Viking Night: THX 1138
By Bruce Hall
August 3, 2016
This week you’re in for a treat, as it promises to be one of the very few times George Lucas gets mentioned in this column for something unrelated to Star Wars. In fact, Lucas’s illustrious career dates back to 1970, when he filmed his first theatrical feature, called THX 1138. If you’ve never heard of this movie, please don’t feel bad. It’s one of those films you’re not likely to have seen unless you’re an actual filmmaker, or you’re six years into a job writing about weird movies, but just not in the mood for David Lynch.
THX 1138 isn’t just Lucas’s first film. It’s also where he tried out a lot of the things he’d later utilize for Star Wars. It’s where the THX surround sound system gets its name. And it’s Lucas’s one and only film that’s both crazier AND better than Howard the Duck. I had seen it only once, back in college. It had been so long, though, that all I could remember were flashes of scenes - certainly nothing concrete. I was actually kind of excited to see this again, and not just for all the reasons I mentioned above. It’s just incredibly rare to know LESS about a film the second time you sit down to watch it.
I also wanted to see what you get when your very first production out of film school boasts legendary actors Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasance, legendary composer Lalo Schifrin, and is backed by legendary producer Francis Ford Coppola. That’s almost as incredible as me opening my front door to find Dave Grohl wanting to jam and Cameron Crowe wanting to write a book about it. How the hell does that even happen?
From a very young age, the Force was TOTALLY with George Lucas.
But everyone has to start somewhere. THX 1138 is a very strange film; clearly the work of someone closer to the beginning of his career than the other end. The dialogue is for the most part spotty, with a handful of very strong spots. The film has a very distinct “Logan’s Run by-way-of Stanley Kubrick” feel to it, what with all its moodiness and barely concealed satire. But by far the most interesting part for me was the obvious amount of technical detail that went into creating both the film and its world. Despite some vexing narrative gaps, THX 1138 is a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of film’s greatest pioneers.
That said, I should point out that the version I watched was the 2004 Director’s Cut. If you hated the Star Wars Special Editions, rest assured that Lucas has gone back and tinkered with other films in his catalogue, notably this one. The good news is that in this case, the film is tremendously enhanced by the process. Where many of the changes to Star Wars felt gratuitous and unnecessary, the changes to THX 1138 fill out the film very nicely. As an added bonus, watching a 40-plus year old film that’s been tastefully enhanced with modern visual effects was a pleasantly positive experience.