With the hype machine cranking into first gear for The Force Awakens, it’s a timely moment to consider George Lucas’s other sci-fi film, one which is never likely to inspire a big budget sequel.
Lucas’s 1971 feature debut, THX 1138, was expanded from a short student film he made while studying at the University of Southern California. It’s a bleak, dystopian tale of a dehumanised, doped-up machine society and one man, the eponymous and otherwise nameless worker drone who tries to escape from it. It’s mostly driven by image rather than dialogue, and climaxes with a lengthy chase sequence. All told, it’s Brave New World meets 1984 with a brief detour via The French Connection.
It remains a cult piece, too esoteric for mainstream tastes. One of its most striking aspects is the avant-garde sound design by the legendary Walter Murch, who also conceived and co-wrote the film. Now it’s being presented with a new live score by the mighty Asian Dub Foundation.
Before the feature itself (at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall), a detailed interview with Murch is screened, although for the most part his original work isn’t audible under the new score. It’s bold work, with an emphasis on bass, drums and flute, and it’s so powerful that it takes a while to adjust to. What dialogue there is struggles to be heard at times, and the film threatens to become a mere visual backdrop to the musical performance. But in time it does begin to blend in and pay off. Ultimately, the busy, pulse-pounding score heightens and sharpens the nightmarish qualities of Lucas’s film and of the main character’s dramatic ordeals. It becomes a visceral experience, far away from the oblique and alienated feel of the original source. And, needless to say, it pushes that climactic chase sequence right into overdrive.
Asian Dub Foundation’s performance here is undoubtedly a very different experience from most live film scores which tend to favour being subtle and unobtrusive rather than in-your-face. And while it isn’t completely successful throughout, it’s certainly very refreshing and on balance it manages to breath unexpected new life into a relative obscurity.
THX 1138 with live score by Asian Dub Foundation was at The Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. It’s touring in the UK until October 27, 2015. For more details click here.