THX 1138 (1971):

A quotation from Buck Rogers before the opening credits, and if the film scarcely reaches those levels of artistry, George Lucas' feature debut, an expansion of a 1967 student short, still remains his sole semi-acceptable work. A dystopia, possibly down from Lang, with Orwell, Waiting for Godot, abstracted trippiness thrown in for a view of futuristic oppression, the world as a giant shopping mall-parking garage-dentist's office populated by bald, zombified dwellers and tin-men Gestapo in black leather -- a late-'60s vision, with love-making the ultimate transgression yet drugs as tools of conformism rather than rebellion. The first view of Robert Duvall, the eponymous hero, is through a camera placed inside his medicine cabinet, filled with pills for sedation: "What's wrong" is the robotic question, and there's plenty wrong, namely odd emotions triggered by his roommate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOrmie). Emotions? Duvall flips through the hologram-telly and settles on android beatings, but McOrmie ditches the drugs to suggest one alternative distraction, verboten nookie on the floor under the establishment's disapproving gaze; soon enough they're separated, Duvall landing in a prison ward with such shorn, exiled specimens as Donald Pleasance, Ian Wolfe, and Sid Haig. The future here is grimly spotless, all blank walls and dissolves, the better for Lucas to focus on his images of soothing sterility -- torture on a monitor scored to bland voices, Duvall prodded by metallic militia in overhead-shot, fetuses in blue jars, or a track into Duvall's rolled-back peepers during a meltdown. (Walter Murch's sound design is even more impressive, the densely woven bleeps and chatter of neurasthenia.) Society keeps impulses straitjacketed, God is a screen evoked inside booth-chapels, and revolt begins by simply walking into the void while others discuss philosophy, all the way to a race through a tunnel and toward a light, an end-as-beginning, unmistakably (i.e., Kubrick's Dawn of Man, in silhouette). The hero's ear stapled with a tag is the nerd's fear of dehumanization in the Computer Age, Lucas' ambivalence toward technology soon to disappear a few years ahead with the Skywalker saga, a more inane Buck Rogers tribute and the realization of the computer's advice overhead here: "Buy and be happy." Produced by Francis Ford Coppola. With Don Pedro Colley.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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