Directed by George Lucas
Written by George Lucas & Walter Murch
Story by George Lucas
Executive Produced by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Robert Duvall, Maggie McOmie, & Donald Pleasence
With Don Pedro Colley, Ian Wolfe, Marshall Efron, Sid Haig, John Pearce, & James Wheaton
Release Date: March 11, 1971
Running Time: 1hr 28min
In a dystopian future, sexual intercourse and reproduction are prohibited, whereas use of mind-altering drugs is mandatory to enforce compliance among the citizens and to ensure their ability to conduct dangerous and demanding tasks. Emotions and the concept of family are taboo. Everyone is clad in identical white uniforms and has shaven heads to emphasize uniformity, except the police androids (who wear black) and robed monks. Instead of names, people have designations with three arbitrary letters (referred to as the “prefix”) and four digits, shown on an identity badge worn at all times.
THX 1138 (Duvall) is a factory worker, constructing the android police officers. His sanctioned roommate is LUH 3417 (McOmie), who keeps surveillance over the city, along with SEN 5241 (Pleasence). One day, LUH secretly switches out THX’s usual drugs, causing him to develop nausea, anxiety, and sexual desires. He and LUH become romantically and sexually involved, and their activity seen by SEN, who desires THX as his roommate and tries to blackmail them.
A factory mishap leads to all three being imprisoned, with THX and SEN being held in some a seemingly endless white void with other prisoners. The two attempt escape, meeting SRT 5752 (Colley), an actor in the various hologram broadcast the people of this world watch. They wander around the city, trying avoid the police, and trying to find a means of escape.
The debut feature of George Lucas (expanded from a student short he made in 1967), the film was made on a small budget of $777,000, and was a box office flop at the time, earning back $945,000 in rentals for Warner Bros. but still leaving the studio in the red. Reviews were mixed, but there were enough positive reviews that Lucas was able to make the 1973 coming of age film, American Graffiti (starring future filmmaker, Ron Howard, plus some other future stars), which itself was a huge hit (earning 5 Academy Award nominations and various other accolades). From there he was able to make Star Wars (1977), and the rest they say is history.
The movie itself continues to be referenced in other things (outside of Lucas made projects). Most folks who grew up during the 1990s and 2000s will be familiar with the THX sound system, featuring that very loud music sting (which itself has been spoofed in so many things!). For me, this was my introduction to anything THX related. It was around 2004 when a Director’s Cut DVD was released, which is how I first learned of the film’s existence.
I wish Lucas had made more films like this. More features that is, as I hear a lot of his shorts were on the experimental side. Sure, it’s clear that this takes inspiration from various other dystopian sci-fi stories (Lucas has never been dishonest about this), but it still has its own unique spin on the genre. I personally never get tired of stories that show the dangers of government and religious control, when done well anyway.
The actors play their parts well, as is expected from the well know veterans of Duvall and Pleasence; it’s surprising that McOmie didn’t do much else after this (she only has 8 acting credits on IMDb, half of which are short films). She and Duvall have good chemistry, even when their characters are supposed to be under drug suppression you can sense they’ve known each other for some time.
For such a low budget, it’s all very well made. Many of the shots are breathtaking, particularly the scenes in the white void, where the prisoners mostly sit there and seem indifferent to the situation. The android police give off an intentionally unpleasant vibe, particularly their chrome, featureless faces, with the monotone voices urging you to stay calm. There’s also the great use of sound you expect from Lucas and his team. Some of the film is a product of its time, but it’s not like Lucas and company could’ve predicted what technology would exist by the 21st century. With that said, a lot has held up: government surveillance, drug dependency, people being treated like cogs in a machine, being treated like it’s wrong to express yourself, productivity over human life, and so on.
Like with Star Wars, Lucas went back to spruce up some of the shots and effects. Also like Star Wars, this is at times jarring, but not nearly as jarring compared to all the added stuff to the latter (even if you’ve never seen the original cuts of the Star Wars trilogy, most of the added effects are still quite noticeable). This probably depends on if you saw this before the restoration (which I did), so that might determine how noticeable it is for others viewing. I don’t think these things detract from the overall picture.
This won’t be as appealing to some as Lucas’s followup films (even the Prequel Trilogy), it’s a lot more bleak in comparison, plus has a slower pace. Although I wouldn’t call it a hopeless story, and I think there is some heart in there. There’s also a few exciting moments sprinkled throughout. This definitely showed off his talents as a visual storyteller. So if you enjoy dystopian future settings, are a Lucas completist, or both, then I definitely say this one is worth checking out.
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