The DVD blurb reads:
A chilling exploration of the future is also a compelling examination of the present in George Lucas' THX1138, starring Robert Duvall as a man whose mind and body are controlled by the government. THX makes a harrowing attempt to escape from a world where thoughts are controlled, freedom is an impossibility and love is the ultimate crime.
George Lucas, in the DVD commentary, describes the film in terms of three distinct yet integrated sections with each section telling the same story in a different way. Act 1 tells the story in a "conventional" way, Act 2 tells it in an "abstract" way, and Act 3 tells it in an "action-oriented" way.
The "conventional" telling of "the enforcement of a social system to keep people in line," set in an artificial "bureaucratic emptiness."
We are introduced to characters in a setting in which each person's behaviour is heavily regulated and, as the characters are informed through the speaker system that reaches all, "for more enjoyment and greater efficiency consumption has been standardised." The characters are told to "increase production, prevent accidents and be happy." But two characters, THX and LUH are not entirely happy despite the common practice of regulating mood with medication served as part of each meal. When LUH illegally goes off her medication and secretly swaps the medication in THX's meal, they both become more aware of their dissatisfaction with their controlled environment and duties. Later, THX and LUH's unfocused performance of their work duties results in an industrial accident. LUH covers for THX and afterward they have an emotional connection and they express it physically, which is a breach of acceptable behaviour that gets them arrested.
The "abstract" telling of being "imprisoned within walls of the mind."
The second act can be considered the most 'unconventional' part of the film. It follows THX's imprisonment in a rather abstract minimalist white space with other prisoners who speak to one another as much about generalised philosophical themes as they do about their current situation. For viewers unfamiliar with the philosophical positions adopted by these characters and how they relate to one another, this section of the film can seem very strange and confusing. In the DVD commentary, George Lucas and Walter Murch have discussed how each of these prisoners correlates with a particular philosopher (or at least some of their main philosophical positions); they mention that SRT is Jean-Paul Sartre, NCH is Friedrich Nietzsche, and PTO is Plato (DWY seems to be John Dewey and CAM seems to be Albert Camus).
Some viewers interested in philosophy may consider this the most interesting section, but many others may consider this to be where the film falls apart. However, the final message of this section is fairly easily comprehended; as George Lucas puts it in the commentary, "if you believe something is true then it is; if you believe you're in a prison then you are." This point is driven home when THX and several other prisoners simply walk out of the abstract empty space they thought they were imprisoned in.
In Lucas's films following THX1138 he uses clearer plots with more evident character goals. His next film, American Graffiti, took up a similar plot and theme told in a different setting. It is about a character "trapped in a small town, wanting to leave but being afraid to leave." Similarly, in Star Wars, Luke wants to leave the desert environment of his home planet but stays out of a sense of duty to his uncle and aunt until their deaths serve as a catalyst for his decision to leave.
The philosophising aspect so prominent in the second act of THX1138 has been made more subtle in Lucas's later films, as character and plot are foregrounded. A filmmaker who, in my judgment, seems to have taken up a similar philosophising aspect (possibly with a strong direct influence from Lucas) and falls somewhere between THX1138 and Lucas's later films in this respect is Mamoru Oshii, who is most widely known for his 1995 animated film Ghost in the Shell.
The "action-oriented" telling of THX's physical escape from his controlled environment.
This is a chase sequence as THX makes his escape, on foot and by vehicle. He is pursued via a co-ordinated effort of those working to control the people in this environment, but ultimately he escape due to their underallocation of resources in an effort to catch him in the most efficient and therefore cost-effective way. The film ends as THX emerges from this controlled (and, as it turns out, underground) environment onto the surface, silhouetted in the sunlight he is experiencing for the first time.
As Lucas has put it: "The film is about a hero that lives in an anthill and dares to go outside; to do something different; to move away from the status quo."
(Comparison: Films like The Island (2002) and Logan's Run (1976) have a similar story of an escape from a controlled environment, however, both of these have a 'conventional' telling that spans the first and second act (or arguably all three acts) by adding the complication of the main character not only escaping but taking another character they care about with them. Like THX1138, the third act of each film has a strong chase or action-oriented focus.)
Sound in THX1138
Walter Murch, the sound designer of THX1138, has described on the commentary his process of designing the sound according as involving three discrete areas; dialogue, music, and sound effects.
Much of the dialogue used in THX1138 is the product of several techniques synthesised to create a integrated effect. For example: a particular line of dialogue may involve a reading of the line, the playing back of that line in a new environment which is recorded to capture the ambient echoing of that recording environment, and an electronic manipulation of that second recording.
(Comparison: A very similar sound process was used for the animated feature Monster House and covered on the DVD features)
As with the Star Wars films, some characters' dialogue was recorded on set and some, such as the police droids, had their dialogue overlaid later.
Music is not very prominent in THX1138, in favour of the musicality of carefully designed dialogue and sound effects.
Walter Murch explains the sound effects in great detail on the DVD and points out that generally "you seem to accept them at face value as something that comes from the visuals and not something that filmmakers use to create an effect." Murch's approach to sound effects is an in depth optimisation of the whole sound experience to design a particular effect.
This level of attention to detail with sound has carried on with Lucas's Skywalker Sound and a good example of this can be found on the DVD extras of Mamoru Oshii's The Skycrawlers. Another Oshii film, Avalon, is a good example of highlighting the interplay of each of these sound components. In Avalon, Oshii uses spoken dialogue and vocals sung on the soundtrack in Polish (subtitled in a language the viewer understands, unless that viewer understands Polish or chooses to watch in Polish without subtitles), writing seen in the setting in English, and a sparse soundscape for much of the film with only specific sound effects heard - contrasted with a sequence in which the sound is a more 'conventional' recording of the setting.
(Further reading: www.filmsound.org has some very good content on film sound and also has a range of content featuring Ben Burtt, the sound designer for Star Wars and many other films.)
The Making of THX1138 and the Early Years of American Zoetrope
The DVD features separate documentaries on the making of the film and on the early years of American Zoetrope. I found these documentaries to be compelling viewing focused on several young filmmakers who wanted to make films and have them distributed without conforming to the standard employee arrangements of the major film companies. There are some major ups and downs but ultimately Lucas, Coppola, Murch and others managed to make films which they could commit to making or contributing to with genuine conviction and avoid the contrivance of serving the controlling interests of others.
Combined with the features on the Star Wars Trilogy box-set (episodes 4,5 and 6), the THX1138 DVD provides considerably detailed coverage of the rise of George Lucas (and some of the people around him) from film student to film giant.