Keith McDonald: THX-1138
Articles » October 2000

Environment is a prominent theme in many Science Fiction films, which take the familiar and attempt to de-familiarise it through aesthetic and thematic manipulation. This manipulation is an inherently political process, because it involves both representation and change: Science Fiction texts often represent an Earth encountering change and highlight, or even re-create certain elements that will privilege the text's individual narrative and thematic content. Critics have argued that "all spatialities are political because the are the (covert) medium and (disguised) expression of asymmetrical relations of power" (Keith & Pile, 1993: 220). These unbalanced yet often concealed relations of power are a recurrent theme in the film under discussion; George Lucas's THX-1138 (1970). Science Fiction by nature involves an exploration of the unknown, or the unnatural, and thus concepts of the familiar and the natural are also, often sub-textually, encountered. The exploration of the unknown and the natural are no small themes, so Science Fiction frequently deals with large ideas, fundamental paradigms and what is excluded in those fundamental paradigms. The representation of environment then, is frequently used, both aesthetically and as part of the narrative structure to convey these themes. The setting of a Science Fiction film on Earth involves the presentation of a version of Earth, and versions only exist in relation to other (opposite or similar) versions. These versions have political ramifications in that: "All political positions and programmes are premised on a conception of social reality, which is why, of course, governments and other political agencies are so concerned to promote their version of reality, so concerned to present certain propositions as true and others as false" (Lapsey & Westlake, 1994: 156) By abandoning the pretence of realism in film, Science Fiction may invent overtly different realities against each other and extrapolate oppositional and hegemonic discourses.

THX-1138 is a remake of Lucas' student short for USC entitled THX:1138:4EB/Electronic Labyrinth (1968). The story revolves around the eponymous hero, played by Robert Duvall, as he loses faith in the oppressive ideology of surveillance and control that has overtaken his society, and his subsequent attempts to escape the underground city. There is little dialogue in the film, which relies heavily upon visual and sonic metaphor to make its points; it can be seen as primarily an attack on a hypercommodified culture where people are admonished to "work hard, increase, production, prevent accidents and be happy." These themes are familiar to Science Fiction, we see them in novels such as Zamyatin's We (1922) Orwell's 1984 (1948) and in Huxley's Brave New World (1932) In film similar themes arise in Lang's Metropolis (1936), and more recently in Niccol's Gattaca (1997). Whilst THX may have little in the way of narrative, it is a bleak and haunting visual experience, a look that may have been facilitated by its meager production budget. The film explores the process of generic and cinematic representations itself, and experiments with the medium as a political tool. Lucas attempts to examine the role of the screen and therefore medium itself and the concepts of depth, frame, and movement are all re-evaluated in the film.

The explicit use of technik in film (sound effects, slow motion, decorative lighting) "registers a shift in the field in human perception." Changes that can be "experienced on an individual level by a man in the street in big-city traffic" (Clarke, 1997: 2). This equation between image and experience uses the big city as a new form of reality. Cinema is "a new way of encountering reality and a part of reality thereby perceived for the first time" (Clarke, 1997:2). This is pertinent to THX-1138 where the audience is taken into a new and harsh reality, made familiar with it because of the sheer relentlessness of the monotone, droning environment, and then re-introduced to a seemingly natural scene. This re-introduction to a more natural setting at the close of the film illustrates a much-used device in Science Fiction; by taking the viewer into another world, similarities are drawn with our own, and meaning and discourse is extrapolated through the alienation the viewer undergoes. In the post-modern city, the individual paradigm is affected to the extent that the inhabitant of the (post)modern city is no longer a subject apart from his or her performances, the border between self and the city has become fluid" (Clarke, 1997: 169). THX's sense of "self" has been almost completely washed away by the vast mono-environment. The film takes the modernist conception of new formations of space where the house is conceived as "a machine for living in" and expands the concept, portraying the city a super-machine with the populace as the fuel that motivates it. The film is concerned with a part of this structure that no longer wishes to perform his specific function, and the machine's attempts to regulate his desire and individuality.

Whilst a film such as Blade Runner uses a multi-layered canvas to portray a hyper-commodified, heterogeneous environment. THX-1138 strips away these layers leaving a stark white canvas inhabited by shaven headed identical looking humans. Dressed in white overalls the masses seem to flow through the indoor city, their heads appear disembodied against the white backdrop. The city has assimilated them to such an extent that their bodies are unidentifiable against the backdrop. New spatial and temporal forms of "being in the world" (Sobchack, 1987:230), find their most poetic figuration in the Science Fiction film, and that "the traditional perception of "depth" as a structure of possible bodily and that movement in a materially inhabitable space has been challenged by our current and very real kinetic responses to-but immaterial habitation of-various forms of "simulated" space" (230).

In THX-1138, the characters do not so much move through the city as across it. Our "depth perception" is reconfigured and the inhabitants of the city take on a depthlessness themselves. This simulated space is linked to the blandness of the culture and the people of the city. So whereas we historically equate the aesthetics of a period in some way to the cultural richness of a people, THX equates the aesthetic deadness of an environment to the deadness of its inhabitants' souls. This is not a concept confined to this film or the genre of Science Fiction; the aesthetics of mass production is a recurrent theme in the discourse surrounding popular culture and capitalism. Mailer contests that plastic represents a cultural blandness, and that:

If you touch a glass, you feel a little bit, if you touch wood you feel quite a lot, but when you touch this nothing comes back, and we've had now, for four decades, more and more and more infants and children live with it and play with it, and you cannot possibly feel any affection for it...... it is the spiritual equivalent of political correctness, it's functional, it serves a purpose, and the cost of serving this purpose is enormous. (Mailer: 2000)

The "cost of serving this purpose" is a basis for the distopian setting that is portrayed in this film. The emergence of such emotions of love and affection violently clash with the plasticity and blandness of the environment, and the oppression experienced by the populace is revealed.

Lucas moves away from the use of the camera as the unobtrusive eye, conveying a view of the world which remains realist and somehow truthful. This most notably characterises romantic comedy; the unthreatening camera allows the viewer to see how two characters feel about each other, as the narrative unfolds they each learn of the other's emotion and the result is their coupling--things fall into place and the viewer's omniscient knowledge is shared. This use of camera also privileges discreet narrative development, exemplified in the fading in and out of the eventual love scenes. Lucas privileges an exploration into the purpose of the screen itself. He uses the space as a canvas on which we see characters' and objects' relation to one another. The result of this is visually stunning, and it also presents the screen firstly as a surface, and secondly as a space which confines the characters. For example in much of THX one gets the feeling that the camera is fixed, in that if a character were to move out of shot the camera would not follow, rather like the way in which security

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