Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Prophetic Vandal: Thoughts on THX 1138

I have a weakness for science fiction films from the seventies, come what may. Which brought me to THX 1138. I don’t think anyone will dispute me when I say the film itself is less interesting than the fact that George Lucas made it.

By which I don’t mean that the film doesn’t have its own interesting bits (though nothing here that hasn’t been covered in Every Dystopia Story Ever), but the fact that a film this slow, cerebral and technophobic could come from Mr. Star Wars is just mind-boggling. This is the man who thought nothing of having droids deliver babies. It’s not so much that a film director in his youth could stitch together an art film just before writing the book on popcorn-cinema – there’s room in the human imagination for both. It’s just hard to fathom how someone who made his fortune via sheer consumerism could have once tried so hard to skewer consumerism, and sad to think that an impassioned defender of the human soul would one day banish it from his movies.    

The contrast, from both a thematic and aesthetic level, is just weird. In contrast to the traditional – nay, archetypal – plotting of Star Wars, THX largely just sort of happens. Most of the “dialogue” is just the background noise of machine operators giving instructions to each other over intercoms. Conversation, in terms of human beings talking to each other, is either hurried or whispered. Sex is repressed (of course) as is every other emotion, people live in subterranean cells, and deviants are stuck into vacuous white voids. Like most dystopias, it’s clearly not intended to be prophetic, but cautionary – I can see it happening.

After all, in the Star Wars universe, droids deliver babies. . .

Perhaps THX was intended as a Utopia? No one would accuse the Star Wars prequels of an excess of humanity. What isn’t generated by a computer is altered to look like it was. What human beings are present are made to act like robots, as if Samuel L. Jackson and Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman and a host of actors who spend their lives channelling different kids people had had their brains cut out and replaced with computers.  Even the old films, which so captured people’s imaginations, have been destroyed and replaced with hideous computer mash-ups, in a Stalinistic rewriting of history.

Even the current edition of THX is full of this after-the fact tampering, modern CGI spliced into 70’s era film stock. Again, the effect is jarring and distracting, like modern pastels worked into old oil paintings. Sometimes it seems to blatantly contradict the story; the “shell people” of the outside world were clearly intended to be and said to be midget humans – the shell people. Now they’re feral monkeys. What the hell was Lucas thinking? A glimpse of the original pops up in the original trailors, which Lucas forgot to alter. Robert Duval is briefly seen being attacked by a stuffed doll. It looks pretty dumb, but at least matches its’ surroundings, unlike the CGI chimp that replaced it, which looks no better.

I suppose that’s what puzzles me the most about these alterations. None of them actually improve anything. But they do alter the product unrecognizably. The original prints have been withdrawn from circulation-they no longer exist. We can no longer experience the films as their original audience did. For THX, it’s no great loss – a curiosity and a noble effort, but hardly earth shattering. Star Wars is another matter. For those of us of a certain generation, who were exposed to Star Wars at birth, who recite every word of dialogue and hum every note of music before we could spell or even write our own names, Star Wars was part of the scenery – the environment in which we grew up. And it’s gone now, bulldozed by the man who built it in the first place. I can’t shake the feeling that an incredible vandalism has taken place.

To think the vandal saw it all coming. . .