Monday Movie: TXH 1138, by David Bax
If you’re my age, there’s a good chance you heard the Nine Inch Nails album The Downward Spiral before you ever got around to seeing George Lucas’ debut feature, THX 1138. And so, when you finally did watch it, you immediately recognized the sounds of a man being beating by law enforcement androids as the sample that opens the song “Mr. Self Destruct.” And you probably registered the same shock I did at the mind behind triumphant, feel-good cinema like American Graffiti and Star Wars also having produced something so brutal and bleak. Taken as a whole, though, THX 1138 turns out to be cut from the same cloth as those tales of good prevailing.
Robert Duvall stars in the title role, a worker in a distant future dystopia where everyone lives underground, works tirelessly for the state and has all of their emotions and carnal desires medicated out of them. After an unintentional change in his pills, though, he begins to feel such things as–wouldn’t you know it?–love.
Lucas’ vision of the future doesn’t go to any lengths to hide its obvious debt to widely-read landmark dystopian fiction like Brave New World and 1984. The difference is, where Huxley and Orwell were working out challenging ideas, Lucas is reframing traditional values in the guise of anti-establishment tropes. For instance, it’s not just the drugs that keep these citizens numb; they are also pacified by holographic entertainments of sex and violence. Sometimes THX 1138 feels like a Southern Baptist preacher given a hackneyed Ted Talk.
But thematic ideas and novel storytelling were never going to be what Lucas brought to the table. Star Wars lacks sorely for originality in its characters and its narrative and yet its place in the cinematic canon is well-earned because of Lucas’ then-unrivaled aptitude for visualizing whole worlds and for evoking primal emotional responses through framing and editing. THX 1138 may never reach the sheer visual heights of, say, the attack on the Death Star, but the pieces and the instinct are there.