THX 1138

Film Notes #3: THX 1138 (1971)

George Lucas’ debut feature about a dystopian future society forms the third part of my 30-day film program.

For newcomers, the deal is that I must watch a film every day and make notes about it, with the following rules:

  1. I’ve already seen it
  2. I must make notes whilst I’m watching it.
  3. Pauses are allowed but the viewing must all be one session.
  4. It can’t be a cinema release.

The point is to capture my instant thoughts about a movie and my overall film diet for 30 days, as well as post interesting links to the film in question.

Here are my notes on THX 1138 (1971) which I watched on a Blu-ray on Saturday 24th March.

[Warning! Spoilers ahead]

  • Begins with an old episode of Buck Rogers (!)
  • Titles going from top to bottom reflects the underground nature of the society in film – I can’t think of another film outside Gaspar Noe’s IRREVERSIBLE (2002) that uses this device and that film used it for the end credits
  • Widescreen lensing is impressive – it was shot using Techniscope, a cheaper alternative to 35mm anamorphic which Leone used on his Spaghetti Westerns
  • Sound design immediately apparent as a key part of the film
  • Phrase “consumption is being standardised” repeated over and over
  • Appropriate because the shopping mall
  • Walter Murch co-wrote the screenplay and was obviously closely involved in the sound design
  • What the hell is going with the lizard in the wires?!
  • Sense of despair reflective of the cultural malaise of the late 60s and early 70s
  • The idea of a controlling futuristic society was possibly a big influence on THE MATRIX (1999)
  • Did the hologram sex channel influence MINORITY REPORT (2002)?
  • When Duvall confesses about his room mate, it is almost like a Catholic confession or a session with a psychiatrist
  • The slogan “buy more” has a certain irony when it comes to the issue of Star Wars merchandising
  • Imaginative use of low budget sets
  • Futuristic officers seem to be influenced by the police who cracked skulls on campuses during the Vietnam
  • There is even a TV channel which shows officers beating someone – predicting the Rodney King incident by 20 years! That case also played a key role in TERMINATOR 2 (1991).
  • Issue of sedation prefigures the issue of antidepressants
  • The idea of workers trapped inside white anti-septic clothing is an effective idea
  • Widescreen compositions must have made this a nightmare to pan and scan
  • Pre-digital era effects are deeply impressive
  • The robot that Duvall is working on just before the mind block looks C-3PO from STAR WARS (1977)
  • A computerised industrial society where people are drones has chilling resonances with today’s inter generational struggle, which is also a theme of THE HUNGER GAMES (2012)
  • Ironic that Donald Pleasance is in a film where everyone is bald.
  • Lucas was frustrated at how Duvall would get a scene in take one and Pleasance would take several. In a pre-digital world this was probably a nightmare for the chemistry of a particular scene and maybe led Lucas to pursue digital solutions
  • Nice touch that Duvall’s character is actually building the robotic officers who oppress him
  • The evils of bureaucracy is a persistent theme and the questioning of authority is essentially the whole point of the film.
  • Ironic that the McCarthy era America was paranoid about Communism and it became an oppressive state itself.
  • The ‘white prison’ is a very striking idea, later explored in Lecter’s jail cell in Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER (1986) and then reversed in Jonathan Demme’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991).
  • It is also a highly effective ‘visual effect’ as it creates an illusion of depth – an optical trick that predates the use of green screen by 25 years
  • The voices possible influenced by 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968)
  • Couple’s love making being interrupted is symbolic of the sexual Puritanism and hypocrisy of the 1950s era which Lucas grew up in.
  • Approach to the issue of drugs is interesting. It goes for an Brave New World approach where drug taking is an oppressive and enforced act rather than a rebellious act. Philip K Dick also explored similar territory in A SCANNER DARKLY (2006).
  • Excellent use of locations and sets, augmented by Murch’s great sound design.
  • Lalo Schifrin’s score is very effective and moodier than his ones for DIRTY HARRY (1971) and the Mission Impossible.
  • In particular the car chase at the end is a masterful use of sound which makes the sequence feel bigger and more realistic
  • Cars are also important in AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973) albeit in a wildly different context
  • The voices throughout are ‘comfortingly sinister’ which makes it an effective metaphor for communist regimes.
  • But it could also be seen as an indictment of 1950/60s capitalism which encouraged conformity
  • It could also be seen as obliquely referencing the Holocaust e.g. people as numbers and the enforced shaven heads
  • The closing sequence is actually very similar to THE TRUMAN SHOW (1998).
  • Final shot is hopeful for what some interpret as a bleak film.

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