More noise than signal

THX 1138

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

I could swear I’d seen this back in my formative years, but perhaps it was the short film this is based on, or perhaps it was just a still of the memorably stark visuals. At any rate, I couldn’t remember much of this, apart from those visuals. As I come to type up my notes for this, I can’t remember all that much of this, apart from those visuals, but let’s crash on and hope it comes back to me.

We are introduced to the overwhelmingly brightly lit, white painted dystopia of a few centuries hence, where life is very different indeed. A totalitarian Party control all people working in subterranian factories, drugged to the eyeballs to repress your identity and humanity, with even your name assigned by the state, a seemingly random collection of letters and numbers, like our THX 1138 here, played by Robert Duvall. He finishes a shift building the unflappable android police enforcers he will soon be menaced by and returns to his habitation, stopping only to pray and give confession to the party-approved deity OMM.

He’s feeling odd unusually unfocused because, it turns out, his flatmate Maggie McOmie’s LUH 3417 has been fiddling with their meds, doing whatever the inverse of slipping him a mickey is, leading to them rediscovering human emotions and drives. Such novelty does however reduce his efficiency on the production line, leading to their transgressions being discovered and THX being thrown in jail, which seems to be the same blank white void that Apple did their product launch videos for most of the past few decades.

Rejecting the drug based rehabilitation, he breaks out alongside Donald Pleasence’s delusional “rebel leader” and Don Pedro Colley’s character, apparently a hologram, and they go on the lam through this strange dystopia pursued by them there android cops, with THX ultimately heading for the surface for a life amongst the shell dwellers, whatever precisely they are supposed to be.

THX 1138 has, of course, lived on in popular culture not primarily due to its success (it saw little at the time) or even its inherent qualities, but because it’s a George Lucas joint, and George Lucas made Star Wars. Perhaps you have heard of it, but the question that remains for this podcast is whether or not this has much value as anything more than a DVD extra on a Star Wars box set.

And I suppose it does, although there’s a bunch of qualifiers needed to that. In many ways it’s a really concise summation of Lucas’s strengths and weaknesses as a story teller. Visually it’s quite remarkable indeed, and remains so to this day. Narratively, there’s not a great deal to it, but it’s solid enough for what it needs to be. The genius of it is in the details of the world, with many little throwaway lines and concepts that hint at something really interesting that could be explored.

It doesn’t explore that here, of course, and as the “expanded universe” of Star Wars perhaps proved, it probably shouldn’t. Being left with questions about the Party, and it’s seeming co-opting of all forms of totalitarianism – fascism, communism, and religion and capitalism, and whatever’s happened to the planet that means the surface is deemed uninhabitable, or if that’s just another lie to control the populace, and who exactly is doing the controlling, are all the best aspects of speculative fiction – providing questions and letting you answer them yourself.

If you’re in the mood for answers to be served to you on a plate, however, THX 1138 doesn’t deliver, and to be honest if you just wanted the bare minimum of information to be served to you to have a basis other than total guesswork for answering the questions yourself, well, you’re not getting that either, so there’s a lot to both like and criticise about the world-building of the piece.

Overall, that just about comes out in the wash, and it does deserve some recognition apart from his marginally more famous work. It should be noted that George Lucas couldn’t help George Lucasing this, with a directors cut that balances out some lovely restoration and clean up work with some abominable CG enhancements that stick out in a sore thumbesque fashion, so, yes, again, concise summation of Lucas’s strengths and weaknesses.