THX1138 was George Lucas’s first movie. Even though it starred the talented Robert Duvall as the titular character, it was not commercially successful. Reviews were mixed. It wasn’t exactly panned, but, even though it fit in with the general run of dystopia science fiction popular at the time, no critic was particularly interested in hyping it.
The main problem is the pacing. THX1138 can be crushingly dull. A character named SEN 5241, played by Donald Pleasance talks incoherently and disconnectedly. The plot justifies SEN 5241’s style of conversation, but it just goes on, and on, and on. And then it goes on. I quite literally fell asleep in the middle of THX1138. When I woke up, I found I hadn’t missed much.
THX1138 does have its strengths. Not only does it create a coherent, sterile, dystopia, a creepy, self-contained, underground, totalitarian state, it anticipates, by decades the idea of a “networked” reality. It’s much better than “Her,” for what that’s worth. In keeping with the early 1970s, every citizen in Lucas’s city of the future is required to take a mandatory course of mind-altering drugs every day. These drugs lower the sex drive and induce passivity.
But it’s the idea of a “hive,” the above mentioned “networked reality” that gives THX1138 whatever originality it has. There is no sex. There is no privacy. But there is communication. At his job assembling mechanical policemen, THX is under constant surveillance. Key loggers, as far as I know, hadn’t been invented, but every hand movement is tracked. There are mechanical policemen, drones. There are holograms. There’s an electronic confessional booth with the image of Jesus where THX1138 confesses his sins. Robert Duvall’s character seems almost as much an Internet addict as he does a drug addict.
Hey. He could be me.
Decades before The Matrix, THX1138 imagined what it was like to escape the hive mind. But therein lies the problem. The story THX1138 has been told before, and told much better. I didn’t fall asleep in the middle of Clockwork Orange or The Matrix. Logan’s Run was silly, poorly acted, and looks like it was filmed in a shopping mall — it was — but it had the melodramatically compelling idea of a world where we got to live the good life through your 20s but had to submit to euthanasia at the age of 30.
I came away from THX1138 with the idea that dystopian fiction is boring and unimaginative. From Brave New World to 1984 to Blade Runner to The Matrix to the Hunger Games, the idea of a far off, or not so far off totalitarian hell has been told, time and time again. Jack London’s Iron Heel, by far the best of the lot, as well as the most realistic, hasn’t yet been put to film. Perhaps it’s too radical.
THX1138 made me wonder if, perhaps, optimistic science fiction takes more imagination than dystopian science fiction. The capitalist, class-bound, quasi-totalitarian hell hole the United States of America has been evolving into since the Gilded Age makes it ridiculously simple to imagine a fictional, class-bound totalitarian hell. Star Trek, on the other hand, which projects American liberal democracy into the future, with its swaggering, charismatic all American captain and its noble Vulcan intellectual, allows for the writers to have their cake and eat it too. They can imagine a dystopia like The Cloud City and have the crew of the Enterprise bring democracy and enlightenment.
Star Trek of course reproduces American liberal imperialism in space. They never quite obey the prime directive of non-interference. The characters are also, quite obviously, 20-century Americans. But perhaps if George Lucas had gone in another direction, had tried to develop a genre of science fiction where we imagine a better world, instead of staging Japanese samurai films disguised as space operas laced with Joseph Campbell’s mysticism, he wouldn’t have burned out after the 1970s.
Still, however, its ironic that even as Lucas released the awful Star Wars prequels, it was The Matrix films, which closely resemble THX1138, that reinvented science fiction in the late 1990s and early 2000s.