The most common misconception about science-fiction is that it concerns the future, when in reality, it’s all about the present. This is why the genre is one of the most diverse in terms of tone and visual aesthetic, as it reflects the hopes and the anxieties of the time period each work was made within. For much of cinema’s early history, science-fiction films were on the whole cautiously optimistic, depending on what other genre they had been blended with. Fantasy and adventure sci-fi, such as the ‘30s Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, were shiny and vibrant, while the films made during the Atomic Age of the 1950s were imbued with that era’s love-hate relationship with science and technology, featuring progress being the cause as well as the solution to the film’s problems. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968 a year before the Apollo 11 landed on the moon, was a watershed film, its future a functional wonderland that evoked the Space Race hopes of the day yet also contained an eerie coldness regarding the vast unknown, depicting the loneliness of space travel through brightly lit, clean and orderly spaces. In essence, it captured the American optimism of the early ‘60s while the political and social turmoil of the late ‘60s lay in wait.
With 2001 as a launching point, American cinematic sci-fi changed, and nowhere could better evidence of that be seen than two bold works of the genre that were released within hours of each other in March of 1971: THX 1138 and The Andromeda Strain. In a number of ways, the films are notably dissimilar—THX ostensibly takes place in the future while Andromeda Strain is firmly set in the present, THX is an original first-time experimental feature from a young filmmaker named George Lucas while Andromeda Strain is an adaptation of a Michael Crichton novel by veteran director Robert Wise, and so on. Yet both feature a similar aesthetic and tonal approach, portraying humanity as helpless, foolish pawns, beset by governmental systems that are self-perpetuating tools of oppression. This results in the films being set in spaces that are worryingly alienating and antiseptic.
Intriguingly, the films’ respective visual settings almost reverse their own narrative placement. THX is assumed to take place in a future time period, the only hint at such being the usage of a clip of a Buck Rogers serial at the beginning. This may be just for tone and contrast, however, showing the distinction between the hopeful futurism of the ‘30s and the new pessimism of the ‘70s. Lucas really intends THX to take place in a nebulous time period, thereby having the film be more of a commentary on the present. In the world of the film, humanity has been reduced to a purely functional organism—everyone is made to look as exactly the same as possible with shaved heads and uniform clothing, each individual has an assigned designation code as a name and a vocation to go with it, and any coupling/co-habitation is decided by algorithm. Art director Michael Haller at first glance appears to have constructed a variety of large, dehumanizing spaces for the film, but the truth is that most of the sets were pre-existing locations in San Francisco and the surrounding area, with only a few all-white rooms being “constructed.”
By contrast, the top secret, state-of-the-art Wildfire facility in Andromeda Strain is a completely fabricated set, costing more than $300,000 to build on stages by production designer Boris Levin. The monochromatic hallways, “glove box”-style lab spaces and “paper” uniform costumes look antiseptic for obvious reasons—the entire facility being for germ study—yet the effect is just as distancing and dehumanizing as THX. In essence, Lucas’ “futuristic” visual setting is an allegory for present-day human life, while Andromeda Strain’s present-day high-tech facility is really a warning against a germ-warfare laden near-future.
Both THX 1138 and The Andromeda Strain are concerned with escape in different yet complementary ways. THX 1138 (Robert Duvall), once off his hypnotizing drug regimen, only seeks to find the companion he’s lost, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) and get out of the vast city where they reside. In turns out their habitat is deep underground, sending THX on a journey of physical as well as mental enlightenment, his climb up a ladder in a dark shaft and eventual emergence from the bowels of the Earth a knowing nod to Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave.” By contrast, the hand-picked scientists of The Andromeda Strain willfully place themselves deep underground so as to not let the titular microscopic extraterrestrial organism escape, a nuclear device buried with them in case of catastrophe. The scientists have their own journey of enlightenment throughout the film, discovering how the alien virus works and, most importantly, that it would propagate with a nuclear blast. This causes physician Mark Hall (James Olson) to make his own desperate climb up a ladder in a large shaft, attempting to reach a substation to cancel the bomb. In both films, the antiseptic underground structures where the protagonists dwell nearly become their—and humanity’s—tombs.
That ironic thought speaks to how both films are secretly satiric and darkly funny, the ultimate “joke” being that the oppressed and haggard protagonists are complicit in their own undoing. THX 1138 appears at first to be set in a fascistic police state, yet the fascism is ultimately revealed to be missing a figurehead—there is no dictator (or “Emperor,” as Lucas’ later Star Wars films would bluntly utilize), merely a self-running series of computerized systems. THX is tortured while in prison not so much deliberately as accidentally by two blue-collar technicians arguing on how to properly use the devices, and the movie’s mono religion—a figure known as “OMM”—is revealed to be nothing more than an electronic voice recording. In a wonderfully bureaucratic twist, THX is allowed to escape at the end of the film because his recapture would simply cost too much. The scientists of The Andromeda Strain are nearly killed thanks to bureaucracy—their order to nuke the site of Piedmont, New Mexico to help stop the spread of the virus is kept in political limbo for days, and their state-of-the-art facility becomes hindered by cost-cutting materials and a paper jam. There’s a hint of the Michael Crichton who would go on to create Westworld (1973) and Jurassic Park (1993) seen in Wildfire’s failure, as the facility is one big scientific/medical amusement park, filled with enough bells and whistles to distract from its nearly fatal flaws.
In this way, THX 1138 and The Andromeda Strain are science-fiction films that position humanity as the ultimate antagonists. Lucas’ film shows how such a dystopia is one of humanity’s making and perpetuation, a collective choice to continue broken and dehumanizing systems of living. Wise and screenwriter Nelson Gidding, through Crichton, satirize the American machinery of government, showing how meticulous financial and intellectual preparation helps absolve people of personal responsibility, resulting in critical errors. These themes from both films are especially resonant in 2021—just like THX, many of us are living in distancing, isolated existences, thanks to an Andromeda Strain-like virus that the governments of the world have treated remarkably irresponsibly. Given that these films warned of such problems 50 years ago, perhaps science-fiction really is about the future, after all.