Tuesday, 20 July 2021

THX 1138 - The George Lucas Director's Cut

George Lucas' first feature film imagines a near future that is chemically moderated and heedlessly consuming. THX 1138 presents a closed loop of production, humans working on vast assembly belts, heavily tranquilised to be able to perform the keyhole surgery style construction of their android overseers. This population is numb and mumbling, their home lives a mechanical routine of appliance assisted masturbation, capsule cocktails and the hammering, holographic, violence that passes for an evening's entertainment - the projected beatings metronomic enough to be used as a percussive lead-in to Nine Inch Nails' Mr. Self Destruct. Robert Duvall's THX is a worker on one of these robot manufacturing lines, his live-in partner, Maggie McOmie's LUH, is secretly varying his state-issued medicine doses, weaning him off the sedatives in the hope that they can then pursue a romantic relationship, in defiance of this society's laws. 

Despite the all-consuming repetition, putting together mechanical police officers is extremely dangerous work, often resulting in radiation leaks and fiery explosions. Workers, at the end of their seemingly lengthy shifts, are congratulated for completing their duties with only hundreds of lives ending. Later in the film, when THX and LUH have aroused suspicion in the spider-web of bureaucracy that monitors their day-to-day lives, we get some sense of why fatalities are so common. Burping his way through a particularly nauseous comedown, THX is mind-locked, an enforced halt that interrupts his painstaking tinkers, freezing him in a kind of seizure. In this expanded edit, the fizzing radioactive isotope THX had been handling, and attempting to thread into the face mask of a disassembled automaton, tumbles away from the mechanical arms he was animating. The tiny rod burns through anything it touches, setting off all manner of alarms. 

Although THX had found this precision work difficult in his tremoring condition, he was still able to slowly complete the process. This stuttering approach isn't good enough though, interrupted simply on the basis on a perceived mistake. The system simply will not tolerate this quiet irregularity in its components. Not that the lanky, cattle-prodding, cops that ceaselessly patrol the city operate with a perfect record either. We see a couple locked into degraded routines, striding purposefully into walls then cueing up a repeat step, as if expecting a different outcome. As with Lucas' later film Star Wars, there's a tension underlining THX 1138. You do not feel that this is a civilisation that has naturally tracked to this point of technological fluency, there are missing pieces, a pervading sense that something primitive and aberrant has been plugged into a pre-existing procedure. Originally released in 1971 THX 1138 was, like its space opera follow-up, given Lucas' now-customary Special Edition pass. THX's occurred in 2004, re-released to compliment the first DVD release of the Star Wars Trilogy. 

As with the Skywalker series, THX 1138 - The George Lucas Director's Cut has become the only version of the film currently available, leaving a couple of previous cuts and r-edits to languish on analogue formats like video cassette and LaserDisc. Lucas' alterations - conceived and executed following the production of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones - are, by now, either pleasantly quaint or conspicuously artificial. The quantum leap in special effects seen in Star Wars Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith is, notably, still just out of reach here. The creature animations used to depict the mutated Shell Dwellers - originally played by actors with dwarfism, dressed in tatty monkey costumes - are the most obviously jarring, both in terms of their crude motion and the slippery, not-quite-perfect, interactions between the new character models and the vintage footage of Duvall. This admittedly fleeting sequence is a rough gear shift, conjuring up memories of the Jabba meeting that Lucas insists on keeping in Star Wars - a million dollar carbuncle squatting on the middle-act of an American classic.

Not all of this film's additions prickle an acute revulsion, a few inserts are actually beautiful. Skywalker Ranch and ILM's best work in this George Lucas Director's Cut come from the corrections applied to the previously spare android assembly line. The abstracted tinkering of the theatrical cut is given a golden wash, stressing both the unstable energy output of the construction materials and (strangely) the Champagne colourways of Pioneer's combination DVD and LaserDisc players - perhaps the film's intended home? Similarly, the low polygonal androids being repaired have the same simple structure and gleaming carapace as a Hajime Sorayama piece. The robot as a splayed, naked, body rather than just disassembled machinery. For the most part though these computer generated additions are used to expand the otherwise claustrophobic scope of the film, shrinking the captured photography of underground carparks or hotel lobbies into the corner of a frame, then filling in the new space with structures that grow away from the original image. 

These tweaks have a tidying effect on the film, stressing a hive-like sterility already present in the work. The added vertical and horizontal expanse is similar to that seen in the white-out corridors of The Empire Strikes Back's Cloud City or the Kamino clone farm that Obi-Wan investigates in Episode II. Lucas making the connective tissue between THX 1138 and Attack of the Clones - two films produced more than 30 years apart - explicit. Both films are premised on the unnerving horror of a human battery farm. A callous, unnatural, kind of reproduction presided over, in both instances, by tranquil beings completely disconnected from the shock experienced by a human witnessing the slavery of his race perpetuated on an industrial scale. THX 1138 explores a perspective that none of the Star Wars prequels (or sequels for that matter) seem interested in pursuing - that of a person with skin in the game. THX is the product, a genetically engineered person slowly finding their way out of a chemically maintained fog. The film traverses this shock of self-determination, examining how THX's struggling psyche copes with an avalanche of new information, before locking this now enlightened cog into a jet-powered car chase. 

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