(SPOILERS) Curious George’s debut is the antithesis of his later Star Wars (A New Hope), and it’s interesting that he should have invested himself in something so austere, “adult” and joyless given his later escapist veneer. One half senses, like Spielberg with Sugarland Express, that this was a self-consciously serious piece, intended to garner respect, rather than being something he was entirely invested in. But in contrast to the berg, Lucas was always a thoughtful young man – the prequel trilogy is deadly serious in theme – and it’s as likely that basic pragmatism took over when it came to delivering ideas that audiences might actually go and see next time. THX 1138 lent its title to his game-changing sound system, of course, and like Star Wars, Lucas couldn’t help but revisit his work decades later and add in some obviously updated special effects (not as egregious as most of the additions to A New Hope, but still wholly unnecessary). The picture remains an interesting piece from several vantage points, not least the striking sound design, but it never feels remotely essential.
I’m not sure if I first saw THX 1138 on BBC2’s Moviedrome, but until now, I certainly hadn’t watched it all the way through more than once. As Alex Cox observed in his introduction, it is not a great film: “It’s a little obscure and stand-offish”. He also suggested you have to be able to relate to good science-fiction. I’m not sure if that’s entirely true, and there are certainly elements here that are very resonant, even if its core plot was more colourfully remade a few years later as Logan’s Run. Here we have your standard-issue reset society (presumably after some nuclear event). It’s a DUMB one to boot, while giving us a very persuasive depiction of transhumanism in full swing, taking its cues from both Orwell and Huxley. A cynic might suggest Lucas was right in there with the predictive programming from the off.
Computer: If you feel you are not properly sedated, call 348844 immediately. Failure to do so may result in prosecution for drug evasion.
Gender identities are blurred, most visually via the identikit haircuts, the population is kept doped up – not to take the pills is an infraction – while sex and pregnancy are illegal. When you’re condemned to death, you’re put up as an organ donor. Citizens’ normal functioning can be artificially taken over by mindlock. Holo porn, torture and er, debates constitute the entertainment diet, so one might suggest nothing changes. What we have in THX 1138 is, then, your classic cliché of the dystopian future. It’s just that it currently looks like some very acute, low-budget prophecy (again, there’s an argument that none of this is accidental, although you have to set that against the “No one knows anything” William Goldman factor; it’s not as if anyone went to see Willow. Or Howard: A New Breed of Hero. Or this – Lucas effectively killed American Zoetrope's first big bid for conquest).
The stark, stripped-down construction of this regime is Lucas’ greatest achievement; it has that in common at least with Star Wars. Indeed, THX 1138’s first forty minutes or so are engrossing, showing the traces of familiar societal tropes but effectively and sometimes quite creatively distorted. For example, the confessional booth of OMM 0000, the state deity, who gives unempathic programmed responses to the sinner in a scene steeped in irony as Robert Duvall’s radiation technician expresses his guilt over a work place accident.
There’s further irony that, despite Robert Duvall’s presence and a reliably weasely Donald Pleasance as SEN 5241 (who has designs on Duvall’s THX), it’s one-off lead Maggie McOmie as LUH 3417 who invests the picture with an emotional connection as she awakens THX. Which means that, once she exits and the focus is all on THX, there’s much less to sustain our interest. The extended white void detention centre sequence is visually arresting, certainly, but the picture soon devolves into an extended chase where it’s difficult to get too engaged. There are Lucas amusements along the way, such as THX’s pursuit by robot cops eventually ending because they have exceeded their budget (quite how economics figure in this society isn’t really explained). Then there’s SEN explaining to kids being mainlined their latest educational dose how in his day the same learning took a whole week. And the very soothing-sounding cops, even when they’re inflicting ultra-violence.
It’s notable that THX 1138 opens with a clip from a Buster Crabbe Buck Rogers (both set in the 25th century), since it would be Lucas’ failure to secure the rights to Flash Gordon that led to him thrashing out his own hugely influential mythology. And one can’t help but compare and contrast this debut with another low-budget, influential science-fiction picture made by another film school graduate extending his student film project. In Lucas’ case, this was the 1967 Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, chaperoned by Coppola. A few years later came Dark Star. John Carpenter’s film is decidedly less polished, but in every other respect, it is enormously memorable (and hilarious). I also hadn’t twigged before that The Shamen sample “My Time is Yours” on Omega Amigo derives from THX 1138.
Reputedly, Lucas picked his college telephone number for the title/Duvall’s character. And co-writer Walter Murch reckoned THX meant Sex, SEN was sin and LUH was love. It’s curious then that both THX 1138 and LUH 3417’s name/numbers break down to 29/11. Coincidence? Ultimately, THX 1138 is conceptually solid but dramatically distancing. “Some talent but too much art” said Pauline Kael. Not something Lucas would later be accused of so much (the art bit).