Before “Star Wars” made him a titan, George Lucas directed “THX 1138.” It’s a strange film, almost Russian in its simplicity and layered philosophical conceits. It also reveals the same flaws that bedeviled Lucas when making the Star Wars prequel trilogy: The man has a hell of an imagination, but he can’t create an emotional story without help. It’s to the benefit of Lucas’ debut film, then, that it’s about a world without emotions. Even when off the medications that keep Robert Duvall’s bland life under control, there’s no deep connection. There’s sex and violence, but not much love.
Religion has its part to play here, a mechanical and distant warning against sin. The confession booth is remade with a huge portrait of Jesus, renamed OMM. A shot of a lizard scurrying around inside the machine that runs OMM suggests that nature is slowly retaking everything, and that no one cares about what THX has to say.
Even the ending is a brutalist metaphor. THX succeeds in outrunning the robot police and walking off into the sunset, but only because the cost to recapture him is a redline on the budget chart. No one cares in the world of “THX 1138,” not really, and whatever awe the sun holds for this free individual isn’t clear. He may not be capable of appreciating it anymore. Are we?
John Carpenter is a director with opinions, and “Escape from New York” hides some sly commentary about corrupt politics and fascist means of control. Written by Carpenter as a response to a cynical post-Nixon world, the island of Manhattan is walled off into an open-air prison for dissidents, murderers, and gang lords. Ostensibly, this has been done as a response to a rapid increase in violent crime, but it also works to scare off any of the President’s opposition. Of course, the plan backfires, and Air Force One crashes into the world’s biggest prison. Enter Snake Plissken.
As a franchise, “Mad Max” takes a sardonic look at a world mid-apocalypse. Water is as scarce as gasoline, and as sacred. The tone was set in 1979, the first time Max Rockatansky mastered the crumbling roadways of Australia, and the last time he was a person fully in control of his mind.
Max reflects the world he’s trying to survive. Truculent but passionate, he holds it all together until he has no reason to care anymore. With his family destroyed by his nemesis, Max becomes the face of the next era of Australia’s apocalypse. Max’s new life is a simple one, relying on revenge and survival.
There’s a reason why “Blade Runner” is a science fiction phenomenon, and it’s not because Harrison Ford was in his prime. He was one of the ’80s best thirst traps, yes, but that’s not the point. The point is that world-building in this future noir is par excellence, with every frame telling the viewer something crucial about this bleak new world.
Futuristic blimps exhort the virtues of a better life in the off-world colonies. Merchants hawk cheap replicant animals in filthy alleys, complete with trackable VINs. The police shrug off murder if there’s a chance the victim is synthetic. And Eldon Tyrell lives like the Babylonian god Marduk, high atop a ziggurat where he’s reshaping what it means to be human.
Tyrell’s creation comes home to challenge his maker, and the results are an object lesson in playing God. Roy Batty’s synthetic life is too brief, but his passion makes him immortal. What about him was less human than the people he drifted among? The final recuts of the film deliberately blur this question and transform it into another one: Who’s more human? The replicant who fought to live in spite of his programming? Or the replicant who was programmed to kill? In the end, Batty teaches Deckard how to be human. It’s Batty’s passion that makes “Blade Runner 2049” possible, even as the sequel warps the riddle of Deckard’s status as man or machine all over again.
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