The feature directorial debut of science fiction aficionado George Lucas, THX 1138 (1971) is an Orwellian-style adventure. In a mysterious and unnamed future dystopian society, the population is controlled by drugs and invididuals are forbidden from feeling emotions. Worker THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) lives with his roommate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie). The two begin to rebel against their rigid society, putting them both at extreme risk. Do they choose to escape? Or do they choose to conform?
I am really not a fan of Robert Duvall, as his performance in The Handmaid’s Tale (1990) has scarred me for life. However in his portrayal of THX 1138 he does elicit a sufficiently sympathetic response from the viewer, ensuring that a connection is made. You do really barrack for THX as he attempts to figure out his life and position within society, going to extreme lengths in order to do so. Maggie McOmie plays LUH 3417, THX’s roommate who he begins to have feelings for despite those feelings being forbidden. McOmie’s performance was surprisingly heartbreaking and raw. However LUH’s actions in the beginning of the film are fairly under-explained, which does cause a degree of confusion, but her performance is so engaging that you’re willing to wait to fully understand an explanation for certain moments. A surprise performance by Donald Pleasence as SEN 5241 is strangely funny and creepy, which seems to be the norm for him.
The visuals are almost Kubrickian in their bleakness and in their stark portrayal of the strange dystopian society in which THX and LUH live. At the same time, you can see where Lucas developed his inspiration for the visuals of the Star Wars franchise (at least, the original films), as there are numerous sets that look like they could easily be set inside the Death Star or some kind of Stormtrooper headquarters. Visually, THX 1138 is a stunner, with shots that are dominated either by symmetrical objects to reflect an orderly and planned society, or by haphazard asymmetry that reflects rebellion and chaos. What I also loved about the visuals was that at times the viewer sees events from the perspective of the officers who are tasked with tracking and observing THX and LUH, looking through information screens and hearing specific directives from above. This really puts the viewer in a strange position; where you’re watching THX and his plight, yet also feel as if you are an active participant in his story and conflicts.
Confession: I had to watch this film in two sittings because the first half almost had me falling asleep. I found that the world was set up really well, the imagery and visuals were fantastic, but that the story stagnated around the middle to the point where I was actually nodding off asleep. There is a lot of setup and world-building that is interesting, but the novelty does wear off. However, after picking up this film from around the 40 minute mark in the second sitting, I found that the second half of the film was completely engaging, interesting and at moments actually quite thrilling. This is a strange experience for me because it’s not often that I have to pause a film halfway to continue it later on. If you choose to watch this film all in one go, I can confidently say that the adventure and interest will pick up after the halfway point, if you’re bored by the first half.
An additional concern is that the version I watched, which I would assume was the director’s cut from 2004, had some of the most disgustingly horrible CGI effects in it that I have ever seen (not pictured above, which I believe is from the original cut of the film). They stuck out like a sore thumb from the low key, much classier, much lower budget visuals straight out of the 70s. The best description of the CGI that I can manage is that it looked like something out of a screensaver from Windows 97, and it was immediately obvious that the visuals of the film had been tinkered with. That kind of mismatch and disconnect was so weird and uncomfortable to see, and completely took me out of the fairly immersive experience of being stuck within the world of the film.
In conclusion, even though I was excessively fatigued after the first 40 minutes of this film and eventually had to watch it in two sittings, I did really enjoy THX 1138. It was supremely interesting to watch George Lucas’ directorial debut and to see where his inspirations and sci fi motifs developed from. Furthermore, great performances by Robert Duvall and Maggie McOmie ensure that you maintain a connection with these strange characters despite their under-explained actions. The second half of the film is truly interesting, and it felt like the film really stepped on the accelerator to take its story off into unknown and unexpected territory. An overall comment is made on societal control and personal freedoms, and although this doesn’t differ much from the regular ‘dystopian sci fi future’ genre that cinemagoers seem to be loving lately, it is conveyed in an interesting enough manner. I’m glad I finally watched this as a part of my Blindspot 2015 list.
Watch the trailer here.
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I agree that the CGI from the director’s cut is horrible. George just can’t leave his films as they were.
George needs to learn when to step away!
I didn’t realize Lucas tried to go back and adjust other films besides Star Wars. That’s incredibly annoying. Nice review! I’ve never seen this one either.
Thanks Brittani! Yeah, he needs to stop tinkering with things that should be left well alone! Maybe he has too much time on his hands.
Great write up. Totally valid points all around. Only part where we diverge is on the CGI which for me kind of immersed me a bit more than in the original version which I saw only once a long time ago. However I do wish that the original version was available. I know Lucas gets his knocks at times, but I do believe he knows how to create a world at the very least.
Thanks heaps! 😀 Yeah, I wish I’d seen the original version. I’m much more of a fan of the early, lower budget sci fi aesthetic as opposed to the slick CGI. His worldbuilding in this was definitely to be commended though, I find myself thinking about the mysterious Orwellian society out of nowhere every now and again!
Nice work Anna!! I thought this movie was TOTALLY boring and irritating!!! I think I gave it a 2….
Thanks EI! Yeah, I was definitely falling asleep around the middle there. #thxies #1138sies
Still a blindspot for me. Almost picked it for my list since I’ve owned it on DVD for some time, now. Tried to watch it once, but made the mistake of starting it while a little sleepy. Needless to say, zzzzzzzzzz. If I don’t manage to watch it before then, it’ll definitely be on my list next year. Great review.
Thanks heaps Wendell! 🙂 Maybe have a big cup of coffee before starting watching this again! It’s probably what I should have done.
Good review, Anna!
Thank u for informing me about CGI tinkerings in a 2004 cut – I shall avoid!
For Lucas’ other work, u might like to see this:
Thanks so much! 🙂 Loved your post!
Reblogged this on deaconsden and commented:
A fantastic review of THX-1138 from Anna at Film Grimoire. I think that fans and even detractors of George Lucas should see this at least once.
Thanks so much for the reblog! 😀
My pleasure. I had to share this one. I wrote about it a few months ago.
Good for you for getting through it! Honestly, this sounds like one I’ll skip… Robert Duvall isn’t my favorite, either. The movie also sounds a lot like Yevengy Zamyatin’s 1921 novel “We”
You’ve reminded me, I really liked that novel! Maybe it’s time for a re-read.
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