In 1971, Francis Ford Coppola’s newly minted American Zoetrope company released “THX 1138,” the first feature film by a young writer/director named George Lucas. It disappeared from theaters quickly with little fanfare, receiving a disappointing and chilly reception from both audiences and critics.
Thirty-three years later, Lucas is a cinematic legend and household name, thanks to the enduring popularity of a guy named Darth Vader. Lucas has made a habit recently of messing with his old films, starting with the re-issued “Star Wars” Special Editions in 1997. Now, using the amazing technologies of his own Industrial Light and Magic special effects studio, the original print of “THX 1138” has been digitally cleaned up and some CGI special effects shots have been added.
The result is a striking difference from the version that has been available on home video. (In a truly strange marketing move, the DVD of this restored cut is available in stores this Tuesday!) Gone is the muddiness that severely marred the VHS transfer. The immaculately pristine and minimalist set design is now more effective than ever at illuminating the characters’ isolation. Lucas’ rigidly widescreen compositions are preserved for the first time, and seeing the film this way, as is was originally intended, is quite a radical change.
As an exercise in cinematography, art direction and mood, perhaps, “THX 1138” is an interesting relic. But all the digital technology in the world can’t help a stagnant story (if you can call it one) that has not aged well at all.
In an antiseptic future, drone-like workers with names like THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) and LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) live a stifled existence to say the least. In a theme common with many science fiction writings of the 50s and 60s, the government requires residents to take medication that regulates their feelings. The bald and unhappy couple one day stop taking their pills, and experience true human feelings for the first time. This eventually leads to sex, pregnancy, and imprisonment. Hmm…doesn’t sound too “futuristic” to me!
Conversation is sparse, and most of the dialogue comes from a continuous newscast that updates workers of factory accidents and violations. After the initial introduction into this world, the turgid pacing of “THX 1138” really becomes a factor. The mind-numbing sensation experienced by the workers in the film becomes a mind-numbingly boring film experience. SEN, a rebel worker played by Donald Pleasence, undoubtedly provides the movie a much-needed jolt of energy, but his animated philosophical ramblings are no more deeper or significant than last year’s “Matrix” sequels.
“THX 1138” is an expanded version of a short film Lucas produced while attending film school. He shows a solid grasp of the science-fiction ideal, foreseeing that people would be addicted to mindless television and self-help programs. In an ironic twist, the workers actually assemble the police robots that regulate them. Making an entire film work from this one-dimensional premise is another story. The kind of otherworldly detail that would eventually make him a rich man with his sci-fi/western “Star Wars” series is missing here.
Lucas also betrays that infamous tin ear for dialogue. The director once said that if he could make movies that didn’t require actors to be part of the equation, he would. Here, Robert Duvall isn’t given much to work with other than lots of atmosphere. The setting creates the performance, rather than any sort of real conflict. By the time the bare bones plot has some forward movement, it’s too late to care. Maybe he should have jazzed the movie up with some digitally added Ewoks!
The film ends with a shot that looked more like a Pink Floyd concert poster than a final, lasting image. And the freeze-framed image serves only to illuminate the hollow simplicity of its dated message. It’s like, you know, Robert Duvall is a worker drone in a futuristic nightmare, man. Until he stops taking his pills and sees how groovy the world can be. Trippy.