Back to the future

George Lucas' early sci-fi film is profound and prophetic

Sep 15, 2004 at 12:00 am

Don’t let all of the fascinating trivia that accompanies George Lucas’ first motion picture get in your way of seeing it. It is not some kind of cinematic oddity, destined only for a place on the DVD shelves of rabid film freaks or sci-fi nuts. What THX 1138 is goes beyond the legend and the oft-referenced, multiple sightings of the title in Lucas’ more commercial and accessible films. With this director’s cut of the 1971 classic, those who’ve grown weary of Lucas’ Star Wars-centric efforts over the past three decades will be reminded that the man had something to say and knew how to say it.

A perfectly believable, totalitarian utopia is challenged by one man and one woman who discover their budding love and sexual attraction puts them at odds with the state and its legions of motorcycle-cop robot enforcers. It is more visually stunning and politically potent than anything that’s come down the pike since.

The world of THX 1138 is a clean one, all white and sterile and shiny. Bald-headed and uniformed in ubiquitous white togs, the residents of this future world are fueled in their imprisonment by an endless cocktail of state-mandated pharmaceuticals and holographic images broadcast into their all-white cubicles. Yes, everyone is a number, the title of the picture being our hero’s particular tag (a young and intense Robert Duvall). His “mate” is LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie, who, oddly enough, never appeared in another motion picture), a woman who scares our hero with her strong sexual attraction to him and her emotional outpourings. This is considered abnormal, and could land both of them in trouble with the smooth-talking, always-roaming, polished-steel faces of the “man.”

THX takes his lover’s example; he eschews the drugs and the state-provided distractions, and begins his long descent into his outsider status, first as a prisoner, then as a mental patient, then as an escapee from all the right angles and white walls that surround him. Through his journey to freedom, he is accosted by that omnipresent villain in almost all the great sci-fi and horror films of the ’60s and ’70s, Donald Pleasance. As SEN 5241, Pleasance watches our hero’s every move through the surveillance cameras that permeate this world (sound familiar?). His actions separate our hero from his lover, and put THX on a path to either liberation or imprisonment.

This film, returning to the theaters to promote its release on DVD, deserves its place on the big screen. With its blinding white visuals and perfectly realized claustrophobic “utopia,” you are swept into a horrifying depiction of conformity run amok. Forget all the Wookies and princesses and monolithic dominance of Lucas’ “other” science fiction. This is the Lucas movie that no one would dare celebrate with fast-food tie-ins and lunch-box commemorations. It’s just too damn scary, smart and prophetic for that.

Showing exclusively at the State Theatre, 233 S. State St., Ann Arbor. Call 734-761-8667.

Dan DeMaggio writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].