Wednesday, January 8, 2020

THX 1138 Kicked Off The Directorial Career of George Lucas With A Dark Future

In his time as a filmmaker, George Lucas has directed six feature films. Two-thirds of those are Star Wars movies, the franchise everybody associates him with. George Lucas is as directly connected to that galaxy far, far away as Walt Disney was to Mickey Mouse or Charlie Chaplin was to The Tramp. However, Lucas did manage to direct other films (two in fact!) beyond just ones set in the Star Wars saga. One of these was the 1973 box office smash American Graffiti, a feature following a group of 1950s teenagers over the course of one rowdy night. Aside from being a throwback to pop culture Lucas grew up on, it doesn't bear much resemblance to the cosmic adventures Lucas would become famous for.

The other non-Star Wars George Lucas directorial effort was THX 1138, the first-ever foray into science-fiction for the iconic director. Whereas Star Wars explored that genre through a sense of whimsical adventure, THX 1138 uses science-fiction for a grim story that feels more like a precursor to Blade Runner than A New Hope. This somber tale concerns the titular lead character of THX 1138 (Robert Duvall), a man who exists in a cold sterile futuristic society. People are forced to take pills that make them agreeable to their overlords, robotic police officers instill a hostile sense of law & order and everybody's got the same outfits and physical appearance.

There's little in the way of variety and the people running this society like to keep it that way. When somebody steps out of line by refusing to blindly comply, they'll take care of that quick by removing that person from society entirely. Such a fate befalls THX 1138 and his roommate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie). The two of them were already going to be in hot water since they engaged in the forbidden act of sexual intercourse, but now that THX 1138 had a brain malfunction that almost caused a catastrophe at his job, well, there's extra hell to pay. Now isolated from society and each, the movie THX 1138 centers the second-half of its story on its lead character trying to escape from his prison and reunite with LUH, the only person who makes him feel human in a world devoid of humanity.

What's most interesting about THX 1138 is to see George Lucas so explicitly deal with sex, religion and other adult subjects as a filmmaker. Lucas has spent much of his career doing PG-rated fare that usually doesn't even acknowledge the existence of such subjects. It proves to be fascinating to watch THX 1138 and see him grapple with these adult elements, as well as a bleak tone, that hasn't really emerged in the remainder of his feature-film works. Not all of Lucas' probing of these hefty topics is perfect in execution of course, with some of the problems stemming from how LUH 3417 doesn't get to become a fully-formed character on her own merits.

However, what adult material that does work best tends to come from the grim aesthetic stemming from the sterile land THX inhabits. Lucas creates a society that puts on a happy grin while kicking people in their teeth. This is reflected through chilling elements like robotic police officers with soft voices but firm grips or powerful authority figures who feel money is more important than human life. While THX 1138 is far from the only movie to render a dystopian futuristic world that just makes the fact that it's able to make its own domain so memorable all the more impressive. Such distinctiveness is achieved when you create such striking scenes like the one where THX is stuck in a prison consisting of an endless white void.

That prison set is one that truly impresses and leads the mind to be staggered with contemplating how it was accomplished through practical effects circa. 1971. On the other hand, the version of the film I viewed was one with CGI effects added in by George Lucas at the dawn of the 21st-century and they stick out like a sore thumb in the film itself. So much care has been used to create a haunting dehumanized world in THX 1138 and then these sloppy computer-generated effects keep undercutting that effect. The presence of such VFX, as well as some themes it tackles exceeding the grasp of writer/director George Lucas, makes THX 1138 an imperfect movie to be certain. But it's equally certain that its also a fascinating movie to contemplate, particularly in regards to it being the darkest entry in George Lucas' usually sunny filmography.

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