A film review by Craig J. Koban



1970/2004, Originally rated PG/ Re-rated R, 88 minutes

THX 1138: Robert Duvall / SEN 5241: Donald Pleasence / SRT, the hologram: Don Pedro Colley / LUH 3417: Maggie McOmie / PTO: Ian Wolfe

Written and directed by George Lucas


Before the cinema of George Lucas was populated by Jedi Knights, Galactic Empires, hell…even teenagers cruising the streets of 1963 Modesto, there was a low-budget sci-fi film that launched his career as one of the greatest film pioneers of the last quarter of a century.  Made on a paltry sum of $700,000 dollars,  Lucas’ 1970 cautionary sci-fi parable - THX 1138 -  just may be one of the best least seen science fiction films of all-time.  The picture also serves as a fresh reminder (or even wake up call for some) that feels indifferent about Lucas’ skills as an auteur film director. 

To revisit THX 1138, which has just been recently released in a glorious new DVD special edition “Director’s Cut”, is to bare witness to an audacious and impressive directorial debut of one of the cinema’s most underrated filmmakers.  THX is not whimsical, exciting, and escapist fun like the later STAR WARS films, nor is it “audience friendly” and nostalgically endearing like AMERICAN GRAFFITI.  THX 1138 remains one of Lucas’ most mature films as a director - a bleak, dark, satiric, uncompromising, and thematically complex look at the future.  It is a film that, despite its low budget, is a masterpiece of kinetic visuals and imagery and an audio nirvana.  It's abstract, mysterious, and minimalist sci-fi filmmaking at its most obscure and non-conventional.  Upon reflection, it’s an amazing accomplishment for a then 25-year-old filmmaker. 

The birth of this film can be traced easily back to the history Francis Ford Coppola’s independent film studio – America Zoetrope – which was created in the late 1960’s.  Coppola foresaw a film community within his group that was free of Hollywood conventions, which he did not hold in high regard.  This ragtag group that he assembled represented the “new guard” of contemporary filmmakers, and young and eager ones at that. 

Coppola himself was a promising young talent at the time, and one of his first films, FINIAN’S RAINBOW, impressed the studio brass at Warner Brother’s so much that the eccentric director convinced them to financially back a series of films from his company of fresh, young talent.   Of course, as history has already dictated, not many of these proposed films were made, and this was a direct result of the enormous failure of THX 1138, which was Zoetrope’s first production that was released in 1970.  The film, a visual and audio tour de force that revealed the unparalleled promise of its young filmmaker, single-handedly caused Warner Brothers to withdraw funding from future productions.  Ironic, isn’t it, as THX 1138 destroyed a company but launched the most successful career in Hollywood history. 

The feature film of THX was actually based on a widely popular and praised student film that the young Lucas made while he was a student at the USC School of Cinema.  That student film, the incredibly odd titled ELECTRONIC LABYRINTH: THX-1138-4EB, awarded Lucas with heaps of praise (Steven Spielberg said it was best student films he ever saw) and garnered Lucas a prestigious scholarship to work at Warner Brothers as a film intern.  This, subsequently, led to his fateful meeting with Coppola (5 years his senior) and a friendship that led to the development of Zoetrope.  With much persuasion from  Coppola, Lucas received the green light, $700,000 dollars, and a shooting schedule of 35 days to complete Zoetrope’s first film.  

The film that was released in 1970 was a disastrous bomb, one that was taken by the studio out of the young filmmaker’s hands.  Lucas was forced to cut five minutes out of his film and this, along with similar dealings with studios when AMERICAN GRAFFITI was made, spearheaded Lucas into the self-made independent filmmaker we see today.  Now, 34 years after its release, THX 1138 has been released with restored footage and new visual effects via Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic.  Despite its digital additions (which are actually welcome here and fairly seamless) the new version feels much like the old – a social commentary in the guise of a sci-fi film, and a terrifically realized one at that. 

The film does not exist on a level of straightforward, linear storytelling.  This is a film of sights and sounds, and one that works viscerally on the audience.  The plot essentially tells the story of an oppressive society (earth or alien, Lucas tantalizes us with this ambiguity) of a distant future where mankind inhabits vast underground cities which are run by state organized computer programs and robotic policemen.  All citizens are stripped away of any type of meaningful existence and identity.  All are bald, wear the same hospital-like clothing, have letter and number combinations for names (not to unlike license plates or UPC bar codes), and are forced to wear identification badges.  People also are selectively paired together with roommates by the state.  

Of course, the state is omnipotent, and is able to monitor the citizens at any time and, without warning, electronically stimulate them into performing behaviour they deem worthy and appropriate.  The world is sanitized and sterile.  Sex is outlawed, but machines are at the citizen’s disposal for self-pleasuring.  Emotions, it also seems, are also frowned upon.  The state, in turn, force-feeds drugs to everyone to inhibit their passions.  Everyone does this willingly, until one day when THX-1138 (Robert Duvall) and his “mate” LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) decide to cut down on their drug intake.  What they discover is their respective love in one another and sexual appetites.  These are not wanted qualities to exhibit, especially when the state finds this to be illegal. 

THX and LUH make love, albeit awkwardly, and are eventually discovered.  The authorities, fearing this, even go as far as electronically probing THX’s mind, which nearly produces a near fatal nuclear accident at a police-automation assembly plant.  THX and LUH are eventually charged with “sex offences”  and “drug evasion”.  LUH, unfortunately, is sentenced to “liquidation” and her identity is transferred to an identical fetus that has been artificially created.  THX is sentenced to a prison that would have made Beckett proud.  This scene is a masterpiece of eerie and non-literal philosophizing, and is creepy in execution.  The prison itself is an ingenious use of space – it’s an endless white void with no apparent exit, which almost creates a sort of inverse claustrophobia that only heightens the madness of the cellmates.   THX, with the help of a misfit hologram program SRT (Don Pedro Colley) manages to make his way out of the prison (by his own will) and this leads to THX evading the robotic authorities and a towards a conclusion that is, simultaneously, uplifting and equally bleak. 

The story of THX 1138 is highly derivative at its core.  It’s a fancy amalgamation of the best of Jules Verne, Ray Bradbury, and, to a large degree, the great works of George Orwell (the film reeks of 1984 in its oppressive state where a “big brother figure” exhibits its power in an anti-utopian society).  The themes of love and emotion versus state seems to have been covered countless times before.  However, Lucas here seems to use these themes to present to us with a vision that’s kind of wholly unique. 

The film is a theoretical and non-theoretical experience that exists on its willingness to be experimental and avant-garde.  In a way, Lucas, whom has always been seen as a populist filmmaker, plays against contemporary conventions here.  Lucas’s future in THX 1138 (like in STAR WARS) is a used one, and the set design and direction reveals not only this but the ungainly sanitized society the film precipitates.  Its “sterile sci-fi”, where everything has a real world feel to it, but nevertheless appears used, old, and sort of offbeat.  There is a curious anachronistic look to the film; its highly stylized in terms of its look and gives the impression of a futuristic society gone amok, but it also has things that are old to us now (like corded telephones, for example). 

THX is not a masterpiece because of its story.  Rather, it is a major accomplishment as a film going experience that is to be seen and heard.  Lucas’ sparse direction and Goddard-like editing heightens the pathos of the society, and the terrific sound design (by the film’s unsung hero, Walter Murch) creates a rich tapestry that encapsulates half of the film’s mode, tone, and feel.  The sound effects, brilliantly conceived, add to the transcending feeling of a distant society on the fringes.  The way people talk and interact also heightens this.  Everything in the film revels in its sense of emotional detachment.  All aspects of society are related through man with machine, not man with man.  The humans, while drug induced, speak in a sort of muted shorthand that serves the very basics of communication.  Everyone speaks in a sort of gutter speech, filled with abbreviations and technical mumbo-jumbo.  This embellishes the film’s paranoia and other-worldliness.  Lucas' film, though every one of its 88 minutes, is about craft. 

That is not to say that the themes Lucas delves into here are negligible.  One theme (which seems congruent even with STAR WARS and AMERICAN GRAFFITI) is the concept of dealing with change and the feelings of fear and anxiety of leaving one’s established environment.  The film, metaphorically, is about humanity being trapped in a cage with the door wide open.  The only problem with this is the fact that the state implicitly tells (or forces) humanity to stay put, even when humanity has the means to get out.  These are powerful forces of intimidation at play in the film, and by studying society under a microscope through the film Lucas sort of discusses, indirectly, issues of who we are, where we are, and what we look to lose in society.  Lucas comments on how compartmentalized society has become with oppressive force, which no doubt could have been contributed by many a young person’s hatred of political forces of the day.  

Lucas’ film also feels fresh, even today, in the social and economic satire that he displays to us.  THX 1138 also is a commentary on consumerism gone rampant.  The citizens, under the guidance of the government (computers always chime in with, “Buy more, be productive, work hard, be more efficient and be happy”) buy needlessly, only to apparently destroy the items after their purchase.  Sex, as a social force, is also subverted to an act that is  state controlled.  Citizens artificially masturbate with machines as erotic images are shown to them by state-run hologram televisions.  Even the TV of the future reflects contemporary tastes, as various channels show violence, some show commentary, even more show infomercials of sorts with generated laughs in the background.  Perhaps the most oppressive aspects are the confessional booths or “unichapels” with images of Jesus on a view screen with computer controlled responses for most questions.  Citizens chime in with their problems, and the monotone booth spits out useless and mindless advice to the masses. 

On these levels, Lucas’ film even works as a religious satire, not that he’s condemning organized faith, but rather that he’s discussing issues of how people meander around in society and fail to question anything that is fed to them.  When citizens open up their medicine cabinets, which are also monitored and controlled by the state, you know you’re in trouble when the computer tells you to “take four pills and then later take four more” and you do it without debate. 

THX 1138 remains an unforgettable gem in the annals of sci-fi filmmaking.  Upon close scrutiny, it’s really more of a modern fable about how society is now than about how the world of the future is like.  To Lucas, the film represents much of his 1970’s sensibilities about the world (the idea of one fighting versus powerful and corrupt forces).  The film exists -  it does not explain.  On several technical levels, the film is a class act, and its look, themes, and style could even be seen as precursor elements to future sci-fi films like BLADE RUNNER and THE MATRIX, the later which is also about suppressive control of humanity. 

THX 1138 serves as a revealing and surprising historical footnote.  It shows the eccentric tastes, audacious style, and emotional complexity of a young “wiz kid filmmaker from USC” long before his life became entrenched in a galaxy far, far away.  Lucas has promised a return to his THX roots as an avant-garde filmmaker after STAR WARS.  If THX 1138 says anything, then the next few years look very intriguing for Lucas the director.  THX 1138 should be required viewing for anyone that doubts Lucas’ broad and capable abilities.  It's an amazing little film, especially if look at his career in context today.   THX 1138 may not be Lucas most loved or seen work, but it represents the best directorial feature of his career and reminds us that, deep down, there is a filmmaker there with intelligence, sophistication, and a desire to tell complex, adult-themed stories. 

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