Editor's note: THX 1138 is only playing in 20 cities, but the DVD will be available on Tuesday, Sept. 14.
It always brings me a small chuckle when I consider how many young boys (like myself) have likely fallen prey to THX 1138 over the last 25 years. So enamored with George Lucas' much beloved Star Wars films, we browsed the sci-fi section of the local rental store. And lo! There came the day when we discovered that the famed filmmaker had already directed another sci-fi film, before Star Wars. With glee, the film was brought home with the promise of robots and rocket cars. But instead of a rip-roaring action-laden space opera, we saw a slow-moving, 90-minute, quiet-paced oddity that left most of us scratching our heads and asking, "What was that?"
That was George Lucas' first film, originally written and directed as a school project by the film student. It earned him enough acclaim to attract the attention of Francis Ford Coppola, who helped Lucas expand the film in 1971 as the first feature release for American Zoetrope (Coppola's then new independent studio). With a budget under $1 million, Lucas delivered an original work of sci-fi that today resembles a combination of the Big Brother paranoia and social commentary of George Orwell's 1984 and the pessimistic futurism of Phillip K. Dick (Blade Runner or Minority Report).
THX 1138 tells of a not-too-distant futuristic society, grown cold from an over-reliance on technology and prescription drugs to keep their problems, emotions, and libidos in check. Citizens' medicine cabinets are equipped with interactive computer systems that ask, "What's wrong?" before prescribing sedatives. And is it any wonder? The world suffers from overpopulation. Men and women need to shave their heads for some reason. Unauthorized marriage and sexual activity is prohibited. Humorous-yet-eerie chrome robots that resemble a cross between C-3PO and the cops from CHiPs enforce the law. Roommates are assigned to each other via computer, regardless of sex or age—"You're rated highly on sanitation. I checked." Even religion is computerized, requiring people to confess sins to a programmed image resembling Christ called OMM. (In the future depicted here, they practice some kind of Unitarian hybrid of Catholicism and Buddhism.)
And on top of that, citizens are given three-letter names with a four-digit designation (and you thought area codes were a pain!), which brings us to the title character played by a pre-Godfather, post-To Kill a Mockingbird Robert Duvall. THX (pronounced "Thex") finds this life unfulfilling, if you can believe it, and we come to realize that he's slowly going through withdrawal symptoms. It turns out that he and his roommate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) have stopped taking their medication. With their humanity suddenly unleashed, they fall in love and engage in "sexual perversity" (as defined by future law) caught on camera by weaseling programmer SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasence, Halloween and The Great Escape).
With unchecked emotions leading to imperfection at THX's job, the lovers are soon arrested for drug evasion. After a frighteningly shorthand trial, THX is sentenced to reconditioning and imprisonment (along with SEN) in a maddeningly white wall-less asylum that makes One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest seem like a day spa. It's from there that THX decides to make a break for it, find LUH, and escape the city.
The problem with the original THX 1138 was not high concept or movie making as much as it was simply ahead of its time in so many ways. In the 33 years since its release, audiences have slowly developed more sophisticated tastes to accommodate art films with challenging ideas. And while this has been regarded as a minor sci-fi cult classic, even more filmgoers might have discovered Lucas' imaginative debut if it weren't such an abstract, low budget experience. The film's special effects were more imaginary than imaginative—there's a humorous scene in which we see an audience respond to some sort of futuristic tennis match that we hear but never see. Stilted dialogue was further diluted by muddy sound and cheap visuals. This used to be a movie that only the most hardcore sci-fi fanatics could truly appreciate … but that's changed now.
Yes, in an ironic reversal, the film that paved the way for Lucas to make Star Wars now gets a much-needed face-lift thanks to the enduring success of that series. The digital restoration looks vibrant on the big screen, which means it'll look at least as good on your television screen, and the THX sound (aha!) is terrific, especially when it envelops the audience with the ambience of the overcrowded city. Speaking of which, like the restored original Star Wars trilogy, we actually get to see glimpses of the city in the background—and is it at all surprising that it closely resembles the Empire's metropolitan home world of Coruscant? Rather than a bland series of underground tunnels that resemble the service halls of a shopping mall, the environment comes to life with multiple levels, elevators, walkways, and a series of lightning-fast trams. There are even a few new shots of futuristic life forms not seen in the original film.
Unlike the Star Wars restoration, in which the new effects shots merely enhanced the environment (and proved too distracting for some), the effects here are used to tell the story with considerably more clarity and effectiveness. An off-screen radiation explosion early in the original film now becomes a cinematic reality in the director's cut. We more clearly see THX's job as a robotic assembly line technician. The planet's overpopulation problem is shown with more terrifying and claustrophobic results. And Lucas' love of speedy vehicles comes to life with more fully realized rocket cars that actually rocket this time, resulting in a chase scene toward the film's end that becomes quite a bit more exciting.
Family-minded audiences should also be aware that Lucas has restored more than effects to the film, earning the movie an R rating for sexuality and nudity. The film's heady themes and cinematic style already make it too mature (i.e. "boring") for kids under 13—as shared already, I speak from experience. Many of today's PG-13 films are more explicit and gratuitous than this, which shows a few scenes of THX and LUH naked in each other's arms. Though a lot of skin is shown, it's less titillating than it is "Eden like," contrasting human intimacy with the world in which they live.
In another restored scene, a holographic nude dancer is presented as an example of soulless entertainment that's been reduced to its base pleasures. Coupled with similarly banal programs of comedy, violence, and sensationalistic news, Lucas offers a vision of where he believes today's television programming is headed—and judging by the evolution of entertainment over the last 30 years, he may not be far off.
The movie still suffers from a tedious and overlong sequence of insane political ramblings from SEN and others in the conditioning asylum. Also the ending still feels too abrupt, and while the final shot is a classic, I wonder if new digital effects might not have rendered it into something more stirring and spectacular. But ultimately, there's no question that George Lucas has succeeded here in restoring THX 1138 for a new generation. Enhancing the film's vision, message, drama, and humor with special effects and a clearer presentation, he's turned something that was relatively unwatchable (by today's cinematic standards) into something that can easily endure as a sci-fi classic for many years.Discussion starters
- Love, faith, and sexuality are all part of our humanity. Are these things that should be taken from society? Can they be manipulated to our undoing? How do we find balance in using and abusing what we are?
- Early on, THX is clearly unfulfilled by the materialism and religion of his society. How does this mirror our own world today? In regard to faith, what do the OMM confessionals tell us about how non-believers regard Christianity?
- SEN confesses to OMM in a later scene, begging to be pointed in the right direction. What are his motivations for doing this? How does this compare to our own prayer life with God? Does the scene strengthen or weaken his character in our eyes?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
THX 1138 is rated R for some sexuality and nudity. The sexuality is less than what's typical in a PG-13 film or television, but the nudity goes far enough to earn it an R rating. It's primarily used in scenes between THX and LUH to imply that they have had sex, though there is also a newly restored scene in which THX is aroused by a holographic nude dancer. While the scenes aren't "essential" to the film, they're not gratuitous or exploited either, included to contrast "Eden-like" human contact with the cold and sterile technology-driven world that the characters inhabit. THX 1138 is intended for mature viewing audiences; besides, most kids under 15 will be bored with the film anyway.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros.compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 09/16/04
Restoring the visuals to pristine, powerful imagery, enhancing them with elaborate digital effects, and remastering the timeworn soundtrack, George Lucas has turned his 1971 sci-fi "art" film THX 1138 into a compelling new big screen experience.
But Star Wars fans might want to think twice before hurrying out to catch a screening—and they should definitely not take their kids. This is a film for mature, discerning viewers who can weather its bleak and oppressive vision of an Orwellian future.
THX 1138 is the name of the character played by Robert Duvall, who gives an impressive performance here as a troubled robot-factory worker, burdened by the drugs that the oppressive government employs to manipulate him and his fellow citizens. Tormented by the effects of the drugs and struggling with his lack of privacy, he seeks refuge in an illegal romance with his cell "mate." For this, he does prison time with detainees who are crazy, terrified, dangerous, or—worst of all—philosophical. The company there proves intolerable, so he sets out to escape.
Lucas has done a fantastic job of improving a harsh, challenging, bewildering film into a much more convincing and fascinating spectacle. Unfortunately, the story remains poorly developed, and the conclusion is abrupt and rather unsatisfying. It's a science fiction oddity that only die-hard fans of the genre will find worthwhile. (My full review is at Looking Closer.)
Russ Breimeier (Christianity Today Movies) sums up the film saying, "There's no question that George Lucas has succeeded here in restoring THX 1138 for a new generation. Enhancing the film's vision, message, drama, and humor with special effects and a clearer presentation, he's turned something that was relatively unwatchable (by today's cinematic standards) into something that can easily endure as a sci-fi classic for many years."
He also cautions "family-minded audiences" that the film is rated R for sexuality and nudity. "Many of today's PG-13 films are more explicit and gratuitous than this. Though a lot of skin is shown, it's less titillating than it is 'Eden like,' contrasting human intimacy with the world in which they live."
Mainstream critics are impressed with Lucas's restoration and revisions.
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