Friday, February 18, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: THX-1138 (1971)


George Lucas remains both the God and Devil of sci-fi film enthusiasts.  A God, because he gave the world Star Wars in 1977, and in the process changed both science fiction movies and Hollywood film making forever. 

A Devil -- at least according to some -- because Lucas also transformed his Star Wars empire into a merchandising platform and then made prequels that quite a few critics don't believe measure up to his original vision for the franchise. 

Also, Lucas has endlessly and fruitlessly tinkered with the Original Trilogy (see: Greedo shoots first, or CGI Jabba in the Star Wars special edition).

Intriguingly, the recent Blu-Ray release of THX-1138 "The Director's Cut" (first released on DVD in 2004) provides ample ammunition for anyone seeking to pigeonhole the controversial Lucas as either a cinematic deity or film demon. 

What this means in simple terms is that THX-1138 is still a staggering and beautiful vision -- a film experience unlike any other -- but that it has been unnecessarily compromised by the obsessive tinkering of latter-day Lucas.  

So the once austere, low-budget, and wholly impressive THX-1138 now bizarrely features CGI critters, CGI landscapes, and other digital flourishes that not only seem unnecessary; but actually detract from the movie's abundant raw power and sense of unfettered ingenuity.  A film that Lucas once described as a critique of "unbridled consumer culture" is now merely a product itself, seeking a slice of the market with the very latest in digital wizardry.

I don't like that one whit, and Lucas's continued insistence on trying to paint away the decades in his films-- the cinematic equivalent of the Peter Pan Syndrome -- makes ignoring these changes virtually impossible. 

So THX-1138 is a great science fiction film that, in my opinion, has been compromised by its own creator in its latest incarnation.

But don't let that stop you from seeing THX-1138 even in this new, bastardized form.  The original film thoroughly deserves the descriptor "classic," and if you enjoy post-apocalyptic and Orwellian science fiction, Lucas's vision still retains much of its power.  

Just look away when the CGI monsters start showing up...

"Our relationship is normal and conforming."

THX-1138 is the story of a very unhappy future.  Man has moved underground to a vast, overpopulated metropolis, and is under the thrall of not Big Government, but Biggest Government. 

This government keeps the populace on drugs at all time. To be sober and drug free in this world  is a crime called "criminal drug evasion."

The State also keeps tabs on its citizenry with video surveillance monitors, knowing everyone's location and activity at every moment.  There are even cameras mounted behind bathroom medicine cabinets.  

In this future world, the differences between men and women are also intentionally minimized by the State...a unique speculation on where "political correctness" could lead if legislated enthusiastically and allowed to run amok.  In the world of THX-1138, unisex hair-cuts and wardrobes mask all gender differences so that the people can concentrate only on work and "produce" goods.     Sex, or even sexual attraction are distractions from production. 

In terms of work, citizens toil in robot-making factories and at other mundane tasks seemingly around the clock.  And they are entertained at home by strange, pornographic holograms produced by "The Fantasy Bureau."  Their sexual needs are fulfilled individually, by what can only be described as masturbation automatons

Additionally, the citizenry are constantly encouraged to shop in their spare time.   One of the Government's mantras is "Buy more and be happy." 

In this world, the Government has actually replaced God too, and workers confess their sins to Big Brother in the attractive, artistically-rendered personal confessional booths dotting the city. 

"Blessing of the State," are offered by  this personal confessional kiosk...but just don't expect any privacy.  Every word, every idea is closely monitored.  All answers and advice from the State comes in the form of canned, off-the-shelf platitudes.

One day, a female worker in this dystopia, LUH-3417 (Maggie McOmie) goes off her meds and realizes that she is in love with her roommate, THX-1138 (Duvall). She take steps to get him off his meds too, and THX-1138 eventually reciprocates the powerful emotions.  The duo begins a sexual relationship, but sexual relations are strictly forbidden by the state....which is controlling the population levels, a la Z.P.G

In this world, you can't even choose a roommate, let alone whom you might want to love.

When the State grows aware of LUH and THX's personal rebellion, LUH is replaced at home by SEN-5421 (Donald Pleasence), and THX grows angry, wanting to know what has become of LUH.  He is then imprisoned in a vast white holding cell -- one with seemingly no walls.  There he sees LUH again, and she claims she is carrying his child.   

Finally, THX escapes and attempts to flee the city after he learns of LUH's death  In close pursuit are the ubiquitous, faceless police robots that keep the citizenry in line and patrol the streets.

In the end, THX-1138 does escape to the surface, not because of his own resourcefulness, necessarily, but because continuing the pursuit would cost the government too much money. 

 "Remember, thrifty thinkers are always under budget..."

"If you have a problem, don't hesitate to ask for assistance."

When I reviewed Walkabout (1971) here earlier in the week, I discussed the idea that the landscape of the Australian Outback was actually a character in the film, as well as a setting for the drama. 

THX-1138 remains impressive because George Lucas nails the same vibe here, but in a totally fictional world, one which he impressively constructed on a budget of only $700,000 dollars. Again, this is something of an amazing feat.  Here, every single component of a future world had to be constructed, from corridors to costumes to props, and the seams rarely, if ever, show.  He also makes excellent use of existing locations to give the film the necessary sense of scope.

Lucas embodies the world of the future, the world of The State, using a  potent combination of good editing, excellent camera work, insert shots and also alien-sounding jargon or dialogue. In conjunction, these facets of the film's presentation render it an almost overwhelming sensory experience.  This mechanized, impersonal world never feels faked or phony.  It is a believable in a most disturbing fashion.  In some ways, THX-1138 is very much a mood movie.  The overall impression of visiting this grim future world is as powerful (or more so..) than the character interaction or specific details of the narrative.

Most interestingly, Lucas non-conventionally and routinely breaks up the frame space of his characters by focusing obsessively on close-ups of computer print-outs, insert shots of sine-waves, and minimalist sets.  All of these high-tech shots enhance the impression of a world that has lost touch with nature; with Mother Nature herself, and human nature too.   It's a fascinating approach.  As we seek to identify more and more with THX-1138, that quest is often stymied -- intentionally -- by insert shots of technological gobbledygook, by shots of numbers, or read-outs, or electrical impulses coruscating on screens.

And the dialogue is a stew of futuristic nonsense, unintelligible and deliberately inhuman.  "Don't use the 714," "Wait for 32," "Skip the 1114," "See Index 24-941," and so on.  The obvious conclusion -- enhanced by the ubiquitous presence of robot police enforcers -- is that machines have overtaken this world, and human nature is being snuffed out by drugs, by conformity, by the tyranny of technology itself.

Ironically, Lucas makes this tyranny rather beautiful by the use of holograms, sine-waves, surveillance camera footage and close-ups of read-outs.  The only thing I can compare his approach to here is Robert Wise's use of similar high-tech imagery in The Andromeda Strain (1971).  In both cases, an artist's eye is applied to the machine world, and a strange sense of non-human beauty is fostered.  

THX-1138 also visually transmits the ideas of humans as being unimportant in their own world by applying a consistent white-on-white color palette.  Only the black robots and the flesh of bald human heads stand out from the washed-out, immaculate, computer-perfect background. 

This is one reason why I object so much to Lucas's twenty-first century revisionism.  In the new version of the film he layers on lush coloring (particularly gold) and this diminishes the movie's visual transmission of his theme: that humans have become background noise in their own culture.

One of THX-1138's most beautiful and emotional scenes -- the sex scene between THX And LUH -- reverses this approach, and for the right reason.  Here, shades of human flesh dominate and Lucas provides beautiful, extreme close-ups of passionate, remarkable human faces (and also bodies) intermingling. 

This heightened, human moment represents the very antithesis of the world largely portrayed in the film, and so it's right -- and clever - that Lucas reverses techniques to depict the love scene.  It becomes infinitely more powerful this way, almost epic as a rebellious statement against society's rules and regulations.  Again, I must point out that this selection of technique is that of an artist who understands the frame, and power of film in a potent way.

There's some beautiful paranoia in THX-1138, and it contributes a suffocating tension that drives the film.  Individual rights have been taken away to such a degree by this overbearing Big Government that a beautiful woman, LUH, is replaced by a man, SEN, as a roommate, and Duvall's character is supposed to have no feelings about that. 

Although homosexuality is never broached explicitly in the film, Pleasence's effete performance adds another layer of interest to the proceedings.  SEN seems as obsessed with THX as LUH was, and we aren't sure that sex isn't on his mind, either.  The message isn't anti-gay, to be sure, but anti-freedom, or anti-individual.  In this world, you can't choose who you co-habitate with; and the government could just as well hook you up with a man as a woman, and expect you to quietly conform.

THX-1138 is also clever in the fashion that the screenplay stresses how the surface appearance of individuality actually reduces the overall sense of human connection in the future metropolis.  Here, there are no churches where communities can gather to listen to sermons or lift collective voice in hymns.  The confessional kiosks, pointedly called "unichapels," determinedly seat only one; meaning that the communal aspects of spirituality have been deleted from the culture.  

It's very much the same story with sex in the film.  By offering pornographic home holograms and masturbation robots, the State has also made sex a single-serving, one-person activity.  Again, what's lost in this but essential human connection; the intimate link with another being.

The mantra about shopping -- about conspicuous consumption (buy and be happy) -- also makes the citizenry focus on self; not community.  What do I want to buy today?  What would please me?  The most important thought isn't  "how can I make the world better," but how can I make my life better.

There also appear to be no families in the film. The Government has thus removed community and human ties to such a degree that the individual has only one meaningful connection in his or her life: to the goods-selling, religion-spouting, sex-providing State.

Visually, THX-1138 is undeniably stunning.  Late in the film, Lucas imagines a prison with no walls.  It is just an endless vision of white...nothing.  This is a canny image that again undercuts convention and buttresses the movie's theme.  If a person is trapped in a jail cell with walls and bars, he knows that there is an outside; an escape.  If a person is trapped in a jail cell that seems infinite -- with no end and no beginning -- there is no hope of escape; no possibility of a way out.  In microcosm, the prison thus symbolizes the State: it is so all-encompassing in the lives of its citizenry that nothing else is visible.  There is no hope on the horizon.  There is nothing.

Stylistically, then, THX-1138 is a dazzling film  experiment.  Even if the narrative resembles, in some way, Orwell's 1984, Lucas's visualization of this dystopia grants the material a unique aura.  This really is a one-of-a-kind sort of science fiction movie, and one that continues to have resonance today. 

For instance, we have been told explicitly by our own government to go out and shop (after 9/11).  Our government has just re-authorized the Patriot Act, which allows the government expansive powers of surveillance without judicial oversight.  And in an attempt to reduce discrimination (always a good cause...), we have often been told that men and women are exactly the same, and THX-1138 reveals the logical end point of that belief: sex differences are hidden, and made unrecognizable in public so no prejudice can exist.

Even the idea of a society wacked out on drugs isn't so far off either, since we have been called a "Prozac Nation," from time to time.  Our society's way of dealing with unruly children is also to prescribe behavior modification drugs like Ritalin.  Again, THX-1138 spells out a future where such trends continue...and overwhelm us. 

Today, there is wide ranging discussion, debate and anger about what constitutes a "Nanny State" and how much government is too much government.  That idea too, is broached in George Lucas's first feature.


"Consumption is being standardized"

Given the immediately apparent strengths of THX-1138, it is bizarre how the Director's Cut undercuts them. In the original THX-1138, the film's trod-upon hero, THX (Robert Duvall) escapes from a totalitarian society in the last act, and in the super structure of his future megapolis encounters a rat.

In the Director's cut, he encounters a CGI scorpion instead.

In the original THX-1138, THX also runs into some some strange surface dwellers while attempting to escape captivity.

Today, those raggedy men have been transformed into hairy humanoid creatures who resemble the Lycanthropes from the Underworld film series.

The film's climactic chase scene has also been touched up with digital fx work to make it appear more modern, pacey and spectacular; and there also are plenty of new "vistas" of the underground city that would not have been possible to forge in the early 1970s.  Digital people have been inserted to make the world seem more populated than before.

It's as if, for some reason, George Lucas is obsessed with one-upping Logan's Run (1976).

But here is the real problem: These special effects "upgrades"  simply make THX-1138 neither fish nor fowl. Those who would find THX-1138 a fascinating enterprise are not in it for the monsters or creatures; not in it for the chases or special effects. And those looking explicitly for such superficial qualities won't have the patience for the rest of the film anyway, which is a thoughtful meditation on freedom and love, not a fantasy cartoon set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

I unhappily write this denunciation as an ardent Lucas fan and frequent defender, and also a longtime admirer of THX-1138, as I hope you can see that from this review.  I still believe the director's freshman film is something of a masterpiece, a great dystopian film from the age of great dystopian films (Soylent Green, The Omega Man, ZPG, Zardoz, Death Race 2000, Logan's Run, etc.)

But I also submit there was no need to update THX-1138 in this fashion, and indeed, to do so violates the text of the film in some crucial way.  The new cut is re-packaged in a way that the film's Big Brother would heartily approve of; making the sublime obvious and unnecessarily removing the austerity of the piece.  Our imagination once did the heavy lifting in THX-1138, augmented by a director's powerful artistic choices; now it's just ILM flexing its imaginative chops.

Another inescapable fact: this is a vision of the future as imagined in the early 1970s. THX-1138 is a product of that time, down to every last decision Lucas made in terms of editing, wardrobe, camera movement, sound effects etc.   Why, Lucas even calls it in the special features, a "parable of the year 1971" and careful listeners may recognize President Nixon's speeches informing some of the dialogue.  That's the context, of the picture according to the director himself.

So to insert  a rich and warm golden filter over several sequences of THX on his job at the assembly line, for instance, or to expand beyond the restrictive sets for expansive digital vistas, only muddies the thematic waters. Lucas can add new special effects till he is blue in the face, and this will still be a film he made in 1971.

Why? You can't untangle a film from its creation, from its historical context, no matter how hard you try. All you're doing is re-vamping it with the latest fad. This isn't artistry. This is some kind of need to have your work perceived as "current" or "contemporary." In ten years, THX-1138 will require another special effects paint-job, if all you care about are special effects.

Or more simply put, what was so wrong with the 1971 rat?

Why is a CGI scorpion better?

All of this is four-decades-later tinkering is immensely troubling, and THX-1138 "The Director's Cut" is a textbook example of how Lucas's latter-day choices actually cloud and compromise his prodigious, natural skills as a filmmaker.

So to put the matter succinctly, I remain incredibly impressed with what Lucas imagined and delivered on a limited budget in 1971.

But the 2004 version?  It's an unnecessary revision of a great work of art. 

Somewhere, in the glittering gold spanking new special effects of THX-1138, you can almost hear a little voice -- perhaps that of Lucas himself -- urging us "Buy more now.  Buy and be happy..."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Walkabout (1971)


Before director Nicolas Roeg gave the world one of the finest and most disturbing horror films ever made, Don't Look Now, in 1973, he crafted an equally brilliant but very different film set in the Australian Outback, 1971's Walkabout.  

Based loosely on a 1959 adventure novel by James Vance Marshall, Walkabout amply displays the director's unfettered, prodigious talent for crafting symbolic visuals. Roeg's considerable efforts here remind the engaged viewer that film -- in the final analysis -- is truly a visual art form. 

To wit, Walkabout is a film consisting of very little dialogue, and the shooting script was reportedly just fourteen pages long.  And yet there isn't a moment of "emptiness" to be found anywhere in Walkabout.  Rather, through the repeating motif of cross-cuts, director Roeg encourages audiences to consider a story about innocence, and perhaps more specifically, the death of innocence.

With the Outback serving as both a backdrop and character in the film's narrative, and by marshaling a voice-over poem at just the right moment (from Alfred Edward Housman's 1896 work "A Shropshire Lad,") Roeg crafts an immensely emotional film; one that will deeply affect you for days after a screening.  This is even more the case now, since Roeg's director's cut is featured on the blu ray edition rather than the original theatrical release (which trimmed much of the film's full frontal nudity).

When Walkabout was released in 1971, Roger Ebert awarded the film four stars but sheepishly discouraged reading too much into the film's overwhelming symbolism.   Other critics have generally been more willing to engage the film on its own terms.  Writing in The San Francisco Chronicle, critic Edward Guthmann (in 1997) wrote that Walkabout is a "a film that's part anthem to the primitive world and part rebuke to the dull, overinsulated selfishness of contemporary man." 


Dominated by dazzling photography, gorgeous images and a lush John Barry score, Walkabout ably serves up a side-by-side comparison between disparate worlds: city life in modern Adelaide (though it looks like Sydney) and the wild, untamed life of the Outback. 

Unexpectedly, the crueler, more savage  and difficult world, according to the film, is that of the modern and "civilized" man. In the desert, at least, you can understand your enemies.


"I don't suppose it matters which way we go..."

In Walkabout, a teenage girl (Jenny Agutter) and her pre-adolescent brother (Lucien John) are transported out into the desert by their emotionally-distant father, a "structural geologist."  While the girl prepares a picnic in the desert and the boy plays with a toy airplane, the father -- seen rifling through work papers -- unexpectedly snaps.  Taking out a gun, he begins shooting at his own children.

The girl and the boy escape the surprising homicide attempt, and only the girl witnesses her father kill himself.  While their Volkswagen burns in the desert, the forsaken girl and boy begin a long, lonely trek through the desert, hoping to find their way home. 

This 1970s equivalent of Hansel & Gretel, the boy and girl, walk for days until coming upon a miraculous oasis: a small pond and a fruit-bearing tree.  After a few days, however, they have used it  all up and the slice of paradise becomes a haven for serpents; for snakes.

Soon, the girl and boy encounter an Aborigine teenager (David Gulpilil) on a "walkabout," a rite of passage in which young men trace the heritage of their ancestors on the land. 

This kindly Aborigine leads the boy and girl through the desert safely, provides for their survival needs (by kangaroo hunting and fishing...) and teaches them his ways.  The white boy even picks up his language.  After a time, these three youngsters cohere like a true family, and the Aborigine develops an unspoken -- and forbidden -- romantic love for the girl.

After some time in the desert, the Aborigine young man gets the lost youngsters to an abandoned farm, another safe haven for this "family" to play house. But when the lovestruck Aborigine launches into a courtship dance before the English girl, she coolly and silently rejects him. 

The next day, the girl and the boy find out exactly what that rejection has meant to their generous friend, and then head on...down the road, in hopes of returning to civilization.

Some years later, the grown girl -- now a bored housewife in Sydney -- tunes out her dullard husband's vacuous talk of office politics and remembers those long-gone days in the Outback; her days with the Aborigine boy and her brother... 

A final voice over ends the film on a melancholy and wistful note.  "That is the land of lost content/I see it shining plain/The happy highways where I went/And cannot come again."

"Every man, every woman, is a star."


As noted above, Walkabout is a comparison of disparate worlds. To achieve that comparison, Nicolas Roeg uses a variety of visual symbols in Walkabout to suggest the corruption -- or at least strangeness -- of the so-called "civilized world."

Early in the film, for example, we see Agutter's character setting-up a blanket and picnic lunch out in harsh desert; clearly a misguided attempt to tame the unspoiled Earth. While she imposes mankind's sense of order on the desert, the film cross-cuts to views of lizards and other inhabitants, going about their business, oblivious to her attempts.

In the same scene, the girl's father goes crazy after Roeg cuts to insert shots of work papers: seemingly endless alphabetical lists of minerals and sheets of byzantine maps. The visual implication set up by the editing is that the father's madness is caused by his job; that the pressure (represented by his work papers) makes him irrevocably snap. The civilized world has made him deranged.

This critique of civilization recurs throughout the film.  For instance, as mentioned above, the boy and the girl find an oasis of life in the desert -- water and food -- and without thought of consequences, use it up in a matter of days.  When they leave, the land is dry; the fruit is stale and only snakes inhabit the tree. 

It wouldn't be a stretch to suggest that this image is a veiled reference to the Garden of Eden parable; and the idea of man expelled from paradise

Perhaps more plainly, the destruction of the desert oasis and its resources is referenced late in the film when the boy and the girl come across a similar setting, writ large: a virtually abandoned mining town. 

The town is now nothing but a scrap heap, a garbage junk in the middle of the Outback.  Everything of value has been taken from it (as was the case at the desert oasis) and man has left behind only his garbage and detritus; mountains of twisted steel and rubber.

Another scene, mid-way through the film, also deliberately critiques modern man.  The Aborigine, the boy and the girl come in close proximity to a plantation where a white man is exploiting the local Aborigine youth to create cheap plaster statues of kangaroos and the like.  Again, the idea here is one of taking a resource (in this case, a human resource) and using it for self-interest; to line one's own pockets.

Later in the film, Gulpilil's character spies  white hunters shooting game near the abandoned farm.  We see an animal die in slow motion, struck by bullets.  The sight of this deeply upsets the Aborigine, a hunter himself.  And the reason, I suspect is that the hunters have evidenced no respect for their quarry.  Their technology (their guns and their jeeps) gives them an unfair advantage over the land, and a distance from their behavior.  Skill does not come into the picture. 

By contrast, the Aborigine boy hunts to provide for his new family; and and does not kill more than the family can eat.  He survives based on his skill; not based on the technology he possesses. To express this point, Roeg again crosscuts between images of the Aborigine boy cutting up a kangaroo and images of a city butcher chopping up meat in his store.  The idea implicit here, again, is that one culture is interested in survival, the other in commerce; in making money off the land

Eventually, even the heroic Aborigine boy played by Gulpilil is contextualized as a resource to be used up.  He rescues the boy and the girl, even leading them safely to a highway and a home of sorts.  But when he seeks a deeper meaning -- an emotional connection with the English girl -- she shuts him down.  She ignores him.  He has crossed a barrier she will not tread across and she essentially ignores him and spurns him for it.  Her attitude, now that  personal survival safety has been established, seems to be "what have you done for me lately?" 

Only in the film's last scene, do we see an older, reflective woman consider the Aborigine boy; and what he meant in her life; and what he gave to  her.  She imagines a scene right out of Paradise: the three wanderers in the desert frolicking in the water; on a rock.  It is an image of lost innocence, and it is the image we leave on in Walkabout.

In toto, the image of civilized man in Walkabout is not at all positive.  He is a creature who uses the land, rather than living off it in harmony, and he is obsessed with things that -- in the context of the desert -- have no significant meaning (consider the read weather balloons set loose in the wild by a group of horny European scientists in one scene...what purpose do they serve?).

Roeg's point isn't so much that we should all live in the wild and hunt for our own food.  The point is that in the vast desert, commerce, alphabetical lists of minerals, weather balloons and society's rules concerning miscegenation serve no useful or meaningful purpose.  Rather, torn from their context in city life, they actually go against nature, even human nature.

Although it is uncomfortable to write about this in our morally judgmental society today -- especially given that both Jenny Agutter's and David Gulpilil's characters are minors in Walkabout -- the plain fact of the matter is that as the film plays out, the Aborigine boy and the English girl become very much aware of each other's sexuality.  An attraction forms, and in this environment who can say it would be wrong for them to act on it?  They are, essentially, the only inhabitants of this vast desert, and also the mother and father figure in the ad hoc family.

Gulpilil's character -- a man of nature -- understands that this is a relationship that could and should happen, given the circumstances. 

But returned to modern civilization (and bred to that civilization), Agutter's character cannot make the same leap.  Instead, she denies any feeling she might have for the Aborigine boy and falls back on the "etiquette" of her culture.  Early in Walkabout we see her practicing etiquette lessons while listening to a program on the radio; and that's the very world the English girl retreats to at film's end.

One of the best sequences in Walkabout (and one trimmed upon theatrical release) finds Roeg  again cross-cutting, this time between the Aborigine boy hunting with the English boy, and Agutter's young girl swimming sensuously in a desert pool, nude.  The feeling evoked here is of total freedom and innocence; of doing what comes naturally to survive. Of just living --and enjoying life -- in such an unforgiving, chaotic terrain.

Walkabout suggests that living off a harsh, natural land is tough work.  You have scorpions, ants, dehydration and other challenges to overcome.  You have to find water and hunt for your supper.  But I believe the film's ultimate point is that there is nothing harsher and more difficult than living a life that goes against your very nature

I submit that's the unhappy destination where Agutter's character finds herself at film's end.  A caged bird in an antiseptic high-rise apartment building, with only her memories of freedom to sustain her.  Certainly, the wistful nature of the final voice over suggests the idea of a paradise lost.

Walkabout's ending diagrams the death of innocence.  Gulpilil's character has learned that he cannot adapt  to the strange rules of  modern "civilization."  And in that coda -- set years after his demise - Agutter's sense of hoplessness is tangible.  It reflects, purposefully, the little boy's sense of defeat early in the film, upon reckoning with the unending desert, one stretching to unknown horizons.

"We're lost, aren't we?"

Monday, February 14, 2011