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Old Movie, New Review: THX 1138

June 13, 2010

Most people know THX 1138 as George Lucas’ first film, expanded to feature length in 1971 from his 1967 short made while he was a student University of Southern California.  Largely overshadowed by his later works, mostly a pair of mildly successful series involving “star wars” and a bookish adventurer named Indiana Jones, THX 1138 stands as perhaps his darkest and most cerebral product.  While its sound and imagery have spawned a hundred imitators—the title itself is the subject of a thousand references*THX 1138 suffers from a lack of thematic originality but is an enjoyable film in its own right.

The movie derives most of its inspiration from George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, with splashes of Ayn Rand’s Anthem.  Quashed individuality, heavy behavioral monitoring and control through pharmaceuticals, and the societal struggle to suppress basic human drives interplay throughout.  Rebelling against government directives, especially one called Drug Evasion in which citizens illegally forego ingesting mood-altering chemicals, the main characters begin to explore volition, romantic love, and physical intimacy.  Actors Robert Duvall and Maggie McOmie convincingly portray a nascent couple not exactly sure how to express their growing sexual feelings for each other because they’ve never had those experiences.  However, they quickly figure out, to their legal detriment, how to make babies.  This should strongly remind the viewer of Winston and Julia’s brief and ill-fated affair in 1984THX 1138’s government doesn’t seem to be as tyrannical, though, as law enforcement decisions seem to be based as much on budget strictures as the need to maintain strict social order (though that is a concern, given the ubiquity of cameras and the android police force).  Also, the society has a functioning justice system, with a prosecution and defense, and apparently a computer algorithm that renders the final verdict.

I watched this film for the first time last week, which means I’d seen nearly every other Lucas movie before this one.  From the first minutes, it is clear that THX 1138’s stark, sterile white aesthetic informs the sets and costumes of nearly the entire Star Wars trilogy, especially A New Hope.  In both movies, the audience experiences the incongruity between bright, clean uniforms and surroundings, which usually inspire happiness and calm, and the rigidity and underlying menace of a severely regimented and collectivist society that eschews emotion and individuality.  The characters in THX 1138 are given prefixes and numbers, rather than names we might recognize, for a reason—the title of the movie itself refers to Duvall’s character’s “name.”  The name-numbers are even recycled when a person dies or is “destroyed.”  Lucas goes even further with this theme, though less explicitly, in Star Wars, with his nameless Stormtroopers, nearly all of whom are clones of the same person.

The sounds and their editing, especially the muffled, slightly computerized voice communications, definitely make their way from THX 1138 to Star Wars (recall scenes with the brief back-and-forth among X-Wing pilots during their first attack on the Death Star).  Lucas also employs “holograms,” both tangible like the character SRT, and purely visual, like the monks of the religious figure OMM.  The hooded monks come off as very similar to Emperor Palpatine both in appearance and importance as pseudo-religious figures.

All in all, I’m glad I watched THX 1138.  It starts off well, detailing Lucas’ vision of a future dystopic society, its effects on the individual, and its inherent limitations.  Again, the ideas and manner in which they are explored don’t break new ground, and the end of the movie unfortunately devolves into a pretty typical chase scene with only small differences in the details.  The visuals and sounds, especially their editing, are impressive and will be familiar to any Star Wars fan.

Verdict:  Watch it.

Netflix offers the instantly watchable “Special Edition,” which includes extra material, reshot scenes, and new digital effects.  The computerized graphics were easy to spot, and felt intrusive and unnecessary (think the remastered version of the original Star Wars trilogy), though to be fair I can’t judge that well because I have never seen the original version of THX 1138.

*The sample at the beginning of Nine Inch Nails’ “Mr. Self Destruct” (song 1 from Downward Spiral) is taken from a scene in which a police officer beats a suspect on video.  It took me 16 years to find that out.

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2 Comments
  1. Paul permalink*
    June 14, 2010 11:52 am

    NIN FTW.

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