Much more than a low-budget science fiction movie, George Lucas' 1971 film THX 1138 is an early indictment of the corporate world that is perhaps more accessible in today's Dilbert culture than it was upon its release. I had always been intrigued by this movie, and finally got to see it thanks to Turner Classic Movies, which showed its theatrical cut (a director's cut, complete with the typical Lucas CGI upgrades is the only version on DVD). It's a shame that the new version is what most people will be exposed to now, because the special effects in the original cut are spectacular in their own right and sometimes breathtaking.
Set apparently very far in the future, THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) lives in a subeterranean world where the masses are given a steady dose of numbing drugs by some kind of governing body, so to keep them docile and more efficient. THX works in an extremely dangerous assembly line job, apparently creating the happy chrome-faced robots which keep the peace. But his day-to-day routine starts to change when he and his female roommate LUH 3417 stop taking their drugs and slowly start to feel emotions such as love and yearn for an escape of some kind. Love, sex and even friends are outlawed in the quest for maximum efficiency, but as THX persists in his escape attempts, he finds that the laws put in place to govern the masses cannot handle a single rogue.
Very little is explained about the world THX inhabits, but we get smart little bits of exposition here and there: after leaving work, THX buys a strange toy, which he summarily throws away after returning home; the state-run entertainment offers three channels: sex (a naked woman dancing), comedy (a man being beaten by police) and information (apparently smart, but empty conversation); THX and others find answers to their problems by entering a confessional and listening to pre-recorded bits of wisdom from the state-designed God.
The boldest decision Lucas made with this film was choosing not to show whatever person or thing controls this society. It would have been easy to create an Emperor Palpatine character, issuing commands as THX escapes, but the atmosphere is made more frightening since we are only shown the lower levels of 'management' and there is no mention of the highest branch -- if such a level even exists.
What we are shown is a sprawling underground world devoid of beauty or anything of interest. In a way it is a utopian culture with little chance for crime or upheaval, but on the other hand its complex beaurocracy system is deeply flawed. To punish THX for his sexual crimes, his mind is 'numbed' at his job, but this nearly causes a huge industrial disaster because it takes so long to get the clearance just to turn the punishment off.
Though it takes some effort to stay with the first act, 'THX 1138' really starts to fly in the final 20 minutes, as THX finds that corporate loopholes will greatly aid his escape -- even though he has no idea what is outside the walls. The final chase finds THX in a future supercar flying down the massive infrastructure, weaving through traffic and away from his captors. The sequence is amazing for its time, especially considering Lucas' modest budget, and foreshadows his more spectacular scenes in 'Star Wars.'
'THX 1138' was no doubt inspired by the ideas of rebellion of that era, showing that a system designed to control large masses can be bested by an individual, but it today it resonates with the issues of government surveillance, and offers an effective skewer of the corporate world. I haven't seen the director's cut yet, but I'm sure it's just as entertaining. Anyone looking to see a different side of Lucas, and a ground-breaking take on the future, should check out 'THX 1138.'
Sunday, August 20, 2006
Filed Under Classic reviews