In the year 2013, it's impossible for many - including myself - to hear the name of George Lucas and not think "Oh, yeah, he's that guy who made Star Wars and then spent three decades ruining it!" Lucas the filmmaker barely exists in the eyes of most, and Lucas the multibillionaire who can't stop tinkering (and also making money) is what we think of when the man is discussed. And then we go back and look at his debut feature THX 1138 - a thoughtful and philosophical sci-fi film that seems to be the project of a great dreamer - and we get our minds blown.
It should not come as a surprise that Lucas can dream up some good stuff - y'know, there is that whole Star Wars universe thing as evidence of his talent - but it's still a bit of a shock to our system when we compare THX 1138 to Lucas' cash cow of a franchise. Deriving some of its themes from other great works of sci-fi - comparisons to 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 are inescapable at times - Lucas' first film is a story of the future that focuses on human fears and features pretty much no lasers.
Robert Duvall stars as the title character, a worker in a society that numbers its members, mandates drugs to suppress emotions, and doesn't really want anyone having hair or having sex or being happy. Well, it does want them to be happy, because their video Jesus that takes confessions in phone booths always ends his comments to "work hard, increase production, prevent accidents and be happy". But it's kind of like that scene from Citizen Kane, because this god-face wants the bald members of this society to be happy on his own terms. And if you know anything about Robert Duvall, you know he's probably not gonna put up with that crap.
Don't set your expectations to Skywalker yet, because this revolution against the robot cops and faceless controllers doesn't take the fast-paced approach that films like Logan's Run would take later in the sci-fi game. Lucas' film is a strangely poetic piece of work, rolling through the different stages at a delicate pace and never really pushing the tempo for the sake of thrills. As Duvall and the other prisoners of this neutered society (including the fantastic Donald Pleasence, playing a key role and being as wonderful as usual) face the system, Lucas is wise to never give an aggressive side of the story. There are some creepy robotic police officers that enforce the law, but these are just tools. There's no "big bad" to be found, and that's when we start to realize just what sets THX 1138 apart from the pack.
As we see these nameless, often indistinguishable characters move through their surroundings, it becomes evident that life in this society itself is the film's biggest villain. The film is littered with all kinds of messages - anything from "drugs are bad" to "sex ruins everything" to "conformity is death" could be pulled from the film and discussed thoroughly - but the biggest thing I take away from Lucas' slow-paced and visually inventive film is how difficult it can be to escape the monotonous side of life.
Getting back to Lucas, it's little surprise that the version of THX 1138 that exists today is not the one that premiered in 1971. Items that were cut from that version by the studio have been restored, and new footage has been shot and added, leaving us with a DVD version that is billed (redundantly) as "The George Lucas Director's Cut." But the tinkering hasn't poisoned the well here, and THX 1138 still stands out as a mature and bold vision of a terrible future, boldly put together by a director whose care for his material is impossible to miss. THX 1138 is a neat sci-fi film that promotes a lot of thought, and a nice reminder of how George Lucas became that multibillionaire through a lot of talent and hard work.