THX 1138: The Director's Cut

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/16/05 09:11:21

"Not that I haven't liked George Lucas's later works, but this is special."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

SCREENED AT THE 2005 BOSTON SCIENCE FICTION FILM FESTIVAL: Somewhere, in an alternate universe, THX 1138 had the same influence on science-fiction filmmaking that director George Lucas's later Star Wars did. I'm not sure what that universe looks like - perhaps the Matrix movies really were smart movies where the special effects existed to serve the story there, or perhaps Solaris (either version) was a smash hit - but I'm not sure that it's a better place. It's a very nice thing to have the occasional THX 1138, but I wouldn't want a multiplex full of them.

THX 1138 borrows heavily from Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, positing a society where manufacturing and consumption isn't just the economic engine, but is the acknowledge central activity in people's lives. They take drugs to dull their senses and emotions, and watch their entertainment without appearing to get any real enjoyment out of it (is there an earlier depiction of a bored man absently channel surfing?). Everybody looks and dresses the same, down to their shaved heads. Life is a purely mechanical process, until someone breaks out of their ordained rut.

In this case, it's THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) who, at the urging of his roommate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie), goes off his meds and discovers an attraction to her. LUH isn't the only one interested in THX; a higher-ranking worker, SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasance), also seems to have a sort of repressed crush on him, and tries to arrange for THX to become his new roommate. Soon, all are found to be deviants and thrown into a surreal prison from which THX eventually attempts to escape.

One thing that I find interesting about Lucas's sci-fi/fantasy movies is how divorced from our reality they are. He sets a movie with with spaceships and robots "a long time ago", and though most people watching THX 1138 would assume it's in the future, there's nothing specifically placing it there. Other dystopian stories, such as Brave New World or 1984, may not give us the backstory on how humanity went from twentieth-century America to this regimented existence, but they do make clear how there is a lost tradition of self-determination that the heroes have to recover. By making THX 1138 a pure fantasy, Lucas denies THX a ready mentor, or the reassurance of not being the first. THX may not be alone, but he's still on his own, so to speak.

The world created for THX 1138 is certainly familiar enough for genre fans - stark white sets (plain black and plain white never go out of style), jumpsuits, shaven heads all meant to drive home the society's uniformity. What is remarkable is that despite this, the characters do all remain individual. That's a tribute to both the cast and the filmmakers; Lucas does not insist upon robotic performances, and the cast doesn't give them. Duvall's awakening everyman is interesting because he does not become passionate about his new capability for passion; he's a convert, but not a true believer. Pleasance's creepy character is intriguing to watch, apparently higher up in the hierarchy and hypocritical, but not really aware of it.

The movie is infused with some dry humor, such as announcements about reporting neighbors' drug avoidance, or THX's annoyance with someone who tags along as he walks away from captivity. I'm a bit curious about the final chase sequence, as it is the most obviously touched by new effects. Sometime, I'll have to get hold of an earlier version and see how it compares. It's a very low-key chase, yet still tense, and leads to a perfectly open ending.

In some ways, it's tough to reconcile THX 1138 with Lucas's later work, which clearly traded philosophical depth for accessibility. Not that this movie is terribly deep; to an extent, its abstraction makes it less mainstream and thus more likely to be perceived as "serious" art. It is a good argument for Lucas's worth as a filmmaker, though: Seeing that he has done something so different from Star Wars, and done it well, makes the twenty years where he didn't direct anything (and the decade he's spent making highly entertaining but undeniably derivative follow-ups) seem like a tremendous loss to the medium.

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