BEFORE he played consigliere for the Corleone family, before he strutted across the shell-pocked beach in Vietnam and declared his love for the smell of napalm in the morning, a young Robert Duvall (well, he was 39) was the arrestingly blank-faced society rebel in the 1971 sci-fi film "THX 1138."
As the title character in this debut feature by a then-young filmmaker by the name of George Lucas, Duvall wasn't exactly new to the screen. He had already played Boo Radley in the 1962 "To Kill a Mockingbird" and Maj. Frank Burns in Robert Altman's 1970 "M*A*S*H." But it's a tabula rasa joy to see him in this 2004 director's cut rerelease (see cumbersome, new title below) looking so fresh-faced and youthful, after all those ensuing roles as aging cowboys, tough cops and other veteran characters.
Duvall is almost Buster Keatonesque here, his seemingly blank face bespeaking subterranean subtext. You can see, also, what would become the trademark Duvall gesture: the way he pushes the tip of the tongue against the inside of his bottom lip, like a nervous tobacco chewer, or a pitcher winding up for his final, ninth-inning pitch in a no-hit game. But Duvall's mostly curbing his acting tics. He's underplaying purposefully, as a being whose impulses are constantly curtailed and monitored by a vigilant police state.
When love springs between factory workers THX 1138 (Duvall) and LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie -- looking very Mia Farrow in "Rosemary's Baby"), this amounts to revolution. In this world, people are required to sublimate their urges with government-issued drugs. Rather than swallow their passion away with pharmaceuticals, THX and LUH opt to live like free spirits.
They are, immediately, enemies of a state that soothes and silences its citizens with hologram entertainment (including Rodney King-style cop beatings) and a Muzak-lobotomizing barrage of feel-good messages and bland announcements. There are confession booths in front of an all-purpose generic icon known as OMM. And the chrome-built automaton cops (the product that THX and LUH build at their plant) issue gentle, canned-recording reassurances as they pursue criminals.
LUH is slated to be wiped out; THX is sent to a holding cell with other prisoners. So THX decides to rescue LUH with the help of SEN (Donald Pleasence), an eccentric, pedantic rebel, and a hologram creation known as SRT (Don Pedro Colley).
Clearly, writer-director Lucas was still feeling his way. The story seems to be a composite of every other sci-fi novel and film ever made before and since, with its themes of individuality vs. corporate, Big Brother dehumanization, and that Philip K. Dick chestnut of robotics vs. humanity. The plot also culminates in a fugitive run from the authorities that rings all too familiar. Lucas also had the benefit of Stanley Kubrick's visionary "2001 -- A Space Odyssey," which had affected an entire generation just two years before. And those chrome-issue cops seem to anticipate the liquid-transforming cop-terminator of "The Terminator" film series.
But it's so watchable. "THX 1138" (whose earlier student version was called "Electronic Labyrinth THX 4EB") is testament to the emergence of a visually masterful filmmaker, capable of ingenious, low-tech special effects. (It was mostly shot in and around San Francisco, where Lucas found otherworldy locations such as the tunnels and stations of the BART railway system, still under construction.) The whole thing feels like a hypnotic dreamscape, so luminously stark, from its white-on-white abstract sets to the wide-eyed, bald, near catatonic residents of this world.
We are looking at the first effort by the man who was soon to make the "Star Wars" films, under his own terms and very much against the monopolistic hand of the Hollywood studios. Along with Francis Ford Coppola, who produced the film at his new Zoetrope studio, Lucas was part of the movement that gave us one of America's most creative periods, the era that produced Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, Martin Scorsese and many others.
Although Coppola produced "THX 1138," he did it with financing from Warner Bros. After screening the film, the studio concluded they hated it and released it without much advertising. It died at the box office. Since then, of course, Lucas has become his own powerhouse. He digitally restored "THX 1138" at his own Industrial Light & Magic, put back the five minutes Warner Bros. cut out, and is using this brief theatrical release to push the restored DVD. So, suddenly, THX 1138's desperate battle against the Authorities of the Benumbed has added meaning, and so does this ironic quote from the state government: "Remember, thrifty thinkers are always under budget."
THX 1138: THE GEORGE LUCAS DIRECTOR'S CUT (R, 88 minutes) -- Contains some sexuality and nudity. At the AFI Silver Theatre.