THX 1138: Watching the Unwatchable George Lucas Movie

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It is the shame of contemporary medicine that people can still get strep throat. I feel like it should have been stamped out already. Like polio. Perhaps my children will live in such a world. I was born too early.

Because I had strep all weekend, and I also had a huge repetitive-labor task to perform, I watched a lot of movies, including THX 1138. I didn’t know very much about it, besides that it was early George Lucas, and that it was available on Netflix Watch Instantly, along with Pirates of the Caribbean 3, which I also watched.. I figured it was probably sort of a link between Lucas’s arty film-school self and his full-blown Star Wars self.


That turned out to be exactly right. And for the first 15 minutes, THX 1138 is totally riveting. It turns out, duh, that Lucas was a genuine visionary. Weird electronically distorted voices, creepy silent surveillance footage — I swear it would look cutting-edge today. (I was watching the cleaned-up special edition, mind you.) And it’s wicked Star Wars-y: all that interior stuff from the Death Star is completely there already: the glossy black and white surfaces, the hushed silences. Compare it to Logan’s Run, which was obviously ripped off from it — I mean, it’s a joke. Logan’s Run is cheap kitsch. This is art.

The setup is that, in the future, all of humanity is living in some vast underground structure. Their emotions and sex drives are kept damped down by a regime of pharmaceuticals strictly administered by a totalitarian state. Surveillance is universal. Life sucks. Very Orwellian. Everybody lives in a state of constant, numbed-out narcosis. Also everybody is bald.

Except for THX 1138, our hero, who, with the help of his foxy, bald, occasionally naked roommate, LUH, is going off the drugs and discovering emotions. And love. Sexual love. Eventually THX and LUH go on the run, pursued by slow-moving robots who look like people dipped in chrome.

This makes it sound better than it is. In fact it’s pretty close to unwatchable, because most of the movie is not about running, it’s about living in an emotionally deadened state. The plot moves with glacial slowness, and the acting is very lugubrious and earnest, and the whole society-is-making-us-into-zombies vibe, while not necessarily untrue, feels very cliche and 1960’s. By the time they actually get into race cars (all cars are race cars in the future) and have a proper chase scene, four fifths of the way through, the movie will probably have lost you.

But you know what? It’s one of those movies that, while eye-bleedingly boring, makes a really powerful emotional impression. It’s beautiful, and it puts its finger on something real that (still) is awful about modern life. When you get to the iconic final shot, and the credits roll, you’re blown away. Partly it’s just relief that it’s over. But only partly.