened out his over-elaborate ideas, who rewrote his scripts into something usable, who ad-libbed lines on the set, who added memorable visual flair in concept design and most strikingly directed The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi for him. The theory continues that after this, Lucas worked in the shadow of Spielberg until he was able to restart the Star Wars franchise with fewer star contributors and wrote and directed three terrible films.
Much of the argument that many hands contributed to the legendary status of the first three Star Wars films is established fact but does that in itself mean that Lucas was an untalented soul in the right place at the right time?
THX 1138 in hindsight becomes the key source on behalf of the defence. It is a good film, not a great film. Much of what is in the film is done better elsewhere and the film is largely forgotten outside of being a signpost in Lucas’ career – his first feature film for which he was both writer and director released in 1971.
Let’s discuss the film first before returning to the trial verdict on the defendant: Lucas, G.
THX is a highly recognisable story that falls snugly into the centre of the dystopian genre without challenging any of the usual tropes. An authoritarian society manipulates and spies on it’s citizens whose lives are disposable whilst a single morally strong figure fights to escape.
The plot is so simple in fact, it brought to mind the side-scrolling flash game Exit Path, which in retrospect is clearly based on the film. This game is free to play and even has a sequel at the following link:
That the plot could be the subject of a rather basic stick-man game without much trimming speaks volumes to how basic it is. Another movie which is clearly a near-remake, albeit one in the action Genre is the film Equilibrium. The comparison with Equilibrium is not complimentary as even when the plot serves as an framework for kung-fu fight sequences it still delivers much more real-world meaning and real philosophical discussion than does it’s original source material (Robert Duvall is solid, though Equilibrium’s pre-Batman Christian Bale also is more impressive coping with acting as someone whose drugged-out emotions are jaggedly returning).
The plot is jarringly simple and padded out with material that doesn’t make much sense. The entirety of Donald Pleasance’s character could be removed without effect. The same could be said of the hologram character. THX’s partner LUH is introduced and killed with such little screen time, we barely even know who she is. Several plot elements make no sense at all. For example, escape from the prison is meaninglessly easy and keeping the prisoners together rather than in separate cells makes no sense either. The car chase at the end (in fact the entire chase sequence) feels tacked on and meaningless. In fact, the whole end of the movie is meaningless, an open ending which crashes to the ground unsupported by any kind of earned pathos to warrant it. Worse, some of the film’s plot themes (a religious figurehead leader for example) are almost completely unexplored.
So the plot is weak and threadbare? Yes, but that really doesn’t explain why THX 1138 is actually a good film. The film succeeds much more in feel and tone than in factual or linear storytelling.
Dystopias can usually be quite fun in some ways – for example Orwell’s London is at least a bustling and lively place, if fetid and paranoid. Not so the city of THX which is thoroughly unrelentingly dull. Through showing such a dull, stable and sterile environment somehow strikes home the horror of the dystopia far better than ruins ever could. The sets are designed to be clean and well kept but never showing anything artful, or in any way attractive if even in a minimalist way. Looking at THX’s city is like looking at a giant plug socket – purely functional, a place where no feeling human should find their finger.
The slow moving pace of the first two thirds contributes to the environment and also feeds in to one of the most unique points about the film. Countless films have been made about the struggle of a flesh and blood man living in a machine-designed world. Such films (like 2001 and Moon) often focused on the struggle that would exist when men and machines have to communicate and interface, especially when the machine seems to be the superior partner. THX hits on a much more worrying theme, which is to say that in Lucas’s city, the people are the machines. Men and women have been converted into units that do nothing apart from do their jobs and keep themselves healthy enough to do their jobs. The functions they do at their jobs are governed not by free choice but by the city’s “economics” – a cheese-nightmare after reading late a Game Theory text by John Von Neumann. The economic forces hang over the city as the true antagonist and in a sinister way argue against THX’s death penalty at his trial if only because the “religious” argument that he has sinned should not be more important than the cost of replacing him. Here, men and women are numbered and robotised; their moods and activity levels centrally controlled by a cocktail of different drug levels. The drugs taken here seem more sinister than in equilibrium in that that they do not seem to merely drain emotion but leave the man but seem actually to effect a kind of day to day mind control and also a kind of dependence (as without the drugs THX is physically sick and mentally incapable of the calmness required doing his factory job). The film shows that the central authorities can even at times control people’s bodies at a distance – they are fully robotised. This is the robot as zombie. We are not afraid of them so much as we are afraid of becoming them.
The actual robots in the film are the city’s law enforcement (no other robots are shown, manual labour seems to be a purely human activity). They are portrayed marvellously. They have no problem interacting with humans – they merely do whatever they want and whatever is needed whilst maintaining at all times a pleading, nice, parental manner. The same robots who are shown beating a man to death would lend their billy club to an interested child and whilst talking THX down from his escape claim again and again that they just want to help him. The robots are perhaps the best single creation in the film because their “niceness” is at once so sinister and at the same time so believable. How can you really hate an enemy that is merely programmed to obey functions, when it’s words are so nice and when it seems really to believe it is doing the right thing? They seem so damn reasonable to the point where when one of the human prisoners destroys a robot guard, it is the human that seems deranged and murderous, not the robots who come to take that man away presumably for execution (“re-consumption”). Another seen shows their chrome-faced merciless marches after an escapee in a way that might have caused a glint in James Cameron’s eye prior to the Terminator.
There are numerous other successful elements – THX is taken from his box room to a prison somewhere inside the city which seems to be a white room that stretches to the horizon and suddenly flips claustrophobia to agoraphobia. Another scene shows one of the escapees move through a door only to be swept up powerlessly in a crowd of commuters – consumed away like Harry Tuttle in Brazil.
So the film has a turgid plot but is memorable for touches of brilliance based on tone and feel. As I said, it’s good but it’s not great. Certainly it seems influential, though obviously almost every element is inspired by prior entries in the dystopia genre.
Is there any point in watching it unless you love dystopias or want to scrutinise George Lucas? No, not at all.
So let’s return to the man in question.
The idea that Lucas was an untalented film maker seems to wilt under the searchlight of THX 1138. The tone and vision of the movie is far too inspired for that. You may feel that you are watching a rather incomplete and unsuccessful film but you never feel that you are in the hands of anyone except an exciting film maker. Plot holes can be ironed out by piece-workers but tone is much harder to inject if the director does not have a good sense of it.
More than this, the film is shot in an excellent style. Close ups and frames which do not quite fully encapsulate all the action give a sense of claustrophobia when the film needs it most, before stepping back for the vista of the prison sequence. During the chase, the camera seems to glimpse the escapees in and around the places in which they are hiding. The locations (a bunch of malls and industrial complexes from the look of it) are excellently established and are believable as the underground city. What I am trying to say is that the George Lucas of Phantom Menace who set every shot up flat with people standing or sitting next to each other before mechanistically switching to shot-reverse shot is not present. The Lucas of Phantom Menace is nowhere to be seen and seems like the sort of automaton director THX’s city would produce, not something in the real world.
I watched a re-cut version with additional scenes and some CGI effects added. These are generally minimal but they are sometimes poorly added in, stuck between story scenes and adding nothing. In this sense, perhaps they are a sign of things to come. In any case, the best scene from a Lucas perspective is a tremendous motorcycle crash stunt with a real stunt man, not a horrid looking green-screen dummy.
So how does Lucas emerge from this back catalogue. Certainly someone who could not plot a movie to save his life and certainly not a boy genius. However, he undoubtedly was a brilliant and enthusiastic film making talent and to rob him of the credit for the splendour and success of the Star Wars trilogy is a crime. I cannot paint him as a talentless but lucky fool (a Hudsucker Proxy if you will). Perhaps though the alternative is more horrifying. Lucas WAS a talented film maker but his over-reliance on complex background universe details and green-screen effects with a decreasing focus on actors, plot or character meant that his talent slipped away from him. Green screen murdered his talent and made it disappear into the background. He gained weight and became lazy, shooting every dialogue scene as if it was a chore, which it was because he started to write dreadful dialogue which advanced the story without ever being real to the plot or characters. He started to direct his films in a cozy warm studio, lazily shooting every scene flatly as if it was a sofa scene in a sitcom. What happened to the George Lucas who shot the scene in the supercomputer room or the crash in the tunnel? He was re-consumed into the collective and his identification number was re-assigned to a baby in a glass jar (will probably make more sense if you watch THX, which I do not advise you to do).
Did you think I was going to be nice to George after positively reviewing his film?
Jar jar binks.
Never forget. Never forgive.