Before Yoda or Luke Skywalker or any admonitions to let “the force be with you” were uttered in a faraway galaxy, George Lucas created a similarly stylistic–but significantly less heroic–vision of the future with his little known 1971 directorial debut, THX 1138. This beautiful-yet-unfulfilling film has just been re-released in a new director’s-cut version, simultaneously in theaters and on DVD.
In the aftermath of its failure, Lucas would go on to make the much more lighthearted and coherent classic American Graffiti, which gave him the industry clout necessary to make Star Wars. Now, more than 30 years later, Lucas has returned to his first picture, and it is clear from the bonus-disc interviews that it still irks him that the suits over at Warner Brothers and, worse, the general public never “got” his brilliant vision. Lucas and his crew seem to think it’s because the film was too nuanced and complicated. More likely, it’s because the film is obtuse and its “political message” heavy-handed and juvenile. But I’ll be damned if it isn’t a pretty mess, at that. Lucas’s gift for filmmaking is apparent here, even if his young storytelling skills were not quite up to snuff yet.
THX 1138 is sort of every ’60s liberal do-gooder’s fear of what the world would look like if the squares ever took over. That terrible future, as imagined by a 25-year-old Lucas working out of the hippie district of San Francisco in the early ’70s, is one in which the National Endowment for the Arts has apparently ceased to exist. What remains is a cold, colorless underground society, filled with uninspired architecture, in which men and women alike have traded in their tie-dyed clothing and hip flowing manes for boring white gowns and shaved heads.
This exceedingly bland future is, according to one of the film’s producers, an examination of “the unbridled consumer culture.” Without the protection unions once provided, workers are blown up and killed left and right with nary a tear shed for their suffering. Folks pray to a Jesus-carbon-copy automaton called OOM–which, in an electronic voice, encourages the faithful to “buy more and be happy,” and they work all day building the robots that oppress them.
We are apparently supposed to overlook the fact that the world of THX 1138 far more closely resembles Soviet-era Russia than any “unbridled consumer culture.” To get some idea of the film’s setting, simply imagine what would have happened if Trotsky had outmaneuvered Stalin for party control, and Stalin had become a blue-ribbon interior designer instead of a champion ethnic cleanser. And never mind that the landscape lacks one of the main components of a consumer culture: places to buy stuff. There is no Wal-Mart, although it seems as if folks could use one, since all the apartments are bare, bare, bare. Consumers typically need things to consume if they are truly to lead the hedonistic lifestyles attributed to them by the World Workers party.
But I digress. On with the show: The worst of all this badness is that in the not-too-distant future, it’s as if the clock has been turned back on the sexual revolution. The government of the future, for some unexplained reason, has outlawed sex and keeps everybody on a mandatory regimen of sedatives to keep those feelings of friskiness at bay. And that is where the drama begins: Despite its “no sex” policy, the government nevertheless inexplicably pairs a suave young man, THX 1138 (Robert Duvall in his first lead), with a very attractive young woman, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie). A better plan might have been to have only same-sex roommates or to pair the young with the very old…but, whatever. Hungry for love, LUH 3417 starts swiping THX 1138’s sedatives and replacing them with stimulant pills, and before you know it they are totally naked, breaking the law all over their boring white living room floor.
Big Brother, it turns out, is watching the whole show, and before long robots arrest the star-crossed lovers and send them off to separate prisons with even whiter, more boring walls. The cat is out of the bag, though, and THX 1138 escapes and goes on the run with SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasence), a wonderfully bizarre character who earlier in the film desperately wants to be THX 1138’s roommate: “You rate very high in sanitation,” he says. “We’ll be happy.”
Eventually the two are separated, however, and THX 1138 realizes his lady love was “eliminated” for drug evasion and sexual perversion. Crestfallen, he makes a break for the surface, with robots in hot pursuit. In the smartest and funniest scene of the film, the robots are ordered to give up moments before capturing their prey because the cost has reached the cash limit, set by the bureaucracy, for what it is worth to give chase. The robots don’t care because, well, they’re just robots, and THX 1138 climbs to the surface of the earth just as the sun sets.
It’s a magnificent scene that leaves the viewer wondering why everyone has chosen to live as underground robot slaves in the first place. Really, is there anything less groovy than that?
–Shawn Macomber is a staff writer at The American Spectator and runs the website www.ReturnofthePrimitive.com.