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THX 1138 (1971)

by on 2012/01/28

“For more enjoyment and greater efficiency, consumption is being standardized.”

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I first saw THX 1138 in the Eighties or the Nineties, and enjoyed it as a remix of 1984 or Logan’s Run. Yet its specifics eluded me, fading from my memory, until I recalled just a few scraps of trivia: that it was filmmaker George Lucas’ first feature, that it starred The Godfather’s Robert Duvall, and that it inspired the name of an audio standard.

These were the thoughts I wrote in my notes before watching it again. I’d enjoy surveying the distinctions between that first and this current version but — as with most of his Star Wars releases — there’s only the recent Director’s Cut included on the disc.

By and large, they’re probably similar, the stark presentation of an equally stark society, whose shorn-and-stamped citizens live in perpetual sedation. They do their menial labour under the watchful eyes of cameras, the inflexible grip of robotic guardians, and the imaginary charity of a deity called OMM.

The system should be perfect, but renegades exist. Some, like SEN 5241 (The Great Escape’s Donald Pleasance) are anti-establishment lone wolves. Others, like LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) skip their proscribed regimen to enjoy their “primitive” feelings. THX 1138 (Duvall) is forcibly awakened from his medicative trance by his partner, LUH, and the resulting confusion sees him questioning his role in society and, eventually, fleeing it.

As in Lucas’ later, better-known efforts — American Grafitti and Star Wars — the story is concerned with escaping from one’s current situation. In a sense, the theme is ironic given how frequently he returns to his own past works. In THX, the characters’ rebellion can be seen a struggle for the right to be irrational. Their captors can claim no easy superiority, however, particularly if you’re the type to wonder who is watching the watchers.

They’re interesting ideas, with more depth than you might infer from the minimalist surface. Yes, their expression is rather clinical, more a triumph of craft than exhaustive philosophy, but this approach is not inappropriate for a future with no love for emotion.

But if the content helped me to overlook the doubts I had in subtext, there were other aspects I couldn’t quite explain. Occasionally, I found the narrative jumpy, especially early on. I wondered why THX and LUH would have been assigned to live together, if their physical relationship was to wreak such havoc. Similarly, why imprison transgressors together where they’d share their divergent views?

For that matter, what was the point of keeping the humans around at all? They may have been (mostly) docile, but they certainly weren’t infallible. Why not use the ever-present robots to do the fine motor chores?

I also wondered at the interplay between religion and technology. Why have criminal trials with religious and state debates? If faith is a tool of the state — via OMM and the Unichapels — then who does a mock trial impress? The already-compliant citizenry? The criminal on defense?

What bothered me most, however, was the inability see the original version. I felt Lucas, like THX’s aggressors, gave us no choice. We’re not seeing the best he could do at the time, but his retconning with a new toolset.

No doubt hundreds or thousands have already drawn the parallel between him and the Empire of Star Wars. Endowed with near limitless opportunity and resources, a narcissistic decadence has emerged to redecorate history and release only one approved version of it. This often unpopular updating is widely critiqued as unnecessary, self-indulgent meddling, neither refining nor organic.

It troubles me on a fundamental level we’ve been deprived of choice, and that choice is exactly what Lucas’ heroes fight for, the very thing he himself discourages. In a world where this auteur is nearly as well known for his merchandizing prowess as for his mass entertainment, I find it striking the villainous overlords of his earliest tale goad their followers to consume.

Still, providing you take it out of context, and judge it upon on its own merits, THX 1138 is a reasonably deep distraction. It boasts a unique look, a distinctive sound, and a joke about a Wookiee. And aren’t those things worth hoping for in an otherwise bleak future?

* * * *

Rated 14A (Canada) / R (United States)

88 minutes (2004 Director’s Cut)

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