The main reason I picked up THX 1138 was to compare and contrast it to George Lucas’ most recent work, The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Watching THX 1138, it’s hard to believe it was written and directed by the same guy responsible for the Star Wars movies. THX 1138’s stark style, minimal dialog, and spartan effects (if any) stand in direct contrast to Lucas’ more recent, bloated features. I guess there really is something to that whole “less is more” idea!
Set in a futuristic totalitarian state, THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) is a mindless drone, his mind and body sedated by drugs, drudgery, and really bad television. However, when his mate, LUH 3417, changes his prescription, he begins to open up to emotion and desire. Captured by the government, whose manifestations include a God figure named “OMM” and an army of faceless police robots, THX 1138 is placed in a white-walled asylum with the rest of society’s deviants, led by SEN 5241. As the government subjects him to torture and weird experiments, THX 1138 plots his escape attempt, hoping to save LUH 3417 and leave the city behind.
Despite the film’s ultra-minimalist style, Lucas creates the perfect mood and setting. Crowds of people with shaven heads and blank stares march down sterile, fluorescent corridors looking more alien than human. Surveillance is everywhere, ensuring that privacy is non-existent. And though there’s little actual personal dialog in the movie, intercoms constantly buzz in the background, relaying statistics and efficiency reports, not to mention a steady stream of propaganda and brainwashing.
While this storyline has long been a staple of sci-fi (with the most recent iteration being last year’s under-appreciated Equilibrium), THX 1138 still feels fresh and innovative even after all these years. There’s something very bold and adventurous about THX 1138, something that Lucas lost once he became enamored with digital film and multimillion dollar effects budgets.
There are shots here that rival the whole of Lucas’ Star Wars films in terms of beauty and imagination. The stark lighting and off-kilter camera placement creates a mood just as otherworldly as any alien world, and the film’s climactic chase through the city’s endless tunnels feels just as gripping and exciting as The Phantom Menace’s pod race… but with nary a CGI effect or annoying alien sidekick in sight.
George Lucas is planning a revised, digitally remastered version of THX 1138, which will be coming out in theaters and on DVD. One of the planned revisions is the addition of modern digital effects, including new cityscapes. Of course, noone knows how this will look until the new version comes up, but I can’t help but be a little bummed.
The whole reason THX 1138 works so brilliantly is because it didn’t rely on digital effects. Lucas’ vision and imagination was (and considering his recent work, “was” looks to be the operative word there) all that was required. I wouldn’t mind so much if Lucas also released the original version remastered on DVD as well, but knowing how the original Star Wars trilogy was handled, I doubt that’s going to happen.