THX 1138 divests itself of context to the point of inner paralysis. Unlike classic dystopian models, it makes no attempt to thread the needle for us, opting instead for an observational approach that feels almost anthropological. We see these futuristic people go about their duties amid the bleeps and bloops of the computers surveying them, as well as the sterile messages that constantly remind them to take drugs or be proactive. For the first ten minutes or so (and maybe more—I wasn’t counting), there is no dialogue from any of the main characters. Lucas simply immerses us into this blazingly-white realm, and successfully gets us to hate it before the action even begins. It’s an unconventional tack, but it works. By the time Robert Duvall opens his mouth, you’re already hoping someone is able to escape from this blanched and loveless hellhole.
Because exposition is nullified, the biggest problem that THX 1138 runs into is its relatively uncomplicated nature. Drugs are the opiate of the masses, technology ensures total surveillance, people are de-sexed and unable to express desire, and so forth. It’s easy to grasp, yet hardly exciting to think about in the long term. The focus ends up being more on Duvall, whose first encounter with love is quickly thwarted so that he must spend the remainder of the film either running or searching. No philosophizing or anguished soliloquies here—just a silent, desperate flight from android police officers and a society that’s colder than frostbite.
(Well, I tell a lie: there’s a bit of philosophizing from Donald Pleasence’s character, but he ends up being incidental to the main plot)
This being a first feature, I think its austere minimalism and unstimulating setting can be forgiven—especially since Lucas went on to bring us the Star Wars franchise. It’s an experiment in world-building that, while certainly not as thorough and intricate as Lucas’ later venture, still possesses a whiff of the mad genius about it. More than worth a look, I think… even if I won’t be itching to watch it again anytime soon, myself.