Robert Duvall as THX-1138
Donald Pleasance as Sen
Don Pedro Colley as SRT
Maggie McOmie as Luh
Ian Wolfe as PTO
Marshall Efron as TWA
Sid Harris as NCH
In the underground society of the future, factory workers are kept in a drugged state to keep their emotions from getting in the way of their jobs. THX-1138 (Duvall) has stopped taking his drugs and the sudden influx of emotion leads him to a sexual encounter with his government-assigned roommate, Luh. When the government discovers their illegal moment of passion THX is imprisoned and interrogated, before he tries to escape with a political dissident named Sen (Donald Pleasance).
Stanley Kubrick’s 1969 adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey may be considered the first modern science-fiction film, but just a few short years later, a young film student named George Lucas joined together with Francis Ford Coppola’s new company American Zoetrope to make a feature film version of his student project THX-1138. Made outside the studio system for a mere $777,777, its distributor, Warner Brothers, didn’t know what to do with the movie, cutting out five minutes without the approval of Lucas or Coppola. Ultimately, it was too weird for audiences and it bombed. Many years later, Lucas would be recognized as the genius behind “Star Wars,” while THX-1138 might have been quickly forgotten. Decades later, its influence is obvious on everything from Logan’s Run, Blade Runner, Dark City, The Matrix, Minority Report and even this year’s I, Robot, and Lucas has wisely spent a number of years digitally restoring it, because it works better now than it ever did back in its day.
The story itself steals liberally from Orwell’s “1984” with a society made up of bald worker drones who wander around aimlessly as dislocated voices speak soothing yet meaningless catch phrases. The ties between church and state have been irreparably obliterated as the edicts from on high come through religion as opposed to an elected official. Robotic police officers brutally beat their captives while spouting polite apologies.
To say that this world is a strange one would be putting it mildly, and even today, this movie is a bit of an anomaly, being an intelligent science fiction film full of social and political commentary with minimal action. Surprisingly, much of what Lucas was trying to show in his fictitious 21st Century is still in tune with reality. Paranoia is everywhere, people are glued to their television sets for information and entertainment, and people are randomly arrested for ridiculous violations. Parts of the movie are even funnier now than they were back then, not only due to the retro-futurism but also due to great throwaway lines like “Remember. Thrifty thinkers are always under budget.” Considering who directed this, it’s more than a bit ironic in hindsight.
Stuff like that makes the movie that more interesting, because you’re given a portal into the young Lucas’ vision of the world and a future far more subversive than the mainstream thinking that went into “Star Wars”.
Even if the movie’s message is too esoteric for some, one can still appreciate the improvement in the movie’s look and sound due to the beautiful restoration job. You can tell that rebuilding the movie was a real labor of love, and probably a nice break from all of the “Star Wars” hoopla of the last ten years. Lalo Schifrin’s ambient soundtrack combines well with the sound effects to set a tone and mood, that is a clear influence on modern film composers like Clint (Requiem for a Dream) Mansell and Nine Inch Nail’s Trent Reznor, who sampled portions of the movie for one of his records.
The film’s two main stars, a rather young Robert Duvall as THX and Donald Pleasance as his mad accomplice Sen, both give decent performances that only give an inkling of what they’ve been capable as actors in the years since. Otherwise, the movie is mostly made up of unknowns who probably haven’t done much since.
Most will remember THX-1138 from its climactic car chase through the city’s underground tunnels or the sea of people that THX must wade through to escape, but the strongest visual has to be that of Duvall wearing a white jumpsuit sitting in an all-white “cell” with no walls or bars. It’s a stark scene made even more stunning on the big screen by the fantastic restoration. The film’s only real downtime happens shortly after that as THX is put into a room with a group of degenerates right out of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Some of that scene may be deemed as performance art, but the movie does start to get a bit silly at that point, and it’s hard not to snicker.
The Bottom Line:
Anyone disappointed with the direction of the “Star Wars” movies should be thrilled and elated by this brilliant reproduction of one of those rare science-fiction films that actually gets better with time. While some of THX-1138 might seem a bit pretentious, the genius of a young Lucas is on full display, not only for his amazing foresight of what the future may bring, but also his grand use of a minimal budget. It’s an amazing achievement at least thirty years ahead of its time.
THX-1138 opens in select cities on Friday before its first ever DVD release on Tuesday, September 14. If you have a chance to see it in theatres on a big screen, it’s definitely worth it!