Reviews of “Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB” (1967) and related work

“Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB” (1967Moving picture, 15 minutes)

Seen in 2019.

Following some undefined offence, one man runs through large, empty halls to the exit, surprisingly resilient to the programmatic telepathy of the people watching him on surveillance cameras. Wandering off into the sunset in the world above, he is declared a suicide. His mate is instructed to apply for a replacement.

This film and its sequel are presumably unrelated to Elis Sandberg’s THX, a pseudoscientific cure-all popular in Sweden in the 1960s and ’70s. In 2020, one of the few places where you could still buy this ineffective medicine was the Infusio clinic in Beverly Hills, California, kept in business by gullible Hollywood stars.

The film is instead based on the imagery of the contemporary counterculture. It reads like a reification of Mario Savio’s 1964 “bodies upon the gears” speech at Berkeley, not Beverly Hills. That idea is mixed up with one of technology and the ideology of the state removing difficulty and complexity and replacing them with empty spectacle. Brave New World (1932) was crucially planned and centralized in that regard. “Electronic Labyrinth” seems to be similarly planned and hence conspiratorial, perhaps more so than Fahrenheit 451 (1953), but the film also hints at the menacing, misleading quality of We (1924).

Subtitles are highly recommended. Those I read interpreted one phrase as “cognitive dissidence”, a thematically incisive pun, but the actual line is so distorted that it might easily be the usual “cognitive dissonance”.

moving picture fiction

THX-1138 (1971/2004Moving picture, 86 minutes)

Review refers mainly to the revised 2004 version.

By turning the little dial to project us ahead in time, we’re able to be with Buck and his friends in the wonderful world of the future, a world that sees a lot of our scientific and mechanical dreams come true! You know, there’s nothing supernatural or mystic about Buck, he’s just an ordinary, normal human being who keeps his wits about him!

Well, not quite. In a far-future underground city, a woman manipulates the medication of the man with whom she has been assigned to share space. The man assembles androids in a factory, a dangerous task which is further complicated by the influx of emotion.

The first time I saw this film, I thought it was a rather silly generic dystopia, with a typical Hollywood quest and car chase as the major interest. The second time I saw it was in the 2004 version, with captions. As in the original, the cryptic background dialogue is a crucial dimension, even if parts of it are improvised. The world of THX is eclectic and still somewhat silly, but nonetheless one of the darkest pieces of science fiction ever put on film, significant humour notwithstanding.

Here, totalitarianism with features from all major political ideologies has merged with Catholic emblems and capitalism to create a materially productive society, watched over by androids reminiscent of the techno-utopian “benevolent” police force in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). The language is horribly mutated, allowing snatches of psychological jargon to stand alone, mocking meaning. Holographic television offers four purified pleasures: Sex, violence, quasi-intellectual nonsense or laugh-track nonsense, take your pick. The implied leaders of society are never near. The monitoring middle class is a bunch of humanly fallible engineers, and the outside world is probably unliveable. Though not quite as bleak as the Pit in “A Time for Revolution” (1963), it all seems self-corrupting, a development from our modern society by individually rational but structurally devastating steps, taken to sustain life on an irradiated planet.

It is unfortunate that Sandberg’s THX is irrelevant. Critical thinking would have been a better weapon against this dystopia than a car. One of the obvious fallacies of the script is that people still work without emotions. I love the opening though, rewriting the thundering start of the old serial Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. The rest of the film annihilates that obsolete optimism, starting with the reverse-flow credit meme which I think is from Kiss Me Deadly (1955), used better here: A technological revolution was more immediate than the 1930s could guess, hence “Buck Rogers in the 20th Century”, and could be abused so completely that the “ordinary, normal human” lost even the speck of power they had left after the second phase of the industrial revolution.

References here: Star Wars (1977), “Half a Life” (1991), DT Eightron (1998), Equals (2015).

moving picture remake fiction