Just six short years after shepherding the last installment of the “Star Wars” series into theaters, “Revenge of the Sith,” George Lucas returned to the big screen last week with the release of “Red Tails.” Lucas didn’t direct the film himself – that honor went to Anthony Hemingway – but its story was one that Lucas was interested in for years, and which he financed himself with the knowledge that it was unlikely to make all of its money back.
Of course, decades of “Star Wars” discussions, not to mention the various changes he’s made to the films, and his seeming obliviousness (or ambivalence) about his fans’ feelings about those changes, have cast Lucas in a decidedly unflattering light: we understand that the films are his to change, they say, but why antagonize us by denying us versions that we love as they are? Regardless, it’s because of all of this that people forget that he was for a time a pretty impressive, unique filmmaker; he wasn’t close friends with folks like Francis Ford Coppola and Carroll Ballard for nothing. As such, we decided to take a look back at his earliest filmmaking effort, “THX 1138,” and see if it still speaks to his abilities a director as well as it seemed to at the time of its release.
Released on March 11, 1971, “THX 1138” was George Lucas very first feature film, an expansion of a short that he made while in film school at USC. Unlike his later triumphs with the “Star Wars” films, Lucas met with commercial failure when it was released, and even when it was rereleased after Lucas’ name became a draw, it remained commercially unsuccessful, earning only $2.4 million total from its various theatrical runs.
Meanwhile, the film enjoyed a healthy level of success among critics, who responded to its dystopian story. The film hovers at 89 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 57 reviews.
What Still Works
Unfortunately, neither of the two original theatrical cuts were ever released on DVD, so the only version of the film available to watch is the Director’s Cut, released in 2004. Nevertheless, Lucas’ film retains all of its ominous power today, offering a portrait of an anesthetized, totalitarian society whose edges begin to fray after one of its citizens diverges from a steady diet of mind- and sense-numbing medications. Especially today, the film seems obviously inspired by Stanley Kubrick, in particular “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “A Clockwork Orange” in terms of its set design, camera angles, and underlying concepts. But Lucas somehow manages to work all of those ideas into a story that’s fully his own, and creates something emotionally evocative and thematically resonant even as he turns a generally unhurried story into a thriller via his Director’s Cut updates.
Amazingly, “THX” may be the only film of his whose changes either don’t affect the viewing experience, or improve it. His use of CGI to flesh out the city in which THX and his fellow citizens live gives the film a broader scope, but it also enhances the victory he achieves when he escapes its underground confinement. As suggested above, meanwhile, the action is intensified, amplifying some of the shots where cars have to be navigating space in traffic or in the society at large, but the truth is that Lucas did such a great job creating this elliptical chase between THX and pursuing authorities on motorcycles that the enhancement is at once welcome and superfluous.
Notwithstanding some digital trickery in which THX’s eyes roll up into his head, the performances of the actors is unilaterally terrific: As the title character, Robert Duvall embodies a certain kind of confused consternation, even when he’s finding unexpected pleasure, and throughout the film he lends the character’s saga a momentum whose significance – or even purpose – seems to escape even him, although he must play it out anyway. As LUH, THX’s “roommate,” Maggie McOmie is also great, albeit understated, and disappointingly absent from the final act of the film, precisely because we’ve grown to care about her. And as SEN, Donald Pleasance gives the film a sniveling sort of bureaucracy, a social and even technological hierarchy where he controls one small quadrant of THX’s life, but it’s enough to ruin it.
What Doesn’t Work
In retrospect, the idea of striking back (or at least positioning oneself) against the existing political or social mores of the day feels like a fairly conventional idea for the culture at large in 1971, and even then wasn’t especially original as an artistic choice (George Orwell’s “1984” was released 22 years earlier). If you’re especially dismayed by Lucas’ employment of Kubrickian ideas and visuals, that’s probably an issue as well, although his utilization of them doesn’t impugn the impact of the films from which he borrowed, and his photography as a whole is quite beautiful.
Despite the general consistency in quality of the Director’s Cut, it’s been so long since any real version of the original cut (or cuts) was available that it would be interesting to see what Lucas changed or enhanced, and what he left the same. There are two specific instances in which the CGI just doesn’t hold up, and calls too much attention to itself – during the rolling-eye scene mentioned above, and when THX is encountering the fringe dwellers at the entrance to the tower he climbs up through in order to reach the surface. Again, however, the changes in the film are mostly aesthetic, and in fact quite understandable – Lucas had little money to create the sorts of vistas he was able to utilize to great effect in the Director’s Cut, and those decisions are oddly justified by the scale of the storytelling.
“THX 1138” is a surprisingly great movie, even for today, and in many ways eerily prescient: Lucas foresaw the advent of a society that is constantly medicated and its senses numbed. His depiction of television and other technology is also really fascinating and accurate as well. But the bottom line is, does the film tell a solid, engaging story, and it absolutely does, then and now. So even if you’re no longer a fan of Lucas’, or think his work and re-work and re-work on the “Star Wars” films renders him unredeemable, “THX 1138” still manages to be a great film, even if you have to squint a little bit and forget who made it – or perhaps more accurately, what he made after it.