George Lucas’ first film is a curious counterpart to his beloved space saga, at least in form if not in tone. If the Star Wars movies are adolescent joy rides, this is a joyless exercise in cinematic precision. For this director’s cut, Lucas has left the basic narrative intact – Robert Duvall plays the title character, a worker toiling in an Orwellian society run by computers – and mostly tinkered with the backgrounds and special effects via computer-generated imagery. It’s an ironic technical improvement for a movie that warns of the dehumanizing
effects of technology. THX 1138 is cold and occasionally sadistic, especially in depicting the way the computers callously try to meet the human desires for sex, religion and companionship. Even so, the movie is never less than fascinating. Working with sound specialist and fellow University of Southern California alumnus Walter Murch (the movie began at the school’s film program as a short), Lucas makes THX 1138 an aural experience as much as a visual one, creating an entire world out of bleeps, whirs and emotionless commands. Not that the visuals are rudimentary. Among the striking images is a prison ‘cell’ THX is brought to that mainly consists of endless white space; the detainees can’t escape because their sense of direction has been obliterated. Other touches – the metallic corridors, the shiny-faced robots – are clearer precursors to Star Wars and its sequels. It is actually here, not Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, where Lucas’ sci-fi universe was born.