When I was four, I saw my first movie in a theater: the original release of Star Wars. It was everywhere those days, film, novel, comics, action figures, radio drama, and I was of the age to drink it all in. Sometimes, I’d hear about another science fiction film George Lucas had made earlier. Usually people said that movie wasn’t very good. It was experimental, they said. Slow. Hard to watch. Even after Star Wars made vast amounts of money, THX 1138 wasn’t shown on TV that I can remember, and I didn’t find it at my local video stores. It was re-released in theatres in 1977, but failed to find an audience.
Yet now THX 1138 is a part of the Criterion Channel’s 1970s science-fiction collection, and it’s definitely worth watching. Lucas directed the script he wrote with sound editor Walter Murch (credited with “sound montage”) based on his own short from film school, 1967's Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB. The feature version was released in 1971, when Lucas was 27, but Lucas being Lucas the version available to the Criterion Channel is a retouched “special edition” he put out in 2007 featuring some CGI additions.
THX 1138 is set in a futuristic dystopia, an enclosed city of white corridors and police robots, where the citizenry shave their heads, wear white suits, and are required to take pills to suppress their sex drive. One woman, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie), switches the pills of her roommate, THX 1138 (Robert Duvall). They start an affair, are arrested, and THX begins a quest for freedom along with his neighbor, SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasance).
The movie has a very slight story told through oddly elliptical dialogue, and is carried by very strong visual storytelling. Lucas’ tweaks are most prominent toward the end of the movie, as THX tries to escape his corrupt society, and without having seen the original it’s hard to tell whether he’s made things better or worse. Still, the idea of the film comes across well, and it’s always interesting to look at.
Surprisingly, though, Lucas’ future view here leans on typically 1970s ideas of what futuristic architecture and advanced (but still analog) technology look like. It feels like a vision rooted in its time in a way Star Wars doesn’t, perhaps because Star Wars is consciously retro. Lucas begins THX 1138 with the trailer of a Buck Rogers serial, as though placing the audience in the perspective of a man of the 20th century dropped into the future, but it’s Star Wars that tried to mimic the tone of the old serials. THX nods more to 1984, with its story of a forbidden sexual relationship in a totalitarian future.
The society it imagines is a comment on our own, or at least the American society of 1971. There’s a state religion that encourages capitalism, but workers are exploited and anaesthetized with TV and virtual-reality porn—an idea that would return in the Star Wars Holiday Special, of all places. It’s a supposedly consumerist, capitalist version of the contemporary image of communism: everyone dresses alike, workers are replaceable, an unseen authority dictates your living quarters and limits your sex life.
This doesn’t work well because there’s no coherent sense of this dystopia’s economy— why would a consumerist society encourage everyone to dress alike? Who do they export things to?— nor is there any sense of what the central authority looks like. There’s no single leader like Big Brother. Only an omnipresent oppression, a regulation of one’s entire life.
Saying the acting is the finest in any of Lucas’ movies is damning with faint praise, but the performances are really fine. Duvall largely carries the movie, starting out a reasonably contented inhabitant of this future who comes to want something more, comes to learn a desire for freedom. But Donald Pleasance is at least as good as the tense, loquacious SEN 5241 who explores the religious aspect of his world, and unsurprisingly finds in the end no salvation. McOmie’s LUH is significant in the plot, setting the story in motion. It’s unfortunate that her story feels incomplete; her character’s written out off-screen, a narrative sacrifice to keep us focused on THX and to drive him on to a final rejection of his world.
It’s a little surprising to see a Lucas movie that has such a prominent sexual theme. Not that Lucas actually has anything in particular to say about sex. It’s more of a sign of what kind of world we’re in: the government’s evil, so it’s aligned with religion and opposed to sex. It’s a pro forma plot point, sexual repression necessarily associated with a dystopian society. Society in the 1970s was in many ways more repressed than in the 2020s, thus an individual’s liberation from society necessarily involved sexual liberation.
Of course, THX doesn’t try to liberate his society. There’s no redemption for the world as a whole. Only the escape of the individual. Which may be enough, if you don’t look at the story as an allegory for the world as it is or was. The story’s broad enough, symbolic enough, that you can call it a metaphor for the individual breaking free of their own internal oppression. The point is, however you choose to read it, THX’s story has a real power. You’re engaged with his attempt to break free.
Overall THX 1138 is fine work, easily better than any Star Wars movie since 1980. It suggests what Lucas was trying to do in the prequels. He’s spoken about approaching the Star Wars films like silent movies, and you can see that sort of storytelling in THX. Plot details are less important than the overall movement of the story. Even more than in most films it’s action that reveals character, not dialogue. Sequences that seem irrelevant are the point of the film, visual symbolism that reveals character or theme (consider the pod race in The Phantom Menace, the droid factory in Attack of the Clones). It’s an approach that’s not as narrative-based as it looks. And in THX it works at a level Lucas hasn’t replicated in 40 years.