THX-1138 (Originally 1970, 1998 George Lucas Director’s Cut, Warner DVD)
Directed by George Lucas
Anyone claiming to be a Star Wars fan that hasn’t seen THX-1138 isn’t really a Star Wars fan…yet. You really can’t grok one without assimilating the other. They are reflections of each other. Themes and techniques intertwine. Sometimes they are opposites, at others, cousins.
This is hard sci-fi. There are no cute furry Ewoks, there is no “villain”, there are only glimmers of heroics. This is a dystopian future brought to you by the once-brilliant director George Lucas, unhampered by his own commercial drives. This is as pure a vision as it gets. One viewing is not enough to digest THX-1138. There is little dialogue or exposition. There is no traditional music, and the story plods along in a very Kubrickian fashion.
The setting is not a long time ago, nor far far away. It is the future right here on Earth, and humanity now lives in a vast underground city. It is so vast that nobody ever ventures out to its superstructure where malformed, monkey-like “Shell Dwellers” remain. Perhaps they are mutants, victims of a long-forgotten nuclear holocaust. It is a surveillance society. Like today, there are few places you can escape the view of a camera lens. Humanity lives in the bubble of a sterile, pristinely white city that resembles the dullest of shopping malls. They are told to consume. At strange Catholic-looking confessionals, one prays to the State and the Masses and a weird Christ-like face. Children are taught entire school courses via a chemical IV. Sexual activity is forbidden unless you are scheduled to produce a child. Sedation by drugs is compulsory. Failure to take your medications will result in drug offences and rehabilition. Some humans are deemed defective and left to themselves in a strange white prison, an asylum that seems to go on forever.
Our protagonist is THX-1138 (Robert Duvall), called “Tex” for short. He does not feel well. He is sick, shaky, because he is secretly off his medication. Feelings of love and lust are stirring for his roomate, LUH. The lack of sedation has allowed those feelings to surface for the first time. It has also, however, affected his work, and one error is all it takes to clue in the powers-that-be that THX is a drug offender.
Themes turn up again in Lucas’ later films. See the totalitarian faceless government, complete with masked law enforcement (not Stormtroopers but robot officers). Constant, overlapping staticky background dialogue makes up the most of the soundtrack to this film. Lucas has taken sound effects and used them as music, yet they still convey information crucial to the plot. For further comparison, some shots are even duplicated in Star Wars; see if you can spot them.
THX-1138 isn’t Lucas’ fairytale vision of sci-fi. Scenes are chilling. THX is channel surfing and comes upon a program of an officer beating a human repeatedly for no apparent reason. This is the entertainment of the future. The brutality is so iconic that Trent Reznor used the sounds in Nine Inch Nails’ song “Mr. Self Destruct”. In another scene, two techs are tormenting THX’s body, but their dialogue betrays absolutely no connection whatsoever to the human being they are hurting. “Don’t let it get above 48,” says one, as THX is writhing in agony. “Oh, you let is get above 48, see, that’s why you’re getting those readings.”
The theme of escape, which was common with Luke Skywalker in the first Star Wars, is what drives THX. He eventually finds an ally in a “hologram” (Don Pedro Colley) that he meets in the white asylum. SEN (Donald Pleasance) is suitably creepy as a man obsessed with THX and LUH. Can they escape the city and see what is beyond?
Lucas loves tampering with his films and THX is one of them. CG race cars and cityscapes enhance the film, while CG Shell Dwellers look phony and out of place. I would have preferred the original Shell Dwellers, but in the cityscapes, the new effects certainly add depth and believability. Just like the Star Wars special editions, some things work and others do not. Cloud City worked well in the Star Wars digital tweaks, just as the underground one does here.
DVD bonus features are awesome, including ample documentaries. For a treat, check for the original black and white student film that Lucas made: THX-1138-4eB – Electronic Labyrinth. See how his vision survived intact to the big screen, and see how ideas such as dialogue acting as the soundtrack was present in the original short.
A fantastic visionary sci-fi film, and a warning to us today. We must not allow our society to become as controlled as THX’s.
Not for everybody. Only for those who like thinking man’s sci-fi.
4/5 stars. Near-perfect dystopian vision.