Sunday, February 5, 2017

THX 1138, take two

Certain movies benefit from watching them when you are at your most conscious, without having had anything to drink, being too tired, or having a fan in the living room drowning out half the dialogue.

But with some movies, it's absolutely essential.

Which is why I did something I rarely do on Saturday night, especially given my busy and ever forward-pushing viewing schedule: I rewatched the first 45 minutes of a movie I'd started on Friday night.

That movie was George Lucas' debut, THX 1138, and if you've seen it you can probably imagine why.

It's not all that difficult to grasp what's going on -- if you are fully awake and can hear everything. But I mightn't have known this, or what was going on, if I'd just plowed forward at the 45- (actually 48-) minute mark when I resumed Saturday night.

Oddly, that was also the mark where the movie goes from ominously dystopian to kind of silly. Not fully silly, but silly enough that I started to lose a bit of focus anyway.

At least this time I made it to the end.

I've been on a bit of a run of 70s sci-fi/dystopia in the past few years, having watched for the first time the likes of Silent Running, Logan's Run and Zardoz, the latter two of which didn't work for me at all. I'm glad to say THX 1138 is a lot closer in quality to Silent Running, a film Lucas actually borrowed from when he made Star Wars (though THX 1138 predates it).

So I wanted to see it for its own sake, but the birth of some of his Star Wars visuals and concepts is the reason most people probably seek it out.

And that stuff's definitely in there. The chrome robot police force is obviously a kind of proto-stormtrooper, and the kind of spare and antiseptic hallways of the building where the title character works easily preview similar locations in the Star Wars universe.

But the biggest similarity I noticed was in the sound design. The slightly mechanical "chatter" we hear between various droids on the Death Star and in the headsets of the X-wing pilots definitely had its origins in THX 1138, and the sounds the actual spaceships make as they cut through the emptiness of space are pretty much 100% developed for the car chase that occurs near the end of this first film.

Being in the company of these early Star Wars ideas likely led me to rate the movie a little more highly than I might have otherwise done, but there's still a lot to like in here. The opening half of the movie is genuinely bizarre and discomfiting, though not in the comical fashion that starts to characterize the second half when Donald Pleasance's character becomes more involved in the story. Lucas achieves some excellent framing in the way he sets up this world of sedated, hairless workers living platonically with one another. In fact, I was taken enough with this particular shot to have grabbed a photo of it:

That's Robert Duvall's title character giving a confessional to a back-lit static image of Jesus that responds to him in a soothing AI voice that is clearly not listening to the particulars of what he's saying. (A couple times it asks him rather eerily: "Can you be more ... specific?") Occurring near the start, this was one of the images that drew me in and made me certain I wanted to watch the first half again, so that possibly my only time watching this movie wouldn't be a botched one.

I do wonder, however, if I've seen a "pure" version of THX 1138.

This was George Lucas' director's cut, which may or may not be the only version available for rental these days. (I got the DVD from the library.) And though director's cuts usually leave me wary -- especially when they're from George Lucas -- it's a bit of a different story when I've never seen the original version. I later learned that the movie was polished up and some additional scenes were even filmed for this 2004 director's cut, which mostly involved expanding crowd scenes and new special effects -- though it did increase the running time by two minutes, which itself feels a little ominous. And that does explain certain things, like the fact that some of it appeared too visually sophisticated for 1971. Like I said, though, having never seen the unadulterated version, I'm okay with seeing this version. It looked good, and I guess that's what's important.

One final bit about THX 1138 was that I realized for the first time ever that my favorite album begins with a sample from it. I never had occasion to learn before last night that the persistent whipping sound of a man being beaten that opens the track "Mr. Self Destruct" on the Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral (1994) was sampled from this movie. It's a television program THX 1138 is able to select when he's at home at night (when he's not masturbating to the hologram of a gyrating naked woman, another image that I suspect was enhanced for this version). You see a prison guard kicking and beating a prisoner with increasing frequency and some barely audible yelps from the victim. I thought "Hey, that sounds familiar!" and sure enough, googling proved it to be true.

So THX 1138 is a part of my all-time favorite album. Cool.

And that's something I only picked up on by watching those first 45 minutes a second time.

I think maybe I ought to start doing these "take two"s more often.

1 comment:

Wendell Ottley said...

Just watched this for the first time, and yes, I saw Star Wars all over it. However, I did enjoy it. I agree the first half is better than the second, but it's pretty good, overall. My take...