Directed by George Lucas.
Starring Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasance, Don Pedro Colley, Maggie McOmie and Ian Wolfe.
Here are just a few of the innumerable instances that have slyly referred to this film: “THX 138″ was the license plate of Harrison Ford’s car in American Graffiti, Han bluffs that Chewbacca is being transferred from cell block 1138 in Star Wars, “THX = 1138″ was the answer to the equation Brain was writing on the chalkboard in the opening for Lucas’ pal Steven Spielberg’s Animaniacs cartoon series, and Dr. Jennings’ office was number 1138 in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. When I first saw THX 1138 on video several years ago, I didn’t particularly care for it, but I felt that I at least got the joke, and that was worth something — sort of like when I sat through Midnight Cowboy, with the sole reward of getting the joke behind Rizzo the Rat from the Muppets TV shows and films. But when I recently sat down to watch THX 1138: The George Lucas Director’s Cut, which was released earlier this month on DVD (coinciding with a brief theatrical run), I absolutely loved it and now regret having missed seeing it on the big screen.
What changed between then and nowâ€¦?
Well, when I sat down to look at the VHS version a friend had given me recently, my VCR ate it and then died, so I don’t really know. But judging from images in the original release’s trailers and the vintage Bald: The Making of THX 1138 — which are included in the DVD set’s bonus disc, and which are the only place on the DVD to see anything of the film’s original incarnation — the pan-and-scan images of the original version I’d seen on video were restored to their full 1.85:1 aspect ratio on the DVD. With the young George Lucas’s beautiful, inventive shot framing cropped down “to fit your screen,” the film simply looked awful. Any movie, no matter how beautifully shot, will look like crap if you block off a third of the screen.
For another thing, I was young and dumb. I expected to be spoon-fed some kind of story about how the society shown in THX 1138 came to be that way, or what the outside world was like, and I was annoyed that I got nothing of the sort. Basically, I stupidly expected something a little closer to the science fiction we see in Star Wars or even Planet of the Apes than what THX 1138 is: a highly experimental, bleak, metaphorical satire of modern life that is even more relevant now than when it was made. Based loosely on one of his student films, Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB, which is also included on the bonus disc, the film is set in a dystopian future in which the population lives underground and is drugged into sexless complacency.
THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) is a factory worker whose assigned roommate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) has gone off her meds and fallen in love with him, leading her to replace THX’s pills. Snapped out of his drug-induced state, he falls in love with LUH and they soon have sex, which, along with drug evasion, is a crime. SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasance), a thoroughly creepy and vaguely homosexual fellow drone, has observed the changes in THX. Hoping to replace LUH as his roommate for reasons we are never explicitly let in on, he illegally reassigns her, prompting THX to report him. This ends up getting them all arrested for their various crimes. LUH is sent elsewhere because she is pregnant while, after a period of reconditioning, THX ends up with SEN and a group of other criminals in jail, which is a seemingly endless white expanse.
Soon, SEN and THX decide to escape — or rather, THX decides to escape and SEN follows him like
a love-struck puppy. Wandering aimlessly through the white expanse, THX and SEN happen upon SRT (Don Pedro Colley), who claims to be a hologram. I’m more inclined to think SRT is simply
insane like many of the other prisoners, because he eats some food that SEN has with him, but
that is purely conjectural. Or, perhaps SRT simply means that he was an actor for the kind of hologram shows that THX is shown watching earlier in the film, but it doesn’t really matter either way. SRT shows them the
way out and, after getting separated from SEN in the rush of a crowd, he and THX steal a pair of cars and attempt to escape to the outside. SRT crashes his
car immediately, though, after having some difficulty figuring out how to work the thing, leaving THX on his own with two chrome robot cops in hot pursuit. How THX gets away from them is one of the more brilliant satirical touches in the film, so I’d hate to spoil it. But it’s not a surprise that he does eventually escape in the end — if he didn’t the story would have no point at all. Even in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, another bleak metaphor of modern life disguised as science fiction, the hero manages an escape… sort of.
Some fans of the original have cried “Greedo” about the changes to the film, which I can respect to some extent. But they are conveniently ignoring the fact that when Warner Bros. first saw the film, they forced Lucas to shorten the film by five minutes and imposed a number of editorial changes on the it. Meaning the “original” version wasn’t really the original version, after all. While it’s impossible to say what’s different without having seen George Lucas’ original, unreleased cut, some of the changes between the theatrical version and the new “George Lucas Director’s Cut” are listed with before and after images at THX-1138.org. DavisDVD.com also plans to provide exhaustive list of the changes here, but only the first nine minutes have been covered so far. Presumably, most of the changes to the new edition are editorial, and would be somewhat close to Lucas’ original cut, though obviously the CGI-enhanced footage and the recently filmed live-action footage (mostly of crowds and that sort of thing) is another matter.
For the most part, these changes are rather seamless and well-integrated, though some of the more major changes, like those made to the Star Wars films, often look too crisp and plastic to mesh well with the real-life footage. In most cases, though, they effectively convey a larger scope for the story that was only implied before by the film’s miniscule budget. Yet one glaring change in the film, however, isn’t listed at either page I mentioned: the digital replacement of some of the “shell dwellers” that attack THX during his escape with CGI monkey-like creature things that supposedly live with the shell dwellers. In both the original and the altered form, the attack is out of nowhere and serves no clear function in the story save to slow THX down briefly while running from the robot cops, so I don’t mind the alteration. I choose to interpret the creatures and the shell dwellers as a hint of what the outside world has in store for THX as well as an implied explanation for why their society is living underground in the first place — an interpretation that makes his escape a rather bleak affair, indeed.
THX 1138 is not a plot-driven movie and shouldn’t be approached as one. It’s also not character-driven or dialogue-driven — it is chiefly a spectacle of sight and sound, which, for me, can be enough to make a film enjoyable. Though much more substantial in terms of story, character and dialogue, a recent example of a film that succeeds on this level is Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Using San Francisco’s then-unfinished Bay Area Rapid Transit stations and tunnels as a stand-in for the 21st century in the same way that Jean-Luc Godard used bits of Paris in Alphaville, Lucas managed to pull off the futuristic look on a shoestring budget. But the combination of Lalo Schifrin’s score, co-screenwriter and sound designer Walter Murch’s ambient noise and sound effects and the almost musical babble of the occasionally incomprehensible (and occasionally barely audible) dialogue is often more entrancing than Lucas’s inspired visuals, frequently reminding me of RenÃ© Laloux’s 1973 animated masterpiece, Fantastic Planet. One of the disc’s special features isolates Schifrin and Murch’s contributions, which makes for an even more hypnotic experience and calls to attention how important an element sound is to not only this film but film in general, as well as how underutilized it so often is.
There are two documentaries included on a bonus disc: the hour long A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope and the half-hour Artifact from the Future: The Making of THX 1138. The latter documentary is mildly annoying in spots because it uses the CGI-enhanced footage rather than the unaltered footage from 1971 when it’s discussing the making of the original. But they both provide remarkable insight into the historical context of the film and the early career of George Lucas, making the two-disc edition of THX 1138 a terrific companion to the Star Wars Trilogy DVD box set for adult fans of the Star Wars films.
(Originally published at Gapers Block on October 1, 2004.)