Have you ever visited a church service, or a political rally, or a company meeting where you had the strange feeling that everybody had been brainwashed into “talking the talk” and going through the motions?
Does the world sometimes feel cold and impersonal, and leave you longing for something more?
If you said “yes” to any of these, it’s likely that THX 1138 will draw you into its nightmare and leave you haunted and exhausted.
Many of the best science fiction stories have prophesied a future world in which, for the sake of efficiency or control, the world has fallen under the rule of a harsh, invasive government that subjects its citizens to dehumanizing procedures. George Lucas’s 1971 “art film,” THX 1138 clearly follows in the tradition of George Orwell and other such troubled prophets. It’s an oppressive film — a friend of mine calls it “punishing” — and if you suffer from claustrophobia, I’d advise you to steer clear of it. But it gives us a unique window on the mind of the man who would bring us that famous band of rebels striking back against a cruel empire.
Lucas’s vision of the future in this movie is a bleak one. It plays better as a surreal nightmare, though, than as a philosophical exploration. Lucas has never been known for his subtlety. But to its credit, THX 1138 shows that Lucas was once interested in letting actors act, and in letting the audience think for themselves. It reveals just how much his technological toys have crippled him as a storyteller even as they have allowed him to concoct dazzling, dizzying, and distracting imagery.
THX 1138 boasts a couple of effective performances, especially Robert Duvall as the tormented central character whose “name” provides the film’s title. THX works at a robot factory, his behavior manipulated by technology and drugs. In rare moments of foggy self-awareness, he begins to suspect that this is not the way life should be. He falls in love with his “mate,” a woman given the label LUH (Maggie McOmie, in a remarkable performance that is also, alas, her only performance). And when love leads to passion, the government gets nervous and tries to separate them, condemning THX of illegal sexual conduct and imprisoning him in what looks like Stanley Kubrick’s version of One Flew Over the Cukoo’s Nest. There, driven mad by his companions, he plots a desperate escape.
THX 1138 features a powerful demonstration of sound design, produced by “sound montage” man Walter Murch. What Lucas and Murch created here would become the foundation upon which Star Wars’ soundscape would eventually be built. The script of the film sounds like the kind of voices that must haunt Radiohead’s lead singer Thom Yorke; it’s made up of voices transmitting through this city’s security system, troubling dialogues about manipulation and control.
Visually, the film makes marvelous use of a primitive array of special effects. And the “special edition” version that has just arrived is a vast improvement on the original. Lucas avoids the mistakes he made by meddling with his Star Wars films, and tweaks the visuals only when they’ll strengthen the existing material. He does nothing self-indulgent. And the new footage blends with the old almost seamlessly, making the backdrop a far more convincing and distressing world.
Unfortunately, the enhancements do not help the film find any more philosophical coherence, and the plot remains quite shallow. For all of its cleverness, Lucas’s story amounts to little more than a broad-stroke ultimatum against powerful governments and impersonal religions. The power of the film is more in the way it appeals to our emotions instead of our intellects. While we certainly have no idea how this world came to be, or what happened to the rest of the world outside, we desperately want our hero, who remains a stranger to us and to himself for the duration of the film, to escape so he can begin to find a true human identity in some better, oppression-free world.
If you’re interested in special effects, if you’re a fan of Robert Duvall, or if you like old-fashioned science fiction, the special edition of THX 1138 is a must-see. But if you’re looking for subtlety, or a comfortable evening of entertainment, steer clear.
Furthermore, if you think this is as family-friendly as the Star Wars films, think again. This is an R-rated movie for a reason. In their desperate search for their own humanity, THX and LUH take refuge in sexual intimacy–something that is more profound than a mere tumble in the sheets. It’s an important aspect of the story, tastefully employed here, but due to the…uh… lack of sheets, you’ll want to avoid taking younger viewers and moviegoers who are troubled or distracted by nudity.
Lucas has demonstrated such admirable discernment in his use of digital effects in this special edition, it makes it all the more difficult to watch just how he lost that control in his updates of the original Star Wars trilogy. Perhaps someday he’ll realize what was lost by filling in the open spaces of Tatooine with busy little gadgets and creatures, and he’ll make an even more special edition, something that looks a lot more like the originals, something as carefully balanced as this.