George Lucas’ first feature, the sci-fi thriller THX 1138, is not for everyone, since the subject matter is grim and the execution is self-consciously arty. (Some might say pretentious.) Nonetheless, THX 1138 is inarguably the headiest sort of mainstream science fiction—a film of ideas disguised as visually resplendent escapism. Slotting nicely into the Orwellian tradition of fantastical allegory, Lucas’ movie depicts a future Earth where the working class has been figuratively and literally reduced to automatons. The film’s main character, THX 1138 (Robert Duvall), is bald drone wearing an all-purpose white uniform. That makes him a carbon copy of nearly everyone else occupying the mechanized city in which THX lives and works. The masses are kept in line by government-issued drugs that suppress individuality and sexual appetite. Moreover, frightening robotic police officers patrol the city, suppressing any nascent forms of insurrection. Eventually, THX and a coworker, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie), defy the social order by ditching their daily drug regimen, which allows their long-suppressed human qualities to surface. Acting on unexpected attraction, the couple seeks out private places to explore each other’s bodies—and, eventually, each other’s souls. Once discovered, the illicit relationship places THX and LUH in grave danger.
There’s more to the film’s complex plot, including bold statements about dangerous intersections between religion and totalitarianism, but the core of the piece involves THX and LUH risking everything to discover if there’s more to life than their dehumanizing routine. Whereas in Star Wars (1977) Lucas uses his considerable storytelling gifts to create an intoxicating alternate universe filled with adventure and excitement, in THX 1138 he employs a methodical approach to define a milieu governed by sleek surfaces and omnipresent walls. The leading characters are literally ghosts in the machine until defiance compels them to regain their identities. Some of the visuals in THX 1138 are exquisite, such as the scene of THX and LUH making love in a white room that seems like the living incarnation of infinity, and some of the visuals in the movie are terrifying, such as the vision of metal-masked cops on futuristic motorcycles chasing the heroes through sleek tunnels. The picture can be opaque at times, as if it’s more of an experimental endeavor than a dramatic presentation, but the soulfulness of Duvall’s performance grounds even the most esoteric scenes. (Having twitchy Donald Pleasence in the cast as THX’s workplace superior doesn’t hurt, because nothing can suppress his idiosyncratic energy.)
Ultimately, the intellect and style of THX 1138 linger in the memory the longest: Consider the long-lens shots that suggest alienation, the wildly imaginative sound work that simulates otherworldliness, and so on. Every frame of THX 1138 underscores why Lucas’ talent could not be denied, no matter how much he was demoralized by the problems that plagued this picture after its completion. For those unfamiliar with the saga, Warner Bros. bankrolled the project because Francis Ford Coppola agreed to serve as executive producer, but then the studio hated Lucas’ original cut and shaved half an hour off the running time. Adding insult to injury, the movie flopped. Heretical as it may sound to Lucasfilm purists, however, the 95-minute Warner Bros. cut isn’t a bad way to see THX 1138, because a little of the film’s chilly tone goes a long way. That said, Lucas—ever the tinkerer—returned the project 30 years later, creating a 121-minute director’s cut that includes, predictably, juiced-up special effects that clash with the original 1971 footage. (The alterations are less irksome than Lucas’ changes to his first three Star Wars movies.) THX 1138 may not be essential ’70s cinema, per se, but it’s easily among the smartest sci-fi movies of the decade. Furthermore, as one of only three featues Lucas directed prior to his late-’90s resurgence, it’s a milestone in one of Hollywood’s most important careers.
THX 1138: GROOVY