George Lucas’s most grown-up piece of work is, oddly enough, his first feature from 1971, the instant classic of dystopic angst, THX 1138, inaugurating a steady reversal of artistic maturity that would culminate in the cartoonish Star Wars sequels; which is maybe where he wanted to end up all along.
An angry, idealistic film that draws more from the Huxley/Orwellside of science-fiction than the Buck Rogers-style space operas that Lucas would later be associated with, THX 1138 is an impassioned howl against the dehumanization of modern society. The film presents a futuristic scenario in which all humans are tagged, numbered and drugged, shuffling along down corridors in a labyrinthine underground city, shaven-headed automatons who exist only to work and consume. Robert Duvall plays the eponymous hero, a worker who, like all protagonists in such tales, is starting to feel as though something is wrong in this putatively perfect world. He can’t concentrate at his job and is starting to feel a strange attraction to his roommate, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie), even though all nonregulated sexual activity appears to be illegal. The pressure of the state is brought to bear after THX stops his mandatory pill-popping (resulting in “prosecution for criminal drug evasion”) and another worker, SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasence) tries to come between THX and LUH, he has to make a break for freedom.
Lucas based this film on his student short Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB, basically the same story, only at 17 minutes long and dialogue-free. Fortunately, though, instead of blowing up an abstracted concept into a standard A-B-C sort of script – in the way that 12 Monkeys did with La Jetée – Lucas essentially made a longer version of that short. The resulting film is a fractured tone poem of white-on-white sets, intercut with the omnipresent surveillance footage, and a patchwork drone of overlapping radio communications (spliced together by master editor Walter Murch) in which what little dialogue exists is practically beside the point. As these are people who have been drugged into somnolescence since childhood it makes sense that they are less than eloquent, leaving Lucas to concentrate on the machinery that enslaves them.
There’s plenty of subtext percolating beneath the surface, most of which is left to the viewer to figure out. For instance, the only black people seen are performers on crude holographic TV shows (either lasciviously dancing or performing “Amos ‘n Andy”-like routines), while all the workers are white. The sole black person to exist here outside of TV turns out to be a hologram (and it’s suggested that all the performers are holograms as well); has society undergone some sort of ethnic cleansing?
What makes the horror of THX 1138 so all-enveloping is that there is simply no villain, nobody to blame for the fascist spectacle, a bloodied prisoner surrounded by guards with calmly droning voices, dead workers carted away like so many sacks of flour. The evil of this soul-pulverizing future is never personified in any one figure; all we ever see are bureaucrats plugging away at their desks, the faceless android enforcers, and the robed monks of the state religion, all anonymous and safe from blame. The overall mood is one of bottled-up rage. While the script’s critique of consumerist culture is heavy-handed, to say the least (“Buy more. Buy, and be happy”), its take on religion as just another tool of state control is devastating. Concerned about what’s wrong with him, THX goes to a phone booth-like stall to speak to what appears to be thought of as God, a Jesus-like picture (referred to obliquely as “Om”), only to have all his statements answered by gentle, meaningless prerecorded statements like “Yes” and “Go on.” Ultimately, another character will enter a soundstage that turns out to be Om’s temple, in a crushing man-behind-the-curtain revelation.
Not surprisingly, there’s a strong whiff of the 1970s here, a similarly cool and paranoid alienation that would also show up in The Conversation, whose layered sound collages were also done by Murch, and directed by THX 1138’sproducer (and Lucas mentor) Francis Ford Coppola. But, decades later, the film’s righteous humanist indignation still shines through as brightly as ever. Sometimes over-laden with influences, from 1984 to The Wizard of Oz, and occasionally simplistic, THX 1138 is nevertheless a film like no other, science fiction as it should be.
For this Director’s Cut version, Lucas felt the need to do a little dusting up, a la his Star Wars Special Editions, and while he probably should have left well enough alone, there are no additions here (with maybe one exception) that mar the finished product, and a few actually enhance it. Some of the larger scenes of the underground city have been enhanced with CGI backgrounds, showing traffic whizzing past, looming towers and the like, which help paint a larger picture but detract from the original version’s (budget-induced) claustrophobia. Most distracting is an add-on to the final chase scene, which originally had THX racing through an endless series of tunnels – shot in San Francisco’s unfinished BART system – but now has a few shots of him whipping through traffic at top speed; it’s just Lucas playing around with fast cars again. Fortunately, though, he did nothing to change the iconic final scene of THX finally on the surface, a blurred figure standing alone against a blazing red sun.
The two-disc DVD contains this restored and remastered director’s cut of the film, commentary by Lucas and Murch, an isolated music and sound effects track, two making-of documentaries, trailers, production featurette, and Lucas’s original student film.
Anyone for stickball?
Review by Chris Barsanti – Copyright © 2004 filmcritic.com