Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: The origins of the Tom Cruise movie Oblivion have us thinking about offbeat ’70s science fiction.
THX 1138 (1971)
Because George Lucas’ reputation is tied to his career-gobbling Star Wars saga, he’s often regarded as more of a shrewd marketer than a talented filmmaker—a technophile who devolved from idiosyncratic art films to commercial juvenilia. But Lucas did start the indie filmmaking collective American Zoetrope with Francis Ford Coppola, and he ran with “New Hollywood” wunderkinds like Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, and Steven Spielberg. And like the early work of those colleagues, Lucas’ 1971 debut feature, THX 1138, remains a strong example of how classic movie genres can be invested with personal feeling and style. An abstract science-fiction allegory, THX 1138 stars Robert Duvall as a drug-numbed robot-builder who ditches the dope, learns to love, and tries to escape from an oppressive underground dystopia. Lucas builds on the flickering sterility of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, using modernist office buildings and fluorescent-lit tunnels to create what he’s called “a documentary from the future.” Lucas’ off-kilter framing and superimposition-packed editing have a modernist kick, and the naturalistic acting—heavy on improvisation—counters the Star Wars films, which were stiff by design.
Lucas has often said that he considers personal avant-garde projects, not blockbusters, to be his true calling. In that sense, THX 1138 is revelatory, given what it says about the director’s gifts and obsessions. Lucas and co-screenwriter/soundman Walter Murch take a satirical consumerism-gone-mad storyline and add sterile art direction and rich sound design to produce a hypnotically unsettling effect. Like American Graffiti and the first Star Wars film, THX 1138 grapples with the idea of a hero making an escape, as Lucas’ lifelong love of samurais and space jockeys fuses with his hippie-era idealism. Though his filmmaking objectives eventually evolved from celebrating liberty to creating intricate, rule-obsessed societies, it all stems from the same desire to change the world to make it more like an old B-movie. All of that began with THX 1138, the movie that introduced Lucas’ preoccupations with precise compositions and shiny machines.
Availability: Special-edition DVD and Blu-ray from Warner Bros.; digital rental or purchase from multiple online retailers; and rental from Netflix.