Active Ingredients: Strong, stark white composition; Unconventional scene structure
Side Effects: Over indulgence building a dystopian world
As the first film produced by Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios, THX 1138 is an interesting declaration of the type of American independent films the collective was to create. Steeped in the adventure and sci-fi of 1950s serials, and yet formally daring, George Lucas’s first feature looks to the past for its established, crowd-pleasing generic influences, and, though it’s not a revolutionary film, points away from the classical era and towards the experimentation taking place in the films of the New Hollywood and beyond.
The film depicts a dystopian future whose citizens are constantly under observation, clothed in all white, hooked on pills and given robotic sounding alphanumeric names. Though I’m not sure why (a pill mix up, perhaps), THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) begins to crack and slowly attempts to break out of his closed-off, white-washed world. Lucas and co-screenwriter/sound maven Walter Murch have created a very detailed fantasy world, animated by an endless array of computer monitors, mechanized sounds and flashing lights.
They’ve also boldly mashed both the images and sounds to heighten the disorienting, over-stimulated effect of their world, largely eschewing conventional narrative techniques. At its best, as in a scene which cross-cuts between THX’s torture and the unseen technicians pulling the strings, the film communicates its story and universe through pure editing not dialogue. At its worst, the accumulation of such sequences simply becomes tiring, and the images don’t have the raw visual power they need to survive. Similarly, the famous sound design is brilliantly conceived, though often over-produced.
[For more on these editing and sound techniques, check out “The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film”.]