Sunday, January 2, 2011

THX 1138

THX?  Isn't that the annoying noise that tells you that the audience is listening?  Well, yes.  The THX company is actually a splinter company that branched off of Lucasfilms, which is of course run by George "I love prequels" Lucas.  THX 1138 is Lucas' first feature film, a science fiction movie set in a dystopian future; and if you know anything about Lucas' work, you know that he didn't try for a low-key character-driven work for his first film.

In an underground future city, where drug use is mandatory (for general compliance as well as for better job performance), sex is illegal, and everything is monitored, THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) is just another worker drone, going through the motions of what the future calls "life."  He works long hours with radioactive materials, maintains minimally interesting conversations with others, confesses his problems to a picture of Jesus with an automated voice, and then goes home and watches the government-owned holographic television channels with his assigned opposite gender roommate, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie).  Good times, right?  Apparently, not so much.  THX (or "thux," as "luh" sometimes calls him) is having problems.  His medication doesn't seem as effective, and he's getting headaches and is being bothered by things that he usually ignores.  Well, that's because his roomie has been slipping him placebos, illegally forcing him off his medications without his knowledge.  But, once the drugs have left his system, THX experiences emotions for the first time, including his lust for LUH.  Breaking the law in sci-fi movies rarely comes cheap, so THX and LUH have to do what they can to fight The Man, before it's too late.

The most impressive aspect to THX 1138 is the production values.  For having such a small budget, this future looks pretty cool.  I liked the appearance of the underground city and the cars, but the minimalist design for the costumes and many of the sets was really clever.  After all, what better way for a totalitarian government to fight individuality than by making absolutely everything bland?  Everyone wears only white, everyone is clean-shaven and has a shaved head, the furniture is functional and monochrome --- even the jail cell where they spend some time is just a pure white limbo.  The robotic police, with their almost-but-not-quite C3P0 faces, were a neat idea, as was the inclusion of budgetary concerns in a huge government-run complex.  And I liked the government-sponsored TV channels: one features a dancing naked woman, another has a dancing naked man, another has police beating a man (the sound of which is sampled at the start of "Mr. Self Destruct" by Nine Inch Nails --- and yes, I'm proud of myself for catching that all by myself), and the last channel has news; sex, violence, and knowledge, all in a government-sponsored box.

The acting is pretty decent, but it's a little hard to gauge in a movie where emotions are a foreign concept.  Robert Duvall is fine, but I expected more from someone as talented as him; don't ask me what else he could have done, given the script, but I was just a little disappointed.  Donald Pleasence was pretty good as a mildly sinister sociopath and Maggie McOmie was okay as the Eve to Duvall's boring Adam.  I think my favorite supporting performance came from Don Pedro Colley, and only because his cheerful ignorance kept the movie from being a total downer.  I also noticed Sid Haig in a bit part, but he didn't get to do much of anything.

Now, you might have noticed the similarities between THX 1138 and other, more famous, examples of dystopian futures.  That is because this movie borrows heavily from George Orwell's 1984, with a dash of Brave New World added in for spice.  That's not a bad thing, mind you; the concept of "Big Brother," the omnipresent monitoring of citizens by the government, is now widespread in our culture.  George Lucas (who co-wrote the film, in addition to directing it) has never been one for truly original ideas --- watch Akira Kurosawa's Hidden Fortress and compare it to the first Star Wars if you doubt me --- but I wish he had been a little less obvious this time.  Sure, it's his first movie, but it has the feel of something written by a child.  One time, when I was little, I wrote a story about dinosaur friends on a journey that was NOTHING LIKE The Land Before Time, which I had recently enjoyed, because my story included the power of rock 'n' roll and a magical bone that turned things into butter.  I'm not implying that George Lucas was as obviously not influenced by Orwell as I was not influenced by singing animated dinosaurs, I'm outright stating it.

Wearing your influences on your sleeve doesn't make a movie bad, though.  Where THX 1138 fails is in the area of storytelling.  This is a movie about the future more than it is about the adventures of THX; if they wanted it to be about THX, we would have had more insight into his character.  So, that makes this a story about the future we could all find ourselves in.  But there is no drama to that story.  There is no horrible truth at the core of this future society, like Soylent Green being made of people.  So that brings us back to the movie theoretically being about THX again...but his character arc peaks in the first third of the movie!  This story is just an awkward mess.  It's not told clearly, either.  I was always able to get the gist of what was going on, but could never be completely sure.  And riddle me this, Batman: if THX is arrested for going off his medication and having sex, why is he allowed to stay off his medication in prison and even have sex with LUH?  I don't get it.  And the ending is pretty terrible, too.

Visually, this is a pretty impressive movie.  Too bad the story isn't there to support it.


  1. I have been meaning to rewatch this one, thinking I may have missed something. Thanks for saving my time. Go science fiction!

  2. You caught the NIN sample when you watched it, right?