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  •  REVIEW: THX 1138

    THX 1138

    Stop using the force, Lucas

    George Lucas mucks around unnecessarily with his stripped-down 1970 science-fiction classic "THX 1138," grafting glaringly modern effects onto a minimalist movie that didn't need them.

    By TOM X. CHAO

    Before "Star Wars" there was ... "American Graffiti." And before that, there was ... "THX 1138." George Lucas, the cinema behemoth who permanently changed the movie industry with his sprawling space saga, started off his career directing a stark, mature science-fiction think-piece so obscure it has rarely seen the light of a projector since its creation in 1970. Now, Lucas presents a new release of this film, both theatrically (Sept. 10) and on DVD (Sept. 14). And, once again, Lucas can't resist tinkering with his work retroactively, just as with the "Star Wars" trilogy, and again his emendations should seem largely unnecessary to anyone familiar with the film.

    THX 1138
    Full title: THX 1138: The George Lucas Director's Cut.
    Directed by: George Lucas.
    Written by: George Lucas, Walter Murch.
    Cast: Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Don Pedro Colley, Maggie McOmie, Ian Wolfe, Marshall Efron, Sid Haig, John Pearce, Irene Forrest, Gary Alan Marsh, John Seaton, Eugene I. Stillman, Raymond Walsh, Mark Lawhead, Robert Feero, Johnny Weissmuller Jr., Claudette Bessing, Susan Baldwin, James Wheaton, Henry Jacobs, William Love, Doc Scortt, Gary Austin, Paul K. Haje, Ralph Chesse, Dion M. Chesse, Bruce Chesse.
    Cinematography: Albert Kihn, David Myers.
    Edited by: George Lucas.
    Music by: Lalo Schifrin.
    Art direction: Michael D. Haller.

    Related links: Official site | Fan site comparing original and new versions
    AMC Empire 25 234 West 42nd St.

    Today, "THX 1138" can now be seen as part of the subgenre of '70s dystopian visions including films like "The Andromeda Strain," "Silent Running," "Westworld," "Rollerball," "Soylent Green," and "Logan's Run." "THX 1138" may not have been the most accurate in its prognostications, but it certainly captured a flat, dead emotional coolness as extreme as the histrionics of some of these other films.

    As the first film to be produced by his newly-founded American Zoetrope studio, Francis Ford Coppola would provide financial support for Lucas to make this film, with further backing from Warner Brothers. With a limited budget reported as $777,777 (based on Coppola's lucky number), Lucas and crew quite ably produced a startlingly bleak and innovative vision of a sterile futuristic society. In many ways, the visuals of "THX 1138" echo the pristine, spare interiors of Kubrick's masterpiece, "2001: A Space Odyssey," which this reviewer still considers the gold standard of science-fiction films. But here the mind-blowing panoramic space vistas are replaced with the dull confines of compartmentalized Orwellian industrial design. In this proposed future, set in an unspecified year, all workers sport shaved heads and white jumpsuits, working at tedious jobs in vast factories, then popping sedatives in their off-hours. Here, HAL-like Big Brother video cameras are mounted in every medicine cabinet to monitor drug use. The film was shot in color, but after viewing it you'll swear it was black-and-white, mostly white.

    THX 1138  
    The story follows factory worker THX 1138 (played by a young Robert Duvall), during a period of growing dissatisfaction with his life. His mental condition gradually breaks down to the point that he dares to engage in a forbidden sexual encounter with his state-assigned roommate, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie). With THX now attracting more attention than usual from the authorities, they attempt to perform a "mind-lock" on him which precipitates an industrial accident. Meanwhile, a higher-up in the hierarchy, SEN, attempts to reassign LUH and coerce THX to move in with him. SEN is played by Donald Pleasance, who imparts an appropriately oily worminess to the character. As things come to a head, THX and SEN are arrested. They are detained, in some of the film's most surreal and lyrical scenes, inside a strange wall-less prison with the appearance of an Arctic white-out, devoid of any detail save a few hard sleeping pallets. An escape is attempted by THX and SEN, who are soon joined by a hologram, SRT, breezily portrayed by Don Pedro Colley, who seems more human than any of the actual humans. (Why a hologram needs to eat is beyond this reviewer's ken.) There follows a chase, first on foot, then in souped-up vehicles, then on foot again, leading to a very swift conclusion.

    To his credit, Lucas and co-screenwriter / sound designer Walter Murch dispense with clumsy expository devices and leave the viewer to pick up the threads of the plot, threads often obscured by grainy video images and buried in an endless buzz of technical jargon and futurespeak terms. But the plot really remains secondary to the rich, detailed atmosphere that the film creates. Lucas and his crew manage to — despite their budgetary constraints — realize a plausible alternate reality utilizing clever camera angles, a smattering of costumes and props (all screaming '60s minimalism), and the sound design, which in its density and inventiveness allows the filmmakers to reinforce the futuristic feelings of alienation and dislocation without elaborate sets or special effects. ("Star Wars" fans will instantly recognize the ring-modulation effect used on many of the disembodied voices barking crisp, militaristic orders.) It's true that the film contains loads of quaintly outmoded technology, such as punchcards, teletypes, reel-to-reel tapes, and oscilloscopes — still, can't we credit a contemporary audience with enough ability to view this film in its historical context?

      THX 1138
    At a brief 88 minutes, there wasn't much original material for Lucas to muck with. The newly created shots and digitally altered shots do not constitute a large percentage of the film. However, they should be instantly recognizable to almost anyone as grafted on after the fact. The new shots of vast cityscapes, train stations, factories, and highways only serve to deflate the film's taut, tightly claustrophobic evocation of dehumanizing environments. (A fan website at has some direct comparisons of images from the original version and the new DVD.)

    "Star Wars" fans who are drawn to this movie after noting obscure "THX" references for years should not expect a shoot-'em-up space opera. Those fans, or fans of science-fiction in general, should certainly seek out this movie as a thought-provoking meditation on potential future social trends. But — and this reviewer can't stress this enough — they should watch it in its original form first. The new version should be regarded as an interesting but misguided attempt to improve it. Lucas should stop trying to preserve history by — to borrow a concept from another dystopian vision, "1984" — constantly rewriting it. If "THX 1138" was intended to be an "artifact from the future," as Lucas has said, he certainly has done the worst to it, like trying make a meteorite more interesting by covering it in day-glo fluorescent paint and glued-on pieces of C-3PO and R2-D2.

    SEPTEMBER 9, 2004

    Reader comments on THX 1138:

  • On holograms with the munchies...   from jarkko, Oct 2, 2004
  • hey   from john, Apr 15, 2006
  • THX1138   from DEB, May 19, 2006
  • Mark Lawhead   from Terry Finch, Sep 27, 2007

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