Warner Bros. // 1971 // 88 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Steve Power (Retired) // September 30th, 2010
Visit the future where Love is the ultimate crime!
George Lucas makes his debut on everybody's favorite high-def medium, fittingly enough, with his first feature length theatrical film. THX 1138 may not be Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, but is it worth your while to check it out while you wait for fix from a Galaxy far, far away?
In a chilling view of the future, humanity as it is, has ceased to be. Mankind is relegated to the role of worker drone, another cog in the societal wheel. Drugs are used to suppress emotions and primal urges, workers are rewarded with superfluous baubles for their efforts, and you are not a name, you are a number. One such worker, THX 1138 (Robert Duvall, The Road) has been weened off of his meds by his female roommate. Initially overwhelmed by the sudden rush of emotions, he comes to realize the true nature of being human. Knowing what he knows, feeling what he feels, he can't go back, but how does one survive in an oppressive society where big brother is watching constantly, and deviation is punished by death.
George Lucas is a name that has become synonymous with Star Wars, and rightfully so. The 'Father of the Force' has built a movie-making and marketing empire on the back of a simple space opera that clicked with the masses in the very early days of the summer blockbuster. Those who are more intimately familiar with the bearded one's body of work may have seen a few hints though at the true nature of George Lucas, the filmmaker. There is evidence in place that suggests that Lucas himself is as much a prisoner to the (un)holy trilogies as the die-hard fanbase that sucks down every dribble of Star Wars they can wring from the Lucasfilm teat. Look no further than the globe-trotting travelogue through pulp history that is Indiana Jones, the '50s nostalgia trip that is American Grafitti, or Lucas' first theatrical full-length effort: the weird, socially conscious, sci-fi acid trip that is THX 1138.
The concepts present in THX 1138 are not new ones; Orwellian dystopias, drug induced capitulation, existentialism, and rebellion are all hallmarks of many a great sci-fi classic. Where THX 1138 really excels, however, is in Lucas' creative ability to create a convincing world in which to place his saga. Here, in his first theatrical effort, the creative brilliance that would be displayed in the original Star Wars is already evident. The world of THX is a world of stark whites, glossy technology, holograms and neuveau shine. It's a visually arresting movie that pulls the viewer into the surroundings, spartan though they may be. Some of the ideas are off the wall, like THX's TV/stimulator, and the silver-faced police robots with their monotone drone. The social reality is one of uniformity and conformity, every citizen wears a white jumpsuit, and walks around with a head shaved bald. Everyone stays peaceful and serene by following a strict drug regimen that suppresses emotional highs and lows (no doubt cribbed about 30 years later for the gun-kata shoot-em-up, Equilibrium).
There wouldn't be much to see if someone didn't abandon their meds, and that someone is THX, played effectively by Robert Duvall. The script is sparse, with long stretches of silence, but Duvall nails it all. From his initial inability to deal with the rushing onslaught of emotions, to the anguish he suffers at the hands of the authorities, and finally his "Eff this! I'm gone!" response in the final act, Duvall proves why he's one of the most respected actors in the biz. Equally captivating are Donald Pleasance (Escape from New York) as SEN, a slightly "off," and crafty figure, and Maggie McOmie (in her only big screen role) as LUH, THX's roommate, instigator, and object of affection. McOmie is both endearing and heartbreaking, an incredibly strong presence in the film. It's amazing that Ms. McOmie, a stage actor until being picked for THX 1138, never did more on the big screen.
Other notables include Walter Murch's sound design, often described as a cacophony of digital noise, which is off-putting at times, but in a way that is necessary, and Michael Haller's Art design, which gives the film it's incredibly unique and striking visual look. Both are incredibly effective at pulling the viewer into the film.
Of course George's direction also shines, with wonderful compositions and tight editing that keeps the film visually captivating and moves things along. Lucas is a technical director, first and foremost, relying heavily on the strengths of his actors to pull their own weight, and it readily shows. There's a coldness about THX 1138 that seems suitably fitting. With his first three films, Lucas really demonstrated a knack for really grabbing his audience and putting them in the proper mindset. It's a shame that he would grow less empathetic to the audience's needs as his career went on. Not to dismiss Star Wars and its legacy, but one has to wonder what might have become of Lucas as a director if 'Episode IV' wasn't the runaway smash it was. Something tells me there could have been a varied and challenging body of work for movie lovers to sift through. As it stands, THX 1138 is all the evidence we have of a very different George Lucas than most of the public perceive, and one of the finest debut films of any director in Hollywood.
THX 1138 looks fantastic on Blu-ray. Things have been cleaned up, and there appears to have been some DNR applied, but very conservatively. We're left with a detailed image that has just the right mix of softness and clarity. The slightly grey contrast of the original '70s film stock is left intact, and some grain is apparent. It's a striking film that's never looked better. The audio is predominantly front-loaded, but it booms when it needs to, and voices and sound come through loud and clear. THX 1138 doesn't have the resonance of your average 21st century sci-fi outing, but the sound serves the film very well, and should satisfy.
All of the extras are ported over from the standard DVD release, and presented in standard definition (which is kind of a drag). The chief outings are Artefact from the Future: The Making of THX 1138, a retrospective look at the creation of the film, featuring the vast majority of the sparse cast and crew, and A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope, which focuses on the start-up of producer Frances Ford Coppola's studio, and THX 1138's place in that legacy. Both documentaries are fantastic offerings, with a fairly lengthy run time that covers all the bases. Also included is a commentary with Lucas and co-writer/sound designer Walter Murch, which is a little dry in tone, and deals predominantly with the philosophies in the film. There's a vintage featurette called "Bald," that gives us a glimpse at actor's getting their locks sheared while gearing up for the film, and rounding out the excellent package is the original short film, Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, the award winner that got Frances Coppola's attention and inspired the full length film.
Being no stranger to revisionist controversy, the version of THX 1138 presented here is not the version that 27 people saw in theatres in 1971 (and many more discovered on the Sci-Fi channel decades later). This version is billed as the "George Lucas Director's Cut," which is a euphemism for "CG Enhanced Special Edition." For most of us, this will not be a problem, as the CG additions predominantly enhance the scope of the film, and allow THX's bleak future to appear more real and lived in.
Like Lucas' special edition of Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, additions are mostly in backgrounds, with expanded canvases for the action to take place upon. What's lacking, however, is the opportunity for viewers to experience the original theatrical version as it was. While I, personally have no trouble with Lucas' tinkering, either here or in Star Wars land, this sort of stuff should be done only AFTER the original feature has been restored and preserved. I fail to see why the restorative efforts paid to this film -- and also, it must be said, to the original Star Wars trilogy -- couldn't have been done BEFORE the films were digitally tinkered with. I'll reiterate: I'm fine with the changes, and it's the "new/improved" versions that'll be more likely to sit down and watch, but to completely eliminate the original version is a disservice, and when the work has to be done anyway, what's the harm in preserving the original? Is there something i'm missing here?
THX 1138 fares quite well on Blu-ray; the film doesn't have the mainstream appeal that his later works may have, but it's every bit as worthy a project. Warner Bros. has provided a suitable audio/video upgrade for an already impressive standard definition offering. If you're a fan of the film, this is worth the cost. If you're a fan of dystopian sci-fi and haven't caught this little gem as of yet, I highly recommend it.
It's all good. This court would love to see more stuff this daring out of Mr. Lucas.
Review content copyright © 2010 Steve Power; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Short Film