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THX 1138, written by George Lucas and Walter Murch, directed by George Lucas, 1971, 90 min.

George Lucas had an interesting start to his career as a director. THX 1138 would lead the average viewer to believe him to be one of those weird, freaky, art-house-type directors. You know, somebody who makes films that don't really make sense but have something huge to say. As a follow up, he made American Graffiti, wildly profitable, and in my opinion, one of the most cynical cash-ins on nostalgia ever made. The movie uses some loose narrative strategies, but it's quite straight-forward compared to THX 1138. And then Lucas went back to science fiction with Star Wars. After that film, he didn't direct any movies for twenty years, instead opting to build a kind of empire of his own. THX has become the name of an advanced sound system for movies. Industrial Light and Magic is one of the most respected special-effects companies in the business. The aspect of the empire that I know the most about, Lucas Arts, the computer gaming company, has succeeded because of the way it has given top-notch talent a chance to flourish (see my reviews of Jedi Knight and Grim Fandango). As I am writing this review of Lucas' very first movie, we are existing in the shadow of one of the most hyped movie events ever: Lucas returning to the director's chair with Star Wars: Episode 1. Will the magic be back? Will it be just as corny as that film that came out in 1977? And why couldn't I find a copy of THX 1138 on video anywhere in the Niagara Peninsula (an area of about forty minute's drive in any direction from my house)? Good questions.

THX 1138 is the name of Robert Duvall's character. THX is just a regular guy. You know, he manipulates radioactive material with a waldo while under constant scrutiny. Robot police patrol everywhere. There's such a thing as "criminal drug evasion" -- when you try to avoid the sedation that makes you such a useful, non-complaining member of society. One day, the supervisors notice that THX is a little stressed out (no sedatives in his system), and they put him under a mindlock. Too bad he's in the middle of a delicate operation, and an accident nearly happens. THX's room-mate, LUH, is also a drug evader, and the two of them find the nerve to fall in love. Big mistake, as this dystopia doesn't like such inefficient, excessive human relationships. THX goes to the white room, about which I'll talk more in a minute. And the weird sidekick (whose name I didn't catch) and THX decide to make a break for it. They meet a hologram, and amid a few other adventures, THX makes it to the surface. What's at the surface? There might be the remains of a nuclear war or something, but this emergence to the surface is represented as a definite triumph. How does THX evade the robot police? I'll leave that rather clever conceit to the film itself.

For a society dedicated to extirpating the irregularities of character, this dystopia seems to be filled with interesting people. There is no explanation of how THX and LUH become drug evaders in the first place -- dystopias make a common assumption that the human spirit, or something of the sort, will always be trying to break free. Maybe so, but some more backstory might have been in order. THX never says much and he falls into the macho silent type more often than necessary. I liked the weird sidekick for the very reason that he was more garrulous. And he had some funny lines as well -- "I'm doing quite well here anyways," he says, as THX talks to him in the white room for the first time. Looking on the bright side of life! I didn't quite understand the holographic character, as that was thrown in late in the story and never explained fully. The robot police were suitably menacing, although the friends I was watching this film with pointed out that certain of their gestures were very un-robotlike. Like leaning up against a wall with arms crossed.

THX 1138 is firmly in the tradition of science fiction dystopias. It borrows entire pages from Brave New World, with pharmacology as a method of social control. However, there are no castes here, or at least, no castes that we could see. And the movie likely has more similarities to Orwell's vision of the future than Huxley's. The white room -- an open space, white in all directions, with no way of visually determining its size -- has some interesting parallels to Orwell's Room 101. Strangely, there is nothing stopping THX and his sidekick from walking off in any direction, apart from the sheer difficulty of walking in any kind of straight line. There is a gap in the film when THX becomes a drug evader, and there is another odd narrative leap when THX leaves the white room. The dystopic elements of the film are all familiar, but Lucas puts them together with some visually arresting images and a collection of quirky characters to make a fine film, a clever debut. If you like putting a bit of work into watching movies, give this one a try.

Last modified: March 12, 1999

Copyright © 1999 by James Schellenberg (

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