THX 1138

THX 1138Synopsis: “Work hard, increase production, prevent accidents, and be happy.” THX 1138, George Lucas’ directorial debut, presents a cold, dystopian future in which individual thought and love are forbidden. But two citizens dare to rebel.

LUH 3417, a disenchanted surveillance worker, consciously stops taking her mandatory drugs — medication that suppresses emotions — and gives placebos to her roommate, THX 1138. Now free to feel, the two fall in love, but find themselves on the run for breaking laws of conformity.


THX 1138 7.75

eyelights: its dystopic vision. its stylistic look.
eyesores: its lack of suspense.

“What’s wrong?”

Before ‘Star Wars‘, there was ‘American Graffiti‘. It’s hard to imagine, but it’s true; George Lucas made a nostalgic dramedy before his landmark space opera. But, before ‘American Graffiti’, there was ‘THX 1138’, a dystopic sci-fi drama.

Now that makes more sense.

Though the average moviegoer (and probably many ‘Star Wars’ fans!) have not seen it, they may be familiar with the name via George Lucas’ “THX” logo on movies and home theatre equipment – it’s a brand that’s been marketed for decades.

The picture is rooted in a student film that Lucas made in 1967 at USC: Set in the future, and named after its protagonist, it tells the story of a man whose life is radically changed when his partner substitutes his state-mandated medication.

Initially content with the precision work he did by day, and with his sedate homelife by night, he begins to lose his focus – and impulses long-repressed surge in him, leading him to arrest and an elaborate escape from the megacity’s robot cops.

Released in 1971, ‘THX 1138’ is a slow-paced picture that is akin to a cross between ‘1984‘ and ‘Logan’s Run‘. Though it didn’t find its public at the time, it has since grown a cult following – thanks in no small part to the success of ‘Star Wars’.

The picture stars none other than Robert Duvall in the lead and even netted Donald Pleasance for a secondary role. It follows THX 1138 as he awakens to the dark realities of his life and chooses to escape the repression of his humanity.

It’s not an easily accessible film: many of the scenes are static and antiseptic, with everything submerged in white – and, with everyone sedated, it’s also emotionally neutered. It perfectly echoes the existence that has been fashioned for them.

But it’s not a joyride; it lacks suspense and urgency.

In fact, even the third act, which was intended to add a little bit of zest to the proceedings, lacks the vibrancy that one has come to expect from Lucas. The car chase, for instance, is particularly unremarkable and exciting. As is the ending.

Where the picture really stumbles, in truth, is with THX’s escape, which seems simplistic (especially given that they’re all monitored all the time!), and with the police androids, which are stiff and unrealistic, leaving one mildly skeptical.

But there are still a number of images that stay impregnated in one’s memory, like the laboratory-like workspace that THX works in, the ironic automated confessionals, the strange masturbatory videos that he watches and the detention facilities.

Despite his limited budget and the strained ability of 1970s technology, Lucas managed to shape a future that is remarkable and plausible – at least contextually. Yes, he would do it differently now, but it’s impressive all things considered.

And I very much believe that a future where everyone is molded and controlled, where the state strips us of our humanity for its own benefit, could become a reality. It’s this possibility that makes ‘THX 1138’ compelling, especially in this age.

‘THX 1138′ is a notable dystopian cinematic vision of the future. While it’s clearly derivative, and is anything but perfect, it’s a significant first step in the development of George Lucas’ storytelling abilities. For that it’s well-worth seeing.

THX isn’t just a brand name. It’s a beginning.

Nota bene: The 1971 studio version has never been released on home video. The version first made available was a 1977 Lucas re-edit. And that was never issued on DVD or Blu-ray – instead, Lucas tweaked it even further for a 2004 release.

Date of viewing: Nov 4-5, 2016

2 responses to “THX 1138

  1. Great review. I watched it last weekend and your comments match my sentiments as well. I thought the special effects, especially when he at work, have held up particularly well (unless they were tidied up in 2004?). Had any film or novel had a character who was a hologram before?
    Robert Duvall and Maggie McOmie were excellent.
    In Australia, AFAIK, it has never been shown on tv.

    • If you’re not sure which version you watched, you can compare them here:

      I’ve read comments from purists that the so-called “director’s cut” spoils the mood. But I haven’t seen it yet.

      A quick look at IMDB suggests that ‘THX 1138’ is indeed the first picture with a hologram in it.

      (Again, it was a quick search – please don’t quote me on that 😉

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