Director : George Lucas
Screenplay : George Lucas & Walter Murch (story by George Lucas)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1971 (2004 re-release)
Stars : Robert Duvall (THX 1138), Donald Pleasence (SEN 5241), Don Pedro Colley (SRT), Maggie McOmie (LUH 3417), Ian Wolfe (PTO), Marshall Efron (TWA), Sid Haig (NCH), John Pearce (DWY), Irene Forrest (IMM)
When young, first-time director George Lucas presented his debut feature THX 1138 to the executives of Warner Bros. in 1970, they were appalled. They hated it. Of course, at the time, they had no idea that Lucas would become one of the most influential and economically successful filmmakers in cinema history; to them, he was just a bearded, bespectacled kid who had been given free reign and had produced a dense, slow dystopian science fiction fable about bureaucratic oppression. Even in the early 1970s, when movie studios were handing over the keys to the wunderkind directors of the New Hollywood, the suits at Warner Bros. couldn't believe what they had on their hands.
As a result, executives ordered that five minutes be trimmed from the film, and it was given virtually no marketing support. When it was eventually released in 1971, it sank, but Lucas did not. He went on to direct American Graffiti for Universal in 1973, which turned out to be one of the most profitable films ever made. Four years later, he wrote and directed Star Wars (1977), and the rest, as they say, is history.
THX 1138 is being re-released to theaters before its debut on DVD, which is not the first time it has made a repeat appearance in theaters, since Warner Bros. thought they could cash in on the Star Wars juggernaut back in 1978 with a re-release that restored the five minutes that had been cut out. The film has thus become an odd footnote in Lucas' filmography, a movie so starkly different than anything else he's ever been associated with that it's hard to imagine he was behind it. Austere, cerebral, and sometimes maddeningly cold, it would seem that THX 1138 is the visual and tonal opposite of the space western Star Wars.
Yet, there are similarities to be found if one is inclined to look for them, so much so that THX 1138 is like a more dense thematic version of Star Wars. Both films focus on the deadening effects of technology and bureaucracy, and we can see in the stark, modernist architecture of its futuristic city hints of the Empire's fascist aesthetic. Both films are ultimately about humanity versus technology, probably the core theme of the science fiction genre, and if THX 1138 feels cold it is because humanity isn't allowed even a hint of triumph until the very end, when the hero literally breaks out into the sunlight.
The story takes place in an unspecified future in which humans have been reduced to automatons in a rigidly controlled society of meaningless production and consumption. The society appears to be run by massive computers that enforce the law with faceless robots in leather police uniforms, the ultimate symbol of unfeeling subjugation. Humans exist to do nothing more than reproduce the technology that holds them captive, and the technology's mechanical coldness is then reproduced in the humans via the state-enforced consumption of sedatives. As the film was made at the end of the swingin' 1960s, audiences had to recognize the darkly humorous irony of the characters being jailed for not taking drugs.
The title of the film is the name of the main character, played by Robert Duvall. THX 1138 becomes a rebel when he and his roommate, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie), stop taking their sedatives and discover the intensities of human and sexual emotion, which are strictly outlawed. Borrowing heavily from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984, Lucas shows that there is nothing more threatening to ordered fascism than human passion, and for his mini-rebellion THX 1138 is jailed in a wall-less prison whose blank expansiveness is as oppressive as any claustrophobic space. He eventually escapes and begins to make his way out of the city, which we learn is buried deep underground, an apt visual metaphor for the society's insistence on burying emotion to maintain order.
Lucas shot THX 1138 on a shoestring budget, making great use of existing modernist structures like the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael, California. He also used the unfinished subway tunnels being completed beneath San Francisco, which allowed him to stage an impressively sustained chase sequence in which THX 1138 steals a police car and is pursued by a pair of robots on motorcycles that sound not unlike the landspeeders in Return of the Jedi (1983). Lucas being Lucas, though, he was never fully satisfied with the scope of his film, so he has recently added a few digital flourishes to expand the background of some wide shots. Unlike the digital tampering he's done with his Star Wars films, these additions don't stand out unduly, but rather add to the mise-en-scene and enhance the futuristic world.
Even more impressive than the film's visuals, though, is its soundscape, which was engineered by Walter Murch, who also cowrote the screenplay and later did similarly fantastic work on Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974). The film is constantly layered with a montage of sound that both provides background and also fills in important plot and character information without being obtrusive. Not surprisingly, the student film Lucas made at USC on which THX 1138 is an extension was virtually all sound, with only abstract images filling the screen.
THX 1138 is clearly the product of a gifted young filmmaker who stayed true to his vision. Executive producer Francis Ford Coppola, who hadn't yet become the powerful director of The Godfather (1972), but who did own his own production company, encouraged Lucas to maintain his artistic integrity at all costs, even if he eventually had to concede to the executives and trim the film before its initial release. It's not a great film, particularly because Lucas never makes the emotion passionate enough; even when the characters break free of their sedated bondage, they aren't much more excited than when they were drugged into a stupor. But, even with such a central flaw, THX 1138 is a perpetually fascinating film, especially in light of Lucas' subsequent career. It's enough to make you hope that, once Episode III is finished, he will return to this more austere mode and use his industry power to produce something that truly challenges.
Copyright © 2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright © Warner Bros.