BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A man in a future dystopia awakens from his drug-induced complacency and strives for freedom.
PROS: The depiction of a depressing dystopia and how society has been browbeaten into submission was well done; good acting by the main characters; musical score.
CONS: The slow pacing that worked to establish setting in the first act weakened the film’s middle parts; a hologram running around a city without any devices to support his existence is just plain silly.
BOTTOM LINE: A much deeper film than Star Wars; don’t avoid it because you might not like Lucas’ other work.
What is it about dystopian settings that appeal to me so much? Having recently read The Children of Men and having recently viewed THX 1138 – and liking them both – I’m beginning to wonder if my appetite for the depressing should be causing me some concern.
The dystopian society of George Lucas’ first feature film, THX 1138, is all about conformance. The law insists that all citizens take drugs that prohibit individuality and lull its takers into a perpetual state of faux happiness. Everyone takes the drugs, everyone gives confession and everyone supports the economy through shopping. Not only are the people denied any individuality, they even lack unique names. Instead, people are assigned a “prefix” and a numeric surname.
The movie tells the story of THX 1138 (played by a head-shaved Robert Duvall). THX is a Good Citizen; he takes his tranquilizers, he obeys the laws and he works at the robot factory where the money he earns can be happily reapplied to the economy through government-encouraged consumerism. A computer has assigned THX a female roommate named LUH 3417 (played by a head-shaved Maggie McOmie). LUH does not take her medications and begins to have feelings (Gasp!) for THX and so she gives THX placebos as well. THX begins to awaken to the stagnation imposed by The Man and yearns to break free of the underground city, but not before being imprisoned for criminal drug evasion and having illicit sex with LUH.
I’ll admit to not expecting much from this movie. Lucas’ reputation seems to me to be founded on luck more than skill. (See Star Wars prequels.) Perhaps, then, it was my low expectations that allowed me enjoy this film. The depiction of society in the first part of the film was well done. From the blazing white antiseptic hallways to slow, steady pacing accented by moody musical score, this move oozes depression. Not only are citizens required to take their medication, they are monitored by government Peeping Toms who keep tabs on their conformance to their overly strict rules. When THX begins to have “unnatural” feelings for LUN and the wonders about the meaning of it all, he visits an automated confessional booth, a ritual so ingrained in citizens that the poor timing of the auto-playback messages of encouragement like “tell me more” go completely unnoticed. Each member of the populace contributes to society through some menial task (THX builds robot police with radioactive material) and, on their own personal time, is encouraged to pour everything back into society. The pacing of this first act was slow but it worked well because it gave the viewer time to soak it all in and wonder “what if…?”.
However, that same slow pacing worked against the film when LUH wakens THX to the numbing of society. THX, free of the drugs’ effects, begins to have feelings for LUH. Ultimately, they are caught having illicit sex. Meanwhile, SEN 5241 (played by a head-shaved Donald Pleasance), a less-than-balanced computer expert who can seemingly hack computers, has worked it so THX can become his roommate. THX, still striving for the Good Citizenship Award, rats him out and both THX and SEN find themselves in the stark, glaring white infinity of confinement. SEN aims to break free of imprisonment and tries to incite others to join him. THX and SEN meet with SRT, a hologram who has inexplicably broken free of his computer confines and joins in the escape. Seriously, how the heck does a hologram run around the city with no equipment to support him? During these imprisonment scenes and the scenes leading up to them, the slow pacing worked against the film. Having introduced the setting, the film needed to spend more time on plot. Things picked up significantly in the last act, essentially a long chase sequence where THX, SEN and SRT meet different fates. I liked how the progress of the chase was monitored by the authorities using the budgeted cost to maintain the chase. Also surprising to me was the cool scenery and futuristic cars, though I think there was some requisite DLM (Digital Lucas Meddling) involved there.
For an added meta-level of fun, it was interesting to see the seeds of Lucas’ later work in THX 1138. The aluminum-masked robotic policemen, for example, looked like an early rendition of C3P0. Wikipedia list some of this THX 1138 trivia.
Since I saw this on cable (in HD on my new HDTV…woot!) I cannot attest to the quality of any DVD extras with the 2004 DVD release. Those looking for such information can go Google it.