THX 1138 (1971)
As a film student in 1967 George Lucas made a short film called Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB. I managed to catch the film one time on Exposure, a show that used to run on what is now SyFy, that featured short films from amateur directors. I was quite familiar with THX 1138, having seen it a few times, and quite liking it for what it was I was curious to see its origins.
I will say that I am definitely not the audience for short, experimental films from the 1960s. Like most of them it contains little to no action, but instead repetitive scenes with a number of voiceovers reading different things in order to make some sort of point. I don't mean reading things like the announcements from the actual movie, but often times improvised speeches, poetry and chanting; Lucas also made a similar short film called Freiheit that is much more on that level of pretention.
Happily, he got that out of his system in film school. I have many, many complaints about George Lucas, many of which I will get too in this review, but with THX 1138 he did make a counterculture film without being too smug about it. There is the dystopian society, the forced consumerism and the empty religion, but much of it is par for the course of a film like this and it would miss something if it didn't have it. Francis Ford Coppola decided to help a young Lucas get this made, and the result is parsecs ahead of its origins.
THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) works on an assembly line for Officers, the automaton police that enforce for the rules of the society in which he lives. He is starting to lose focus at work despite taking what he thinks is the recommended dosage of drugs he is required to consume. It turns out that his roommate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) has been secretly weening him off the meds and, once the withdrawal symptoms subside, the two fall in love.
Since natural sexual relations, and also natural reproduction, are forbidden, THX is arrested once it is discovered that he is evading his drug regimen and engaging in what his society considers perversion. Rather than being destroyed he is "conditioned," involving torture and long-term imprisonment. During this time a rebellious hacker named SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasance), who at one point tried to save the couple from themselves, attempts to break out of prison along with THX and a hologram that has willed itself into the real world.
One of the biggest complaints, especially after the Star Wars prequel trilogy, was Lucas's largely comical idea of how humans speak. However, dialogue problems aside, no one has ever argued that Lucas isn't a great visual storyteller. Walter Murch cowrote the film, and also had a lot to do with its sound design, but the core story is Lucas. Still, what little dialogue there is doesn't get in the way of story in this case as it purposely takes a backseat to the visuals, often featuring an antiseptic world of white walls and non-descript concrete expressways. These do hide the "nastier" parts where things get done, but the majority of the population only sees their portion of the world, which involves work, shops and home.
THX 1138 is a testament to what can be done, even on an extremely low budget when given the right areas to film in and when being creative with space and color. The technology seems strangely backwards and futuristic at the same time. It's similar to the way that anyone following Star Wars has had to keep it in line with the combination of fantastical devices and '70s technology over the years. It works, as does the frequent announcements that give a sort of idea of what the society is like. All these elements, in fact, work much better than the story itself. It's decent, but as a 90-minute movie, it is too rushed at the "awakening" part at the beginning, drags quite a bit during the prison part (despite the wonderful set) and then finally hits the right pace in the last third during the escape.
In 1971 Warner Bros. was not happy with this movie and released it with four minutes removed. I have no idea which four minutes, since the only version I had seen until recently (and went back and watched segments of to get a comparison) was the 1977 re-release, which had the movie as Lucas intended and was released to cash in on the success of Star Wars. It was never a great box office success but it has so much going for it that it developed its own following. And then, in 2004, George Lucas did what he has been doing with many of his older films - he ruined a good portion of it with CGI.
While occasionally this just meant adding or enhancing colors, it also meant adding things where they weren't needed. There are additional cars and backgrounds to the city, as well as a weird, wavy subway train that makes no sense in any shape or fashion. The worst is the shell dwellers - still shown as dwarfs when brought into the prison, but now instead of dwarfs in their natural environment they are monkey things that do not blend in at all with the original footage. Other bad editions are a second man on a construction scaffold during the car chase that seems to have a hidden rocket pack in the way he shoots into a side tunnel. The 1977 version is not available on DVD or Blu-Ray, but is available online in a proper aspect ratio and in decent condition, and it could be argued that not one enhancement (not even making the holograms look like holograms) improved this movie in the slightest.
George Lucas's filmography as a director does not leave much to choose from, but without a doubt THX 1138, American Graffiti and Star Wars was a good run for a young film maker like himself. It's too bad he has spent the last two decades trying to destroy his legacy.
THX 1138 (1971)
Time: 86 minutes
Starring: Robert Duvall, Maggie McOmie, Donald Pleasance
Director: George Lucas