Warner Bros. // 1971 // 88 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Dennis Prince (Retired) // November 8th, 2004
"Take four red capsules. In another ten minutes, take two more. Help is on the way."
He was gangly, geeky, and his name was George Lucas. This USC college student shifted away from majoring in Anthropology during his junior year, electing instead to immerse himself in film. Hailing from Modesto, CA, young Lucas snubbed his father's desire that he inherit and oversee the family hardware business, choosing to fulfill his new-found ambition in film work instead. He would ultimately branch into the "hardware" business, sort of, delivering the most mechanically lavish and technically saturated film series the world would ever know. But what arguably lies at the heart of Lucas' Star Wars saga (the first three pictures, anyway), and what generally gives it deeper appeal beyond just TIE fighters and lightsabers, is its obvious philosophical grounding. Return, now, to the period of time before Lucas had millions of dollars to launch his space opera, and witness his stark, almost hopeless, societal commentary in his first motion picture, THX 1138.
In an undetermined future time, the world appears highly efficient, technology appears highly advanced, and mankind appears highly subdued. Each man and woman has been methodically identified, numbered, and assimilated into an existence that promotes high levels of productivity and low levels of individuality. THX 1138 (Robert Duvall, Apocalypse Now) isn't feeling well, though. He has stopped taking his government-mandated medication and is now wrestling with uneasy yet compelling notions that there is more to experience in life than that which has been arranged for him every day at the robotics factory, or that he encounters in his sterile relationship with computer-assigned companion, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie). It's LUH, actually, who has encouraged THX in his illegal drug evasion; she, too, has interrupted her daily intake and now finds she has become emotionally and physically attracted to THX. When SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasance, Fantastic Voyage, Halloween) discovers the two engaged in forbidden sexual activity (via routine citizen surveillance), the companions are separated. After "correction" has been administered by robotic enforcers, THX is labeled a criminal, and ultimately winds up incarcerated in the stark white "limbo," joined by the radical-thinking SEN and a handful of other social misfits. Still feeling drawn to discover what lies beyond his bland world, THX, accompanied by SEN, walks away from the "limbo" prison. They meet up with a seemingly well-traveled hologram, SRT (Don Pedro Colley, Beneath the Planet of the Apes), and make their way to the edge of the "shell" and to a place where they can learn more about their purpose and potential outside of their industrialized and desensitized existences.
Put on your thinking caps, because this is one of those sci-fi excursions; a cerebral exercise, to be sure. An extension of Lucas's award-winning USC student film, Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, this theatrical treatment heavily sermonizes the prospects of a culture that has become increasingly absorbed with consumerism, avoidance of risk, and minimal self-accountability (not to mention hair). Stubble-headed humans amble through their days in veritable lock-step (somewhat reminiscent of the subterranean worker-drones in Fritz Lang's Metropolis); yet, despite their predictable existence, they seem to take comfort in the fact that their lives have been stripped of feelings and emotions that could result in unpredictable behavior. They dutifully consume the colorful yet useless "dendrites," disposing of them immediately upon arriving at their featureless domiciles (the dendrites are then recycled and resold to the masses). It's a mindless, soulless society that has been heavily medicated to ensure compliance, capitulation, and contentment. THX 1138, however, isn't content.
THX emerges as the One who will take a risk, challenge the status quo, and seek the answer to the supposed secret the government doesn't want him or any other citizen to know. Though he's generally reserved in his spoken opinions and observations, THX is nonetheless plotting his move, becoming increasingly aware of the manipulative power the government has slowly but steadily imposed upon the citizenry (which strikes something of a parallel to James Caan's character of Jonathan E. in Rollerball, who also arrives at the somber conclusion that the corporation is determined to prevent any chance of individual achievement or excellence). SEN, on the other hand, is constantly talking of uprising, anarchy, and the like, yet once he has seen the outside world, he makes a hasty retreat back to the sullen comfort of his controlled life. In the end, we discover that any of the citizens are essentially free to make their way to the edge of the city and break through to the world outside the shell, and that it's by choice that they remain in the relatively assuring protection of the overly controlling government (a theme that is also found in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).
It's somewhat unclear whether Lucas was attempting to use THX 1138 as a frantic warning, to head off the eventual emergence of such an oppressively organized society, or whether he had already resigned himself to the inevitability of such a world. With its numbing visuals and pervasive sound design, the picture paints us into the same stark landscape the characters inhabit, and leaves us to mull over their situation right up to and after the inconclusive ending. Much of the film leaves us scratching our head (shaved or not), wondering about the meaning of various points of the narrative, thereby making it a successful endeavor, as each viewer will bring to and take away something personal from the experience.
Robert Duvall has long been praised for his role as THX, and rightly so. Operating more in the realm of pantomime here (arguably, this picture teeters on the border between being a conventional production and a latter-day silent film), Duvall skillfully emotes his thoughts and motivations with subtle acuity, be it through the uncertainty of a stutter-step or the decisiveness of his furrowed brow. He's captivating in this picture and his performance has lost none of its impact even three decades later. For Maggie McOmie, her portrayal of LUH would be her only screen role, but definitely not because of a poor performance. To the contrary, she gives her character identifiable pain and anguish, emoting the internal struggle she is having with her desire to become more human while knowing she can be eliminated for such an offense. And Donald Pleasance is simply magnificent as usual. His portrayal of SEN is perfectly unbalanced, poignantly ambiguous; he seems to have taken an unusual liking to THX such that his unapproved computer reassignment as the man's roommate has landed him in the limbo prison, too.
What is clear is that Lucas, in association with Warner Brothers Home Video, has delivered this new release in high style, similar to the Star Wars trilogy boxed set. This two-disc slip-cased set begins with an absolutely striking transfer of the feature, anamorphically enhanced and framed at a near-panoramic aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The image is practically perfect; certainly worthy of being considered "reference quality." The white backdrops are pure and blemish-free. The detail level runs amazingly high without introducing any annoying artifacts. The color levels (what little color there is) are steady if not unexciting, yet flesh tones look very faithfully rendered. Lucas and Warner have scored high with this transfer.
The audio comes by way of a sharp and efficient Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that works hard (and succeeds) at presenting an all-enveloping soundstage. Directional effects aren't extreme here (there are neither laser blasts nor exploding Death Stars) yet it keeps just enough of the mechanization and the dull yet permeating hum of the future world constantly around us.
Extras in this release are as plentiful as dendrites (uh oh). Disc One offers a running commentary with separately recorded comments from Lucas and co-writer/sound designer Walter Murch. Their comments center mainly on the philosophy of the film and work to explain much of the intended ambiguity of the plot; it's a good listen. There's also an isolated sound effect and music track, aptly dubbed "Theater of Noise." (The magnificently plodding score comes courtesy of Lalo Schifrin.) Finally, you'll find another feature-length bonus, "Master Sessions," which allows you to navigate through numerous behind-the-scenes peeks at the sound design, available via branching technology or viewable on their own. Undoubtedly, Star Wars fans will become giddy as Walter Murch discusses the evolution of the "lightsaber" sound effect.
There are more extras to consume on Disc Two, beginning with a new documentary, "A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope," narrated by none other than Richard Dreyfuss (American Graffiti, Jaws), which offers the story of the struggling production company and their battles with Warner Brothers over the release of THX 1138. Next is another new documentary, "Artifact from the Future: The Making of THX 1138," that offers more information about the picture itself; heavy on the cast and filmmaker's side while light on the actual production process. The treat on this disc, however, is Lucas's original 15-minute student film that inspired this picture. It's rough, gritty, and excellent. If you still want more, you'll find an original production featurette, "Bald," featuring footage of the actors going under the clippers in preparation for filming. An original theatrical trailer is offered (a nice period piece), plus a bevy of re-release trailers from 2004. All in all, it's a full package just waiting to be consumed.
So what's wrong with this sparkling new DVD release of THX 1138? In a word: plenty. By now, it's widely known that Lucas freely engages in updating, altering, and repurposing his former works. Many filmgoers have decried his unending tampering with the Star Wars pictures, while others have adamantly defended the director's supposed "right" to continually rewrite the history of his works (many such purported film reviewers are charged with "selling out" and "sucking up," perhaps in hopes of begging an invite to Skywalker Ranch; how pathetic). Well, I don't care if I never set foot on Lucas' Northern California ranch because I do care when history is in danger of being rewritten; yes, even cinematic history. In THX 1138, Lucas has once again leveled a CGI-heavy hand on his inaugural film, going far beyond just sweetening up several existing shots with enhanced visuals (such as the more elaborate views of the robotics factory), but daring to completely recompose many shots while liberally repurposing other elements in order to create entirely new sequences. Why does this post-release tinkering tick me off? It demonstrates (to this humble reviewer, anyway) that Lucas is attempting to obscure his original achievements, to deftly flip-flop from his original views, and to sneakily erase any former statements, cinematic or otherwise, that may not serve his immediate needs, be they professional, personal or (dare I say it?) political. The stinging irony here is that this tampering tendency is the very sort of manipulation of the masses that emerges as the great threat dramatized in THX 1138.
George Lucas's first outing is a very compelling film and one that should not be overlooked. It's terrific that such a technically pristine version has been released to DVD, but it's likewise maddening that fans will need to purchase a previous DVD release or succumb to scouring eBay for out-of-print VHS editions in order to experience the original vision. Lucas is clearly looking to manipulate his public by not offering an untouched version within this two-disc set. Then again, perhaps he intends to re-release it in another year or so in a new boxed set, looking to further drive the masses to consume and consume then consume some more. After all, how many version of the Star Wars trilogy have you purchased?
George Lucas is guilty of reckless mass manipulation and wanton obscuring of cinematic history. Warner Brothers, however, is found not guilty in their sparkling presentation of the filmmaker's latest attempt at revisionist history. Court adjourned.
Review content copyright © 2004 Dennis Prince; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2004 Nominee
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 88 Minutes
Release Year: 1971
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Running Commentary
* Original Student Film Treatment
* Isolated Music and Effects Audio Tracks
* Theatrical Trailers