In some science fiction circles, Star Wars creator George Lucas is a hero, a brilliant visionary of modern myth who brought an action-packed, sci-fi flavored brand of action and adventure to the masses. In others, he's the ultimate pariah, a showman who supplanted intellectual sci-fi with adrenal spectacle and marketing schemes.
In truth, he's probably a bit of both--a simultaneous storyteller and capitalist. But the "visionary" part is easy to forget when his Star Wars prequels are slammed and appreciation of Lucas' first major film, 1971's THX 1138, is relegated to a few online message boards.
Thankfully, the re-released incarnation of THX 1138 serves as a reminder of Lucas' "visionary" status. A sci-fi film that for all intents and purposes is the antithesis of the bombastic Star Wars series, THX 1138 stars a disconcertingly young Robert Duvall as the titular character, a factory worker who lives with a female counterpart, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie).
Thanks to government-imposed medication, LUH and THX's relationship is platonic, unfulfilled, and mind-numbingly hollow--until LUH skips her medication and an Adam and Eve scenario blossoms. As THX's and LUH's emotions and personalities abruptly explode against the barren backgrounds of Lucas' Orwellian future, naked human feeling and primal instinct are suddenly forced to the fore. In a dystopia where productivity and sterility are valued above all else, however, it doesn't take long for the authorities to catch on to what THX and LUH are up to.
What follows is a sinister, starkly beautiful, and surprisingly humorous and humane film. While TXH 1138's screenplay--by Lucas and Walter Murch--initially appears simple and abstract, it eventually proves complex and cohesive; as the main character teams up with the possibly insane fellow outcast SEN 5241 (a giddily depressing Donald Pleasence) and a rogue hologram, SRT (Don Pedro Colley), THX 1138 becomes a film not so much about a disturbing, very possible future, but rather about the confused individuals trapped within it.
THX 1138 is based off of a short that Lucas made in film school, and it shows--with largely bare frame compositions, a glaring white color palette, and a disconcerting soundtrack that floats the viewer through a plethora of experimental stretches. Despite the film's obvious low-key roots, Lucas manages to imbue even this barren futuristic metropolis with a distinct, subversive sort of sympathetic personality. (But it's also easy to see Lucas' later work in here, too: there's a blisteringly fast car chase, C-3PO-looking android policemen, and a narrative so visually dependent that it nearly makes the dialogue negligible--the latter being, for better or worse, the quintessential Lucas trademark).
While this limited-release incarnation of THX 1138 has been spruced up with some non-intrusive CG (some wide city shots are now populated with computer-inserted people and vehicles, some continuity errors have been digitally corrected, and there are one or two embellishments when it comes to both the technology and the lifeforms inhabiting Lucas' then-underfunded world) and will only beat its DVD counterpart by days, TXH 1138 is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen. Constructing a world that's simultaneously believable and allegorical, THX 1138 was produced during a time when three of the 20th Century's most epochal (and interconnected) pop film talents were just getting started--Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola (who executive produced THX 1138 as the first film under his American Zoetrope banner). As an archive of that early '70s era, THX 1138 is absorbing, but it's also interesting as a prelude to the future--with next summer's final Star Wars installment looming on the horizon (and depending on which sort of Lucas films you prefer), watching THX 1138 beforehand might prove to be a pretty discombobulating experience.
But above all else, watching THX 1138 serves as an affecting, fascinating experience--not only does the film itself justify such a response, but with all that Lucas has become (and come to symbolize) in current popular film, THX 1138 also serves as an engrossing, unfulfilled promise of what else he could have been.