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Review: 'THX 1138' (1971)

George Lucas: Episode I

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  • THX 1138
  • Rated PG
  • Starring Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Maggie McOmie, Don Pedro Colley
  • Written and Directed by George Lucas
  • 86 Minutes

The Story

THX 1138 (Duvall) is a drone with a problem. His mandatory sedatives aren't working, and that's starting to affect his work. He unloads his troubles to a mechanized priest in a "unichapel" booth as crowds of other white-clad, head-shaved workers hurry by. "What's wrong with me?" he asks. In fact his mate, LUH 3417 (McOmie), is secretly replacing their sedatives with stimulants. She yearns for an intimacy with him that drugs, and laws, deny.

Meanwhile THX has caught the attention of SEN 5241 (Pleasence), a bureaucrat who's illegally manipulating the rooming computers so he can get assigned to THX in LUH's place. THX informs on SEN, but when THX behaves oddly on his work shift, a scan reveals criminal drug evasion. After a quick trial, THX is led off to a vast, numbingly white detention zone.

SEN is among the other prisoners, trying to incite them to escape. At first THX just stares straight ahead, brooding about LUH. Then, without warning, he snaps and stalks off, leaving a suddenly nervous SEN to follow behind.

After walking a long time in the featureless whiteness the two drones meet SRT (Colley), an entertainment hologram who broke free into the real world. He helps them find the way out, but SEN gets separated. While the others run, pursued by security robots, SEN frets. Finally he chooses what he knows, waiting in a playground to be arrested.

THX and SRT steal cars, but the techno-illiterate hologram can't figure out the controls and doesn't make it out of the parking lot. This leaves THX alone in a last-ditch effort to evade the android cops and escape the city.

Every saga has a beginning...

Of those who have heard of THX 1138, most know only that it was George Lucas's "student film." In fact, the student film was Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, a 15-minute essay made in 1967 at the University of Southern California. With Francis Ford Coppola's backing, Lucas assembled a talented cast and technical crew and then expanded on 4EB's Big Brother theme to create his first full-length feature, THX 1138. The result is carefully crafted, crisply edited (by Lucas), excellently scored (by Lalo Schifrin), and marvelously acted. It's just not that interesting.

The leisurely pace of THX is surprising. Compared to Star Wars, it takes its time with what is, admittedly, more cerebral material. At times Duvall sustains forward momentum solely by the force of his understated but thoroughly involved performance.

Who watches the engineers

At first blush this future is an unoriginal pastiche of science fiction standbys: a computer-controlled society, downtrodden proles, and the forced use of pacifying drugs. There are interesting revisions, though. This society is not so much controlled by computers as by technology. Machines may run everything, but techies run the machines. In one scene THX is subjected to agonies from various implants while, in voice-over, two operators argue about settings and troubleshoot glitches ("Wait, this knob is loose"). This future also emphasizes commerce: The mechanized priest urges THX to buy more, and later the pursuit is carefully monitored for budget overruns.

The technical side of the movie is superb, and the leads work hard to make it work. But in the end there's not much to take away from Duvall's perseverance or Pleasence's timidity, or even from the racial symbolism of Colley's black hologram. In an adventure yarn like Star Wars that would be fine, but here something deeper is required.

Though otherwise humorless, this film contains my new favorite line. It's by one of the ever-polite android cops, trying to get at THX, who's barricaded himself in a control room: "This door seems to be jammed. Please check the lock on your side."

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