There are, perhaps, a handful of ‘hard’ science fiction movies in the world. By this, I mean movies whose primary goal is to challenge the viewer rather than to entertain. Movies like Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” and Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” ask more questions than they answer, and this is part of their appeal. Strange, then, that one of the finest examples of a ‘hard’ science fiction movie should come from the same man who defined the family-friendly summer sci-fi blockbuster extravaganza - George Lucas.
The history of THX-1138 is a fascinating one, but one which I’m not going to go into detail about here (for a concise history, check out the THX-1138 DVD or Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls”). But a quick summary: THX-1138 started life as a studen film, becomes the first finished piece of Francis Ford Coppola’s “American Zoetrope” hippy commune/production company - other films on their “to do” list included “The Conversation” and “Apocalypse Now”. Warners, the distributors took a look at it and balked, yanking all of American Zoetrope’s funding, re-editing THX-1138 to make it more audience-friendly (”Put the freaks up front” was their suggestion for improving this movie). Lucas bought the rights back and re-released it the way he wanted it.
I first saw THX-1138 when I was a teenager on a dodgy VHS copy that got passed around my nerd friends like a holy relic. And to be honest, I didn’t know what to make of it. I could understand the dystopian themes, but couldn’t understand why there wasn’t an actual story - where was the needless exposition? The convenient explanations for viewers? To tell the truth, I wasn’t all that impressed. Things like “Brazil” and, of course, “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, were much much more my cup of tea. Dystopian world-views with bleak endings. THX-1138’s ending was so vague as to be unintelligible.
So I completely forgot about THX-1138, except for spotting the references in other Lucas movies. To me, the film itself was more a curio for fans of Star Wars than an enjoyable movie in its own right.
When it was released on DVD last year, I decided to check it out again. This time, it was the version Lucas originally wanted to see, and more. Lucas, master of revisionism, had decided to add more bits to this movie. After killing a lot of what made Star Wars enjoyable, I wasn’t hopeful. But still, one Saturday morning, I decided to watch it.
And it started to make sense.
First of all, 99% of Lucas’ digital additions are worthwhile. They serve to enhance the movie, flawlessly working their way into the background, where you barely notice them, but help give the entire film a greater sense of scale. The major changes, for the most part, also work well. For example, they turn the completely underwhelming “corridor of people” into a truly terrifying “tsunami of people”. So, in terms of not completely ruining the film with his boner for extraneous CGI, I think Lucas deserves a little respect.
But as well as these cosmetic changes to the movie, something changed within me. I finally ‘got’ the movie. I remember a similar experience with ‘2001’; years of seeing it and thinking “What’s all the fuss about?” finally gave way to “Holy shit! This is amazing!” I could finally look at THX-1138 and see exactly why there’s no actual story. Why there is no needless exposition. I’m completely enamoured with this film. I love the look of the movie, the style of the movie. The sound design is incredible and unrelenting.
And now, the ending makes perfect sense to me. And it’s easily as sinister and bleak as Brazil or Nineteen Eighty-Four. Perhaps more so: he finally does escape, but to what?
It seems that THX-1138 will never really get out of Star Wars’ enormous shadow but for me, I’m glad I finally found that it is an enjoyable movie in its own right.