‘THX 1138’ – George Lucas begins on Max

THX 1138 (1971), the debut feature from George Lucas, comes from a galaxy far, far away from the splashy special effects-driven spectacles spawned by his industry-transforming Star Wars.

The satirical science fiction allegory is set in a sedated society where going straight is “criminal drug evasion” and meaningless, mindless consumerism (“For your enjoyment and greater efficiency, consumption is being standardized.”) has become the recreational activity promoted in the electronic confessionals (sort of an ATM dispensing spiritual and psychiatric advice with the emotionless voice of the omnipresent big brother).

When the shuffling drone THX (Robert Duvall) is roused from his medicated stupor by his mate LUH (Maggie McOmie), there is no going back. Donald Pleasence co-stars as a fellow worker bee unable to break free of the reassuring repressions and Don Pedro Colley is a rogue hologram who escapes into the human world and finds himself utterly lost.

Lucas borrows from George Orwell’s novel 1984 and Fritz Lang’s visionary film silent film classic Metropolis (the plebian class lives in an all-white antiseptic version of the underworld), among others, but it’s the vivid low-budget texture that makes the film so memorable, both visual and aural. The sound design by Walter Murch is something to hear.

THX 1138 was a financial flop but admired by critics and it was enough of a showcase of Lucas’ talents for the studios to get behind his second film, a much warmer blast of nostalgia by the name of American Graffiti. Lucas always had an affection for this film, referencing it in American Graffiti (keep an eye on the license plates) and in the film sound system his company created, and in 2004 he rereleased the film to theaters in a new restoration.

As with Star Wars, Lucas added digital effects to his 2004 restoration of the film. They are at best distractions to the texture and sparseness of the low-budget austerity. From the antiseptic honeycomb hallways of the hive to the dreary tunnels on the fringes of the futuristic underground society, from the shiny silver heads and black leather uniforms of the cops to the beautiful blemishes and imperfections of the humans in Lucas’ caressing close-ups—freckles on McOmie, for instance, and the stubble of Duvall’s shaved head—the cinematic glories have nothing to do with Lucas’ enhancements. Murch oversees—or perhaps overhears—the 5.1 remix of the restoration. In THX, of course.

“Blessing of the state. Blessings of the masses. Be safe. Buy, and be happy.”

Rated R

Streams for a limited time on Max

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
THX 1138: The George Lucas Director’s Cut [Blu-ray]
THX 1138: The George Lucas Director’s Cut [DVD]

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The Blu-ray and DVD releases of the restoration feature rich commentary by Lucas and co-writer/sound designer Walter Murch, an isolated sound effects track, the hour-long documentary “A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope,” new and archival featurettes, and Lucas’ original student film short “Electronic Labyrinth TXH 1138 4EB” among the supplements.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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