Monday, January 30, 2017

2017 Blind Spot Series: THX 1138


I like doing things at the last minute. That includes watching my Blind Spot movie for January. I've tried doing things earlier, but that's usually not my style. I swear I'm trying to change. Wish me luck. If you're somehow unfamiliar with The Blind Spot Challenge, it's hosted, year after year, by Ryan at The Matinee. This is my third year taking part. The first two years I didn't quite complete the challenge, getting through 8 and 9 picks, respectively. Either ashamed of my performance and wanting to prove I can do it, or I'm just a glutton for punishment. In any event, here I am, again.If you're interested in what I plan on watching this year, click here. Let's just get to this month's pick.


Why did I pick it? THX 1138 is the first feature film directed by George Lucas. To elaborate just a bit, like many people, I grew up on the Star Wars saga, having seen A New Hope as a child during its initial theater run in 1977, when it was only known as Star Wars. In fact, of the nine films that make up the cinematic wing of the franchise, yes I'm counting the animated feature, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, I've seen seven theatrically. Of course, I've seen the other two, as well. Then there is Lucas's involvement in another beloved franchise - The Indiana Jones saga. Outside of these two pop-culture giants, I hadn't seen anything he's done as a director or writer, with the exception of 2012's Red Tails. That movie wasn't as bad as people made it out to be, but still should've been much better.  I was either going to watch this, or another Lucas movie, American Graffiti. Since THX 1138 was first, I went with it. There's a good chance I'll be watching AG as a Blind Spot next year.

Another reason I wanted to watch this is because I wanted to see what type of themes Lucas explored. I wanted to see if the roots of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark were visible. Both of those franchises share a simplicity that helps them work. The individual, full of righteousness, operating within a group of individuals, fighting against tyrants who wield power unconscionably, are so good as to be above reproach. The establishment is oppressive and relentlessly pushing for a homogeneous society and aggressively punishing any who dare stand up to them. There are very few, if any, gray areas. The Stars Wars films, especially the original trilogy, go so far as to dress its heroes in white and its villain in black. This makes plenty of sense given Lucas was born as World War II was nearing its conclusion with The Allied Forces defeating Hitler, and spent many of his formative years observing, if not actively taking part in, the turbulent 1960s.

The very premise of THX 1138 evokes the sense of good and evil Lucas is known for. It's set in a dystopian future where the government has practically legislated emotion out of humanity. Each person is mandated to be on a daily regimen of a number of medications that appear to create despondency. Possibly even more cruel than that, though each adult is assigned a roommate of the opposite sex, sexual intercourse is strictly prohibited. As you might imagine, there are cameras everywhere to uphold this law. To drive home the point that citizens are merely drones to do the government's bidding, actual names are no longer in existence. Instead, each person is given a three-letter prefix followed by a four-digit number. Our main character is, of course, THX 1138 (Robert Duvall). He works in a factory that manufactures android police officers and lives with his mate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie). She works at one of the control centers, watching fellow citizens to make sure they are abiding by the rules at all times. She appears to be going through a stage of doubtfulness as it pertains to who she is in society, but can't articulate this. He has similar thoughts, but seeks to get rid of them and continue being a "productive" member of society. One night, she switches her medication for his, without his knowledge, and things go haywire. Both are trying to deal with the sudden wave of emotion in their own way, and they even do the unthinkable, engage in sex. This gets the big government machine rolling in their direction.


Aside from dealing with sex in forthright fashion, it's pretty easy to tell this is a George Lucas film. Within the framework of this story about a man quite literally waking up to the world around him, we see him turning to religion in an attempt to help him figure things out. This is very much in line with Luke Skywalker becoming a Jedi. However, THX doesn't use the force to perform amazing feats. Instead, he often goes to a confessional, of sorts. When he does he enters a booth adorned with a fifteenth century depiction of Christ and talks aloud to it. Of course, this is a government sanctioned booth, and an automated one that verbalizes canned responses to his questions. It's a pretty genius stroke showing the extensiveness of government control, as well as our inherent need for a power greater than ourselves to confide in. 

There are more ways in which the powers that be try to suppress individuality. Each person, male and female, walks around with a shaved head and wear identical clothes. All of their jobs are devoted to the maintenance of the state. When something goes wrong on one of those jobs, "Central Command" enacts a "mind lock." We can only assume children are created through artificial means. It is all rather surreal, yet oddly and unfortunately, still relevant.


Aesthetically, we also see the beginnings of many things Lucas would use "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." The easiest thing to pick out is that our hero, and all of the citizens, wears all-white while the police officers wear black. They are also identical. Uniform color notwithstanding, these are clearly the Stormtroopers of this film. The fact they are androids is, of course, something Lucas would later use as the SW is filled with them. When we see one being built, we can't help but think it looks similar to C-3PO.

Some of the faults of George Lucas are also evident. The dialogue is often a bit on the wooden side. It lacks subtlety. It's not that much of a problem here because of the way this society is set up. These are not people given to poetic language. Much of what they say is merely to state fact, not induce any feeling. Lucas lets the overall path of his story do this. That said, there are also long stretches of exposition to help fill us in on the story. In other words, he does a lot of telling rather than showing. This approach robs the film of some of its power. This became a huge issue for Lucas with the Star Wars prequels with characters going through pages and pages of drab exposition at a time. It isn't nearly that bad, here, but the issue is the same. The difference between this and the prequels is that this film, like the original Star Wars, has performers who can take his fairly simple dialogue and breathe life into it. Robert Duvall is fantastic as the eponymous THX 1138. He gives us a guy consumed with doubt who finds certainty in his realizations. He also finds courage, and never before will to survive, not just exist. As LUH 3417, Maggie McOmie is filled with just as much dubiousness before becoming both a passionate woman and a frantic mess. Donald Pleasance plays SEN 5241, a devil-on-your-shoulder type of character who harbors what feels like an unhealthy obsession with our hero. It is hinted, vaguely, that this attraction is of a sexual nature. However, what's more important that this is a person who seems to exercise the sort of free will that is explicitly frowned upon in this world. He's someone our hero never comes to like, but needs in order to understand he can be more than what the authorities want him to be. Lesser performers might have rendered this a stiff execution of an interesting concept. They elevate it nearly to its full potential as a thinking man's science fiction flick. There is almost no action, until we get to the big chase scene that makes up the film's finale. This is a trio of actor's combining with sharply contrasting visuals to take the words on the page and make them into a fully-functioning three dimensional world.

Judging THX 1138 on its own merits, one has to say it is a film that works, for the most part. The story is an intriguing one, and as I said earlier, one we can still relate to, especially in light of recent political events. It's easy to root for a guy fighting for his own humanity in the face of institutionalized oppression. With that in mind, it's interesting that the character who would serve as sort of an Obi-Wan for THX 1138, a hologram known as SRT (Don Pedro Colley), is represented as a black man. Remember, this is a 1971 film. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was only a few years earlier, and the Black Panther Party was still very much a part of the American landscape. While the feminist movement had also kicked into high gear and many of all persuasions were outspoken opponents of The Vietnam War, African-Americans were largely who most people thought of first as raging against the machine that is the United States government. Fitting then, that THX finds himself in the position of following SRT on his quest for salvation. On the downside, in spite of the terrific work turned in by the cast, and a fairly brief running time of only 95 minutes, it still drags a bit in spots. This is where the issue of telling and not showing rears its ugly head. Lucas's favoring of verbal world building over organic development leaves us wanting to see more than the film delivers. THX 1138 is a very good standalone film, and clearly a precursor to the franchise for which he has come to be known, just without light sabers.


Sadly, this is the last of the 7 links promised to Surrender to the Void as part of winning the lastest Spot the Movie Titles contest. Since I already linked their Blind Spot entry for this month...





20 comments:

  1. I haven't seen this one, I sometimes forget that Lucas didn't start with American Graffiti. This sounds interesting though, just to see how those ideas could've morphed into Star Wars.

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    1. It's an interesting flick, all by itself, but even moreso when you do use Star Wars as a frame of reference. I hope you get to check it out.

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  2. This was fascinating to read! I think I'd like to watch this to see these themes myself :)

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    1. Thanks! I think it will be easy to spot a lot of what Lucas carried on into Star Wars.

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  3. Good overview of this. I'd been meaning to watch the film for years and you choosing it spurred me to finally knuckle down and get to it.

    Not being a big sci-fi fan I didn't expect to love it and I didn't but it had many interesting elements considering what followed for Lucas. I could see the heavy shadow of Star Wars in it and the production design was solid. My main takeaway though was the performances of Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasance both of whom made the film much more compelling with their intensity and ability to focus the characters and story.

    I was surprised that for a maiden effort Lucas was able to attract such name performers, The Godfather was still a year away however Duvall was a big name supporting actor by this time, but when I looked to see what he had done previously to helming this I saw that he was a production assistant on The Rain People (a mournful, expository drama with an award level lead performance by Shirley Knight) where Duvall had a prominent role so I suppose they were familiar with each other's potential.

    I doubt that I'll watch it again but it was a well made first effort with some clever ideas.

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    1. It's a very well made first feature. Glad you mentioned the production design. It was really good and served this world perfectly.

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  4. This one is a Blind Spot for me too. Loved reading your thoughts on it. The obvious Lucas connection instantly sparks my interest but I have never felt the urgency to see it despite my curiosity. I need to fix that.

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    1. Please do. It's not the greatest film ever made, but it is pretty good. I really enjoyed it, and picking up on certain things.

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  5. I had this film in the DVR of my previous digital cable provider but alas, it's gone. I still hope to see it as it's the one film of Lucas I'm interested in. Notably as there's some sounds that were sampled by Nine Inch Nails for the song "Mr. Self Destruct" from The Downward Spiral.

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    1. Do it. I'm very curious about your thoughts on this. I had no idea about the NIN. Thanks for that info.

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    2. You're welcome. After all, when you love NIN as much as I do. You have to know these things.

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  6. I've never seen this one either, but I'm certainly interested. It's funny that you mention the run time, because for whatever reason, I've always thought this movie was one of three-hour epics. But 95 minutes short and a young Robert Duvall? Count me in.

    Great post!

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    1. It sounds like a three hour trek, but nah, it's a cool hour-and-a-half. Not just a young Robert Duvall, we're talking pre-Godfather. Thanks!

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  7. What I said: this is one of my favourite posts of yours! So interesting.

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    1. Thanks! It was an interesting film to watch.

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  8. Thanks for pointing me to this Wendell! In my piece I focused primarily on the surface comparisons to Star Wars, but your in-depth look at the themes does the movie (and the man) more justice. Good read!

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    1. Thanks for stopping by. I really appreciate it, and the compliment.

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