George Lucas's absorbing visual mastery takes a harsh look at consumption and regulation.
Clothed in institutional white uniforms and with depersonalized ciphers for names, catatonic citizens march about sterile hallways and malls and confess to a computerized messiah. Sedatives control and curtail the emotions and desires of the populace, while vapid yet cheerful messages promoting the benefits of buying product and thriftiness sing from hidden speakers. All the while, cameras watch every listless move.
Audiences get quickly sucked into this world of THX 1138, the first feature film by the now-veteran George Lucas, released in March of 1971, Lucas’s film expands on his cerebral student short completed during the director’s days at USC, taking a sharp look at the effects of standardized consumption in a whitewashed dystopia.
THX 1138 follows the progression of its title character, played by another Hollywood veteran Robert Duvall, as he and his computer-determined mate LUH 3127 (Maddie McOmie) wean themselves off of their drug rations to discover their human (read: sexual) desires. And, to make matters worse, they fall in love. When they are obviously discovered, the faceless government slates to wipe out LUH and sends THX to a holding cell with other prisoners. THX, powered by his newly gained emotions, sets out to rescue LUH with the help of fellow prisoner SEN (Donald Pleasence) and hologram SRT (Don Pedro Colley).
The plot itself seems to be a repetition of tired Orwellian sci-fi: a newly cognizant man fights against his futuristic state that sublimates its citizens with passion-suppressing drugs and a barrage of hologram entertainment and feel-good platitudes. The rebellion against the oppressive government and a culminating police chase at the end of the film seem far too familiar to seasoned moviegoers. They may be disappointed to see THX 1138 regurgitating general sci-fi themes of the individual vs. corporation, dehumanization à la Big Brother, and robotics vs. humanity. Taken out of the movie, the plot can easily be found in any high school writer’s attempt to get back at the man.
But it’s clear that Lucas wasn’t as concerned about the plot as he was with the artistic vision of the film. From the moment THX 1138 begins, the audience gets treated to a constant stream of screen distortions and repetitive clicks, thumps, and beeps that submerge viewers into the unsettling world of consumption and automation. They find further enjoyment in the visual mastery of the characters and setting: erased of any personality, seemingly unresponsive characters of the THX 1138 world march around endless white rooms in achromatic clothing and shaved heads. Apparently a low budget of less than a million dollars tested Lucas’s creativity in visual effects. And he passed. The entire atmosphere feels like a hypnotic dreamscape, and viewers can’t help but be drawn into the stark, abstract world that Lucas creates with the same visionary skills that thrive in his later, more popular films. Though THX 1138 lacks a compelling plotline to attract a general audience, it does embody an artistic magnetism that will impress dedicated fans of either Lucas or visual aesthetics alike.