Wednesday, 28 July 2010
Monday, 26 July 2010
George Lucas, 1971, US
It does feel as if two quite different directors helmed “THX 1138” and “Star Wars”. Not so much that you can’t see where the Stormtroopers, comedy robots, gadgets, slightly detached and simplistic characterisations and the limited colour and hardware palette came from; but it is different enough that “THX 1138” feels like the work of a low-budget, b-movie arthouse auteur rather than inventor of the modern blockbuster franchise cinema. “THX 1138” looks made by a cult director who would go the other way and create further formally experimental genre pieces, rather than the great sweeps and crowd-pleasing pulp sentiment and action of Luke Skywalker versus Darth Vadar. There's even the hint of chill that defines David Cronenberg's earliest works. “THX 1138” also bears the kind of clinical, slightly visionary Dystopian qualities that can then be found in seminal science-fiction literature such as “We” and “Brave New World”, and films such as “The Andromeda Strain” and “The Forbin Project” through to “Code46” and “Eden Log”. With its eerie and disturbing future conceit, with brilliant design and a slightly abstract presentation, "THX 1138" has the appearance of mature, ‘hard’ sci-fi rather than pulp, although it is ultimately as much pulp as, say, “Logan’s Run” and “Planet of the Apes” and the like. Indeed, Lucas opens with a homage to early “Buck Rogers” films before introducing us to his Dystopia, as if to directly say: ‘we started with the passionate adventures of pulp, and we ended up with this.'
It takes a moment for us to even identify whom we shall be following. We are thrown into this world instantaneously by the means of distorted, overlapping dialogue tracks, mostly jargon relating to work; by surveillance and observation camera shots, as well as a gallery of shaven-headed monitors, workers and random civilians whom we can’t particularly distinguish. Walter Murch’s fantastic sound-design demands to be taken seriously as both a character in its own right and as the film’s true triumph: it is omnipresent, simultaneously disorientating and informative, verging on white noise. Lucas is bold in using an almost Brechtian use of disorientating sound track, clone-like appearance of actors, filtering events through other cameras. He is not an artful director - it's like plane prose telling a dense story - but he knows how to frame a shot and not get in the way.
One of the best early shots is that of the surveillance camera view of an accident at a plant in which explosions wipe out several running staff… the figures are distant, unclear, a little pixellated and distorted on screen, and this makes it all the more chilling and real somehow. Watch for the worker who shoves his colleague back into the danger area, shutting the door on him, only to be blown away himself: it is an action shot that achieves verisimilitude and extra horror, rather than thrills, by being viewed one step removed by the audience, via a screen within the screen they are watching.
Best of all, rather than a lot of exposition, or myth-making, Lucas conveys the details of this world through visuals and audio. It is a familiar Dystopian narrative - hapless THX 1138 is the rebel against an oppressed, desensitised society when his house mate LUH messes with his compulsory drug intake and they have forbidden sex - but it is made more abstract and fascinating by being interrupted by tiny interludes and to the incidental workings of the society around our bewildered protagonists. People watch a sports match. A police robot amuses a bunch of kids. People work, walk, step into booths where they make confessions to a Jesus-like picture… which are recorded and monitored, or simply stored away with millions of other confessions (a neat conflation of Catholicism and Big Brother). Even towards the end, Lucas pauses to introduce more details that flesh out the society: Donald Pleasance - as SEN - reminisces with some kids about how when he was a kid, education came in huge bottles rather than the mini-intravenous bottles the children have taped to their arms as they play. This is one of the film’s most successful visual achievements: we see the children as the appear at the top of an escalator, the “lessons” intravenously fed into their arms, conjuring up the image of hospital patients on a conveyer belt, churned out into society. The culmative effect of this visual and aural collage, as Chris Basanti says, is of 'a fractured tone poem".
 John Brosnan, "The Primal Screen: a history of science fiction film", (Orbit, Lonodn, 1991), pg. 156