Movie Reviews

Movie Review – THX 1138: The George Lucas Director’s Cut – A Sci-Fi Geek Looks at George Lucas’ First Film

Written by George Lucas and Walter Murch
Directed by George Lucas

First released in 1971, THX-1138 draws on Orwellian themes in creating a futuristic society where people are stripped of individuality and identity. All are assigned numbers, hence the lead character’s name – THX-1138 (portrayed by Robert Duvall). His roommate is LUH-3417 (portrayed by Maggie McOmie). Having sex is a crime, but there’s no real fear of that since the government keeps the people drugged up all the time.

LUH-3417 begins experimenting with the drugs, changing the dosage and gradually weaning THX-1138 off of them. He begins to experience inner conflicts never felt before and “confesses” his feelings to an electronic “priest”. As the roommates awaken from their drug-induced haze, they experience love for the first time.

All of this does not go unnoticed by the authorities, who seem to have a voyeuristic interest in the couple. Another non-conformist SEN-5241 (portrayed by Donald Pleasance) manages to manipulate the computer into assigning him as THX-1138’s roommate (another crime).

The movie is very predictable in many ways. In it’s time, it might have been more ground-breaking and startling. However, in these days after seeing so many similar themed films and reading novels along the lines of Brave New World or even The Matrix Trilogy which explores similar themes, I could guess what was about to happen most of the time. Still, Lucas created a movie which was visually stunning. The starkness and dreariness of the underground future city. Everyone is dressed the same in identical, genderless white clothing with shaved heads. The city itself looks bleak thanks to the extensive use of the tunnels around San Francisco as well as the still-under-construction Bay Area Rapid Transit tunnels as sets. The setting is important as the film is light on dialogue and heavy on the visuals.

The actors do a tremendous job conveying their anguish mostly with facial expressions and body language. In particular, Duvall and McOmie manage to give the characters some heart and soul. However, the minimalist approach to character development make it hard to empathize with them at times. It’s hard to get inside their heads and understand what they are feeling, and since the verbiage is kept to a minimum, at times it makes identifying with them difficult. Credit goes to the actors for drawing me in to their roles as much as they did.

Rather than “dropping out” of society as those in the 60’s did by taking drugs, their characters wish to “drop out” of society by not taking drugs any longer. It’s an odd twist of fate, looking at the movie now all these years later. While the idea of people being drugged up all the time seemed horrific, we now are at a point in time where it seems that any slight personality disorder calls for a pill. Was it foreshadowing on Lucas’ part that we would be overmedicating our children in school? Going to our doctors demanding the latest pill advertised to chase our “blues” away? (This is not to make light of people who genuinely need it, but I do have some apprehension at the rate at which many medicines for personality disorders is prescribed.)

I can’t compare the new Director’s Cut to the original, since I didn’t see it. Lucas apparently did to THX-1138 what he did to the Star Wars trilogy, adding in certain “enhancements” which in those films generally detracted from the story. I would like to see the DVDs produced with an option to see the films in their original form, but it doesn’t look like my wishes will be granted any time soon.

Bonus Material:

Feature Commentary with George Lucas and Walter Murch

A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope – This showed the close relationship between Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, something I never knew about until viewing this documentary. I was surprised at how many highly-regarded filmmakers attended college together in Southern California at the same time.

Artifact from the Future: The Making of THX-1138 – There’s a lot of footage of the original filming as well as background from the filmmakers and actors.

Electronic Labyrinth THX-1138 4EB George Lucas’ Student Film – The original film Lucas made as a student at the University of Southern California. One of the more interesting pieces. It’s short but it’s a nice piece of filmmaking, showing where Lucas started and how he developed the film.

BALD Classic Featurette – Shows all of the actors having their heads shaved for their roles in the film.

Trailers – A collection of various trailers available for the film and it’s releases on video and DVD.

While I liked the first third of the film quite a bit, I thought that the middle portion was a bit drawn out. My husband fell asleep watching it. The chase scenes in the final third seemed somewhat out of place (I have the feeling that these are the scenes Lucas tinkered with the most), and also brought to my mind memories of the film Logan’s Run. I enjoyed it from the context of the time it was filmed in, and the visual effects and style are a great piece of foreshadowing to the tremendous success he would have just a few years later.

3 replies »

  1. There are lots of references to THX-1138 in the George Lucas/Lucasfilm canon. In American Graffiti, the license plate on John Milner’s hot rod reads THX-138 (Lucas left out a “1” because California license plates in 1962 were only allowed to have six characters (ABC-123); in Star Wars, Han and Luke (pretending to be stormtroopers) tell a skeptical Imperial officer that Chewie is being transferred from Cell Block 1138, in The Empire Strikes Back. General Rieekan sends Rogues Ten and Eleven to Station Three-Eight, and in The Phantom Menace, a battle droid has the number 1138 stenciled on its back power pack. Lucasfilm’s sound system is also called THX.

    Oddly enough, I’ve never watched THX-1138.

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