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THX 1138 (1971)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THX 1138 (1971)

Starring: Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Maggie McOmie, Don Pedro Colley, Ian Wolfe

Written By: George Lucas (also story), Walter Murch Directed By: George Lucas

The Short Version

Behold the feature directorial debut of some guy named George Lucas.

The world building here is phenomenal.

Lots of questions are raised; next to no answers are given aloud.  As it should be.

Oh, look… it’s a Director’s Cut…

THX 1138 is a required stop on the dystopian sci fi canon tour.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Good stuff.

Pairs Well With...


Clean.  Antiseptic.  Sedative.

“What’s wrong?”

Once upon a time, no one outside of a certain film school in Southern California knew who George Lucas was.  Then his friend Francis Ford Coppola agreed to produce a feature length version of one of Lucas’ student films, and so it was that the man who would later Change Everything with Star Wars made his big screen directorial debut with THX 1138.

The basic premise of THX 1138 (which may or may not have been named after George Lucas’ telephone number) is nothing new, flashing forward to a distant dystopian future wherein the dehumanized population is tightly controlled by a combined collectivist/capitalist totalitarian state.  (Start with Orwell and keep going in both directions.)  We’ve all seen and/or read this scenario dozens of times before, but then one hits the flashes of originality – and the film’s appeal – by delving into the details, and those details are what got Mr. Lucas noticed by the people who’d go on to fund his visions for changing the motion picture industry a few years down the road.

It starts with world building.

The world of THX 1138 is stark: a nearly endless expanse of windowless institutional white.  (Indeed, the Whiteness of the production design is so overwhelming that one could legitimately contend that the color White is a character in and of itself.)  It is populated by shaven-headed Caucasian people wearing white coveralls who live with assigned roommates and who go to assigned jobs and who take massive amounts of drugs dispensed by talking medicine cabinets every day because they’re told to do that, too.  (“If you feel you are not properly sedated, call 348-844 immediately. Failure to do so may result in prosecution for criminal drug evasion.” )  Physical sex of any sort is considered deviant (there are suggestions in the dialogue that natural births are rare and considered unclean, though there are plenty of embryos in jars), but relaxation through the enjoyment of pornography is considered perfectly fine.  Indeed, there are at least two different channels on the hologram service dedicated to nothing but.  (All holograms, it’s worth noting, are people of color.)  There’s also a comedy channel, a pundit channel, and even a “let’s watch a police beating” channel.  (This channel is one of the creepiest details in the entire film; it is literally nothing but cops methodically beating a cowering man nonstop, apparently forever.)

Speaking of the cops, they’re not human: they’re robots in 1960s style motorcycle cop uniforms with soothing monotone voices and featureless silver faces.  Nor are they the only nonhuman representatives of authority, for Church and State are no longer separated, and the masses are kept in line by a God named OMM who is nothing more than a projected image of an old painting and a repetitive tape recording of platitudes that plays whenever supplicants enter a “confession booth.”  There appear to be priests, but they are completely shrouded in robes that also hide their faces, and that leads to the first interesting question that THX 1138 never bothers to answer: who’s in charge here?

While there are humans shown in positions of apparent authority, the audience never sees anyone or anything that represents ultimate authority, unless one counts constant radio chatter of indeterminate provenance.  (That is another outstanding bit of world building, by the way; and it’s largely improv work.)  Are there humans in charge, as the courtroom scene might suggest, or is it all run by machine, which the rest of the society’s structure seems to indicate?  The film never provides a direct answer; indeed, one could argue that the film doesn’t care.  The world that George Lucas and his collaborators are presenting on the screen functions, and that’s obviously the primary objective of this project: to build and explore that world.  Everything else, well... the audience doesn’t necessarily need to know.  Indeed, this movie may be better specifically because we don’t.

Of course, that’s another trick as to how the pictured society functions: it works precisely because its masses don’t want to know and don’t want to rebel, be that the result of drugs or complacency or both.  (About those drugs, by the way, remember when and where this movie was made: San Francisco, 1970.  Interesting direction on that tack, taken from a historical perspective.)  This world’s idea of a prison – and it is creepy – is a gigantic white room with no apparent end.  It’s possible to escape just by walking far enough out, but apparently, that’s never occurred to anyone before the film’s designated hero (the title character, THX 1138, played by Robert Duvall) tries it.  The robot cops are somewhat formidable when they try (provided that they stay under budget), but they’re also obviously unprepared for anyone to fight back against them.  So much to think about here.

And what of the character of poor SEN 5241, played by Donald Pleasence?  On the surface, he seems to be trying to think things through; indeed, he evens cheats the system a little to get things to work to his advantage.  But for all of his blustering and machinations, he never appears to understand why he wants what he wants.  Whether or not this was intended from the start – though honestly the portrayal is so clear that I can’t imagine it to be coincidental – to modern eyes, it seems quite obvious that SEN is a closeted gay man who doesn’t necessarily realize that he is such because in this world, it’s entirely possible that he truly has no experience whatsoever with human attraction and/or sex.  The acting here is dynamite, and Pleasence leaves the audience with so many layers to read through that one could watch the movie several times over and pick up a different nuance with every go.

Again, along with the physical world building, it’s the questions that are never answered out loud that make THX 1138 stand out from the dystopian crowd.

There really hadn’t been much like it when THX 1138 first premiered in 1971, during the heart of the Age of Experimental Science Fiction… but unless you’ve got an old copy, you won’t get to see what those audiences saw anymore.

Did I mention that the director’s name is George Lucas?  Of course the newer releases – including all of the blu ray pressings – are a retooled Director’s Cut that does not include the Original Cut for comparison.  (Though there are some visual guides to be found online, if you’re curious.)  I want to object on general principle; to me, this kind of retool – which includes a fair amount of CG work – is like DaVinci coming back to the Mona Lisa a couple decades on and changing her face.  It bothers me.  Even accepting the changes as “George being George,” at the very least, the Original Cut should be there, too.  Make plain to all what’s been done; show the artist at work, if you will.  It’s not like there isn’t room on the disc.

With that said, most of the changes work.  The starkness of the Original Cut is preserved; there’s even still grain in the film, and the characters are still completely without makeup or airbrushing.  (Inlcuding during their nude scenes.)  The holograms are cleaned up just to the point of being more viewable.  The whites are whiter.  An interesting gap is filled in by allowing audiences a much better (now CG) look at what exactly THX does for a living.  (Before, there were fewer shots, and what could be seen was far less detailed.)  More bizarre is an automatic masturbation device that gets busy while THX watches the porn channel; that machine was not there before.  The larger crowd and environment shots that make the city look bigger I’m not quite sold on; they don’t kill the starkness, but they do open things up a bit more than seems right.  What I’m definitely not sold on, though, are the CG changes to the “shell dwellers,” which are very obvious and take the viewer right out of the picture.

Outside the CG realm, there’s also a different take used of a scene during which SEN and THX have a very important conversation.  The result is the same, but none the less, it is a change, and a tone shift.

At the end of the day, though, there’s no reason to shun the Director’s Cut of THX 1138.  The essential story is still there, the world is still the same at its core, and the same questions are asked without being answered aloud onscreen.  The film the first showed that George Lucas could take a standard frame premise and make something original and interesting from it is still very much there, and it’s still just as fascinating.

Bottom line, THX 1138 is an essential stop on the dystopian science fiction canon tour, and it would be even if George Lucas hadn’t gone on to do anything else of note… though the fact that he did (and that the beginnings of what he would later do can be plainly seen here) only serves to make this movie even more intriguing.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, January, 2014

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