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on 29 September 2012
THX 1138, like Star Wars, doesn't explain its world so much as simply evoke it. No reason is given for why the dystopia presented here has risen, and none is needed. The plot is basic Orwellian stuff: a man (THX 1138, played by Robert Duvall) and woman (LUH 3417, played by Maggie McOmie) fall in love against the backdrop of a society which prohibits such feelings. They rebel and are punished. This story has a more optimistic ending than 1984 though, which makes sense coming from George Lucas, the man who created the world's most famous space opera.
The back of my copy describes this film as a "compelling examination of the present", but it isn't really. Besides vague references to materialism (a disembodied voice compels our hero to buy more) and religion no points are made or analogies drawn. It's more of an audiovisual experience, and on that level it succeeds wonderfully. The atmosphere Lucas creates would be perfect for a hospital, but nightmarish to live in. In this vision of the future people live in underground cities which are barren and sterilised. Everything is technology, and robot policemen enforce state laws. My favourite shot is a lizard sitting before a system of wires which connect people to an automated voice that serves as their deity. The animal's cold indifference symbolises the state's.
THX is an assembly line worker. He builds robots (who in their unfinished state look a bit like C3PO), handling dangerous materials which sometimes explode and cause casualties. LUH, his roommate, illegally replaces his drugs with placebos, and he discovers that he's in love with her. They have sex, which is intercut with horrified lawmakers watching on a secret camera. THX is sent to prison, which provides the film's most fascinating set. Prison in this world is an endless white, empty expanse with no walls or anything else besides a few benches. The effect is uncanny, giving the impression that the prisoners are nowhere. Try as I might, I couldn't make out a single wall or anything which broke the reality of the image.
Donald Pleasance also stars, as a fellow citizen who befriends THX. I was a bit confused by his character. At first I thought he was one of the lawmakers in this world, arranging for THX to be his roommate after observing his attachment to LUH, but then he ended up in prison for tampering with the computers. No matter; Pleasance brings pathos to the character, who's something of a tragic opportunist. Don Pedro Colley plays a hologram who's developed human thought processes and helps THX. His story arc was also genuinely moving. All the supporting characters are actually better developed than THX, the hero, another quality this film shares with Star Wars.
I guess you could argue that Lucas doesn't quite go all the way with his dark vision because of the happy ending, but it doesn't matter. THX 1138 is a sensory experience, and stuns you with strange, stark images of a human race reduced to living like ants.