The future is bald. Shaven-headed slaves toil in subterranean factories while chrome-domed robots spy for dictatorial governments.
Released 44 years apart, Fritz Lang’s monumental Metropolis and George Lucas’ experimental THX 1138 are thematic twins – but if you could pinpoint the poles of sci-fi filmmaking, these two (one expensive and expansive, the other conceptual and claustrophobic) would be ideal bookmarks.
Metropolis, made by Germany’s UFA studio, was a giant among silent movies, shot over a year using 36,000 extras. Lang’s efforts are there for all to see, in cavernous art-deco sets, thrilling action and pioneering design work that’s the touchstone for every futureshock movie since – including THX 1138.
The latter was Lucas’ feature-length adaptation of his student short, funded by Coppola’s fledgling indie studio American Zoetrope. Budgetary limitations define the film: Lucas’ biggest set is a bare, bleached-out void, while his primary resource (ironically denied to Lang) is sound, Walter Murch’s dense multi-tracks engulfing us in an oppressive drone of voice and noise.
The films share a desire to show radical visions, yet each tweaks its totalitarian imagery to reflect time and place.
Lang delivers Weimar-era class discord, setting proletariat warriors against decadent rulers (this edition’s extended scenes of nightclub debauchery play up the gulf further).
THX was made during the civil rights movement and it shows, via surveillance paranoia and a ban on free love. Yet while the films pre-empt stains on their country’s history – Nazism and Watergate – they both end in naive hope that the future can be avoided. Then again, here’s proof the future can be changed…
Neither film arrives on Blu-ray in its commonly seen version. Metropolis, famously butchered by distributors after its disastrous premiere, has been restored to (almost) full-length after 2008’s discovery of an original print in Buenos Aires.
The new material, explained across informative extras, clarifies plot and character details. Sure, the footage is beyond repair, but its scratchiness is thrown into sharp relief by how vibrant the rest of it still looks.
Meanwhile, THX is presented in its 2004 Director’s Cut, with immersive sound but redundant (if relatively restrained) CGI frills à la the Star Wars Special Editions.
While Metropolis scholars have spent 80 years trying to recreate the original, Lucas has been busy dismantling his past.
So who knows what the future will hold for these two fascinating films? It’s enough to make your hair stand on end.