I was really pleased to be paired up with this film as I’ve wanted to see it for a very long time and had been very intrigued as how George Lucas’ directorial debut measured up against his later, ever so slightly better known work. I knew absolutely nothing about it before going into it (other than who directed it) and that was probably for the best as I hadn’t set my expectations too high; good job too because I didn’t really take much from this movie.
THX 1138 tells the story of Robert Duvall (in the titular role) as a citizen of a dystopian society where the populace are enslaved and emotionally repressed through the use of narcotics and strict law enforcement. THX manages to get off the drugs and tries to escape the city he is forced to reside within only to encounter obstacles at every turn.
Synopsis out of the way, let’s talk about my experience with this movie. I really didn’t enjoy it much. Sorry. A lot of this film felt very awkward to me; it’s shot in a strange style and there are often minutes at a time without dialogue or much in the way of incident leading to it feeling like somewhat of a trying watch. On the occasions where there is dialogue, it is often delivered in a rough, often incomprehensible manner and whilst it’s good that the film doesn’t pander to the audience or seek to explain everything that is happening at any one moment in time, it doesn’t help when you get to the end of the movie and you’re not really sure what the instigation and action was that led to the film’s climax.
Another bugbear of mine was the music which often felt intrusive (although at some moments is quite elegant) and it really got me thinking about the importance of a good score. Having watched this movie and sometimes having whole scenes almost ruined by the score, it made me thankful that Lucas collaborated with John Williams for his later movies and not with Lalo Schifrin as in this case.
A lot of the other quibbles I had with the film could easily be explained away by the fact that this film is almost forty years old and I think I need to at least pay reference to the fact that considering the limitations of technology, effects and budget that the film no doubt faced, it actually stands up pretty well now visually; it’s just a shame that the actual narrative content and structure of the film isn’t as compelling.
There are stand out moments however that really do lift this film; in particular is the car chase towards the end of the movie between THX in a super-powered rocket car and two police androids in pursuit on motorbikes. The scene is very frenetically shot and looks great nearly forty years on. There is a caveat here however in that I don’t know if this is one of the touched up scenes for the director’s cut (more on this below) and as such basically could have looked crap to start with for all I know. Whatever the weather it was still a very welcome change of pace for what had been, at least up until that point in time, a very slow and almost plodding movie.
From a narrative perspective, I also really enjoyed the fact that THX was a cog in the dystopian machine and not the man to bring the system down. There is a slight tendency within this kind of film to elevate an individual to system crashing extremes and I think that as soon as a dystopian story becomes more about the situation than the characters within it, it instantly loses a lot of its appeal; I want to see what it’s like to exist within this society – not follow the hero who changes the world. So well done for not doing that in this case. Applause all round.
One thing I wanted to get on my soapbox about before I wrap this up is that much like in Lucas’ unyielding control over the Star Wars franchise, the director’s cut of the movie which was released in 2004 (a full thirty three years after the film’s original release) is the only way you can see this film on DVD; as far as I can tell from limited information, the director’s cut added in around seven minutes of footage and also saw Lucas tinkering with computers and the edit to change the look and feel of whole scenes. It feels strange to me that the decision has been made to effectively erase the original version of the film from existence and unfortunately I’m not able to comment on the changes made because I have no way of comparing them to the original. It does seem to me though that a later cut of a movie (especially one more than thirty years later) should be offered as an alternative to the original version and not as a way to supersede it. Shame on you Lucas.