THX 1138

Year: 1971

Production: American Zoetrope/Warner Bros.

Director: George Lucas

Starring: Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Maggie McOmie

Screenwriter: George Lucas, Walter Murch

Based on a story by George Lucas. Novelization (1971) by Ben Bova

88 minutes, restored to 95 minutes. Color


A subterranean future society is governed repressively by computers and bland human techonocrats who keep the population under control with drugs. Everyone wears white clothing, heads are shaven, and sexual intercourse is forbidden (breeding is by artificial insemination) - it is truly sterile, antiseptic world. One of the few dissenters is THX (Duvall), who experiments with sex; his cellmate becomes pregnant and is liquidated. THX is imprisoned in a White Limbo but escapes and reaches the surface and freedom. It is an old and familiar story to sf readers, but Lucas presents it with panache. He begins with apparently unrelated visual fragments, accompanied by snatches of dialog, all of which gradually coalesce to form a comprehensive dystopian nightmare, visually impressive but not lavish, with bleak sense of style and a drily witty script.

THX 1138, though a small masterpiece, failed commercially - unsurprisingly since it is both difficult and downbeat; it did a little better when released again after the success of Lucas' Star Wars (1977) with some footage originally excised by a worried Warner Bros. restored.

The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction

This is the directonal debut of Lucas who seven years later transformed the genre with Star Wars (1977). The film was developed from THX 2238 4LB, a 20-minute film he made while a student a UCLA's film department. In contrast to the gee-whizz dramatics of Star Wars, THX 1138 offers a somber view of the future, akin to that of 1984 (1956). Few of the details of Lucas' fllm are original - in Just lmagine (1930), for example, numbers had replaced names - but the look of the film is marvellous. With his mobile camera, which rarely moves into close-up on the disturbingly sterile white cocoon of underground tunnels, and the minimum of sets, Lucas presents us with a bleakly pessimistic portrait of the future.

Duvall in the title role is the individual who aches for freedom and after an illegal affair - love is outlawed - with McOmie and a period of detention sets off on a desperate search for the outside world. The storyline is confusing, the role of Pleasance for example is unclear, but the film's images, Duvall caught in an ominous blood-red sunset at the end, or the gleaming chrome robot policeman that is malfunctioning and walks repeatedly into a wall, remain powerful. Similarly, if things like the continued exhortations to consume and the police's offer of assistance to the people they are pursuing, are commonplaces in the mainstream of sf writing, Lucas' presentation makes them all the more powerful. One marvellous jest concludes the film; just as Duvall is about to be caught, the search for him is called off because it has already exceeded its budget.

The film was made with minimal studio interference during the actual shooting and was drastically re-edited by Warners. It has since become a cult film.

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia - Science Fiction

Related links:
Classic Science Fiction Reviews at scifi.com


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