There seems to be something about the dystopia that has captivated literature and now film. These glimpse of a paradise turned horribly wrong have become both cautionary and entertaining. THX-1138 depicts a very bleak view of the world. Robert Duvall plays THX-1138, one of many drones that work in some underground world where he handles radioactive material through robotic arms. There is little to no privacy in this world, robotic police, cameras and prying eyes are literally everywhere. THX-1138’s roommate is LUH-3417 (Maggie McOmie) like everyone else is bald and dressed in nondescript overalls. As it turns out the pair defy all laws and regulations and fall in love. They begin to evade the mind numbing drugs dispensed to control and pacify the worker bee population. Yes, in this world one of the worse offenses is drug evasion for it would lead to messy things like human emotions. It does appear that love is not the only emotion that has not been completely subjugated, SEN-5241 (Donald Pleasence) is also enraptured by THX and plots to remove LUH as his roommate in order to move in. When THX’s blood level of drugs falls and he becomes more and more anxious at his high pressure job he is discovered and found guilty of drug evasion. Placed in an all white area he must find a way to not only get out of there but hopefully find his way to the surface. In a way the white room reminded me somewhat of the famous scene in North by Northwest where the hapless hero was trapped in a field. There is a feeling of complete exposure and vulnerability in a place with no where to hide.
Watching this film again after many years I could not help but to infuse some of the changes in today’s world into my perception. As we face losses in personal freedom and increasing surveillance the world of this film seems somewhat more plausible. There is also the odd juxtaposition of financial concerns. While the mechanical ‘priests’ suggest that THX would feel better if he purchased more, while chasing our fugitive hero we hear command staff worried about cost overruns. This seems to echo today very closely as we are bombarded by ads to buy more and politicians that promise to lower government spending. While Lucas could not have foreseen this back in 1971 it does allow the modern viewer to see this film in a whole new light. Although primitive in many respects by our current standards this film stands the test of time. Even those familiar with the film will be able to take away something different as out times change.
Robert Duvall is excellent in this film, not a surprise since this is one of the most versatile actors in American cinema. He is the rare character actor that has the talent to cross over to leading man, capable of holding a film on his own. Here, he has to go against most acting training to let the emotions out. He plays the repressed THX to perfection. His interaction with the other members of the casts is often guarded, holding back, just right to let us see what is going on beneath the surface of THX. Donald Pleasence is another actor that we seem to take for granted. He is extremely talented but usually in films where others take the lead. Here, he is on the verge of revolting as the manipulative SEN. Although the world is a series of regulations he plays his character as a man that has found his way around these rules for his own gratification. This was the only film credit for Maggie McOmie. She also brings greater depth to LUH that you would think was possible.
George Lucas has done what no other director has ever managed. He hit big in the seventies with THX-1138, American Graffiti and Star Wars and then didn’t direct again until 22 years later when he made the first Star Wars prequel. While many of his fans are disappointed with his constant changes to the Star Wars epics THX-1138 demonstrates that the man has directorial talent. There is a minimalist grace to this film. The stark settings and harsh lighting serves to make the audience uncomfortable, permitting us to become emotionally invested with the plight of the characters. You can also see much of his future works in embryo form here. The robot police are a direct ancestor of the dreaded Star Wars storm troopers. The over reliance of technology becomes the real evil here and what matters is the individualistic spirit of man. Although made of the lowest budget in his career this film is incredible. Lucas uses style to set the mood and reinforce the emotions conveyed by the cast. While many films substitute style for story here Lucas integrates the look of the film with his pale vision of the future.
A couple of versions of this seminal have been available on DVD for a number of years but like many older films the studio has invested in a re-mastering overhaul to bring it up to modern high definition standards. For those familiar with this film you might be under the impression that such a visually starkly minimalistic film would not be greatly enhanced by the upgrade to 1080p but after a careful viewing you will certainly come to see just how incorrect that assumption can be. One thing afforded by the extra definition is to push the juxtaposition of light and dark to a new height. Lucas used an excess of white almost washing out the scenes but in this Blu-ray edition details begin to emerge such as the subtle textures of the clothing and surfaces. The contrasted blacks are richer than ever with razor sharp edges. The overall visual effect just amazing with how more sterile the sets become forcing the organ nature of the characters to pop right off the screen. In a similar fashion the English: DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio give a completely different sound stage than before. The mechanical footsteps of the robotic police in the barren halls echo a loneliness that reinforces the bleak themes of the movie.
For Extras Warner Brothers recycled from the DVD special edition. There is a commentary track that features Lucas and his sound editor. There is the usual ‘how well we did way back then’ chat but there were some nice insight into how Lucas made his student film into his first theatrical release. Speaker of which, the deluxe set contains that 15 minute short for comparison. The deluxe also has several rather interesting featurettes. A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope Documentary demonstrates that Lucas started his career with a true love of the media. There is also a typical making of featurette and on the bald look of the characters. No matter how recent decisions have affected your view of Lucas this is a film for every serious collection.