***/**** Image A Sound A+ Extras B
starring Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Don Pedro Colley, Maggie McOmie
screenplay by George Lucas and Walter Murch
directed by George Lucas
by Walter Chaw THX 1138 is the only film George Lucas ever wrote and directed that will and should be remembered as a mostly artistic triumph rather than a largely financial one (recalling that the best of his Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back, was neither written nor directed by Lucas). The fact that he's now tampered with it in much the same manner as he's tampered with his original Star Wars trilogy seems, then, an almost bigger crime against posterity, even if it makes a kind of ironic sense within the thematic framework of the film. THX 1138's preoccupations with dehumanization, an abhorrence of imperfection and humanity in favour of machine-tooled precision, and the corruption of human perception and emotions with mass-produced opiates find sympathy with this new stage of its own existence as a film that hasn't been just restored, but enhanced, too, by CGI that serves the same basic function for the audience as the drugged milk does for the protagonists of A Clockwork Orange. When Lucas made THX 1138, he was the prole toiling (stealing from Aldous Huxley and N.I. Kostomorov is toil, yes?) in obscurity; when he retooled the thing and went to Telluride with a streaming digital feed of it thirty-three years later, he completed his transformation into the faceless machine-priest of the film, sanctifying his zombified acolytes as good pods and ladling upon them the questionable bounty of blessings by the state.
Even better, Lucas has gone around the bend to protect the "rights" to his "art." In a move that recalls Disney objecting to a nursery-school mural that incorporated a few Mouse House characters, he threatened to sue a small theatre company for daring to spoof the imminently spoofable Star Wars (evil empires, indeed--Death Stars swatting flies), and more judeo-sick than that, Lucas has become pathologically sensitive to appraisals of his work--to the extent that Lucasfilm explicitly denied FILM FREAK CENTRAL a review copy of the Star Wars Trilogy on DVD. (It couldn't have something to do with our pan of Episode II, could it?) Lucas responds to criticism as our beloved President does, with confusion and outrage--apparently no one has thought to question our godheads in decades. The tragedy of it is that Lucas's constant tampering with his own legacy suggests a more deep-seated anxiety: the tinkerer's instinct to fiddle with something obsessively until it's broken and then decry the workmanship. Lucas says it all himself in the opening minutes of his audio commentary with Walter Murch on the THX 1138 - The George Lucas Director's Cut DVD, declaring without a hint of self-awareness: "It was designed really to be a metaphor about the way we lived in the early '60s: about consumerism, about conformity, disintegration of emotions, of trying to make everything perfect in a way that was nightmarish."
So THX 1138 (and Star Wars and American Graffiti, for that matter) used to be suffused with this extra-textual feeling that the struggles of the underdog heroes looking to break free mirrored the struggles of the underdog filmmaker searching for an original idea. There was a poetry to that, a cozy feeling that one was part of supporting a revolutionary drive-in movie on the one hand and an intriguingly bleak little arthouse flick that traveled familiar ground in an earnest--dare I use "visionary"--fashion on the other. THX 1138 was the outcome of a young film student wishing to turn his student film into a feature; THX 1138 - The George Lucas Director's Cut is the soulless product of a soulless billionaire and his army of technicians. The heart of the piece is broken (as broken as my own heart), and though the glimpses of brilliant self-knowledge are still there (if more phantasm and memory now than piquant riposte and parry--hindsight, for instance, casts an entirely different shadow on a television show the title character watches that evokes a slower-paced "Amos & Andy"), more's the nostalgia for all that blood and sweat that's been digitally scoured. It's colorization in sheep's clothing--don't you be duped into thinking otherwise.
THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) assembles robots in a factory where the mortality rate is shockingly high, a death count after a radioactive explosion, relayed with some mordant relish over the PA system, coming off as embryonic social commentary--if simultaneously reminding that as early-'70s sci-fi social satires go, John Carpenter's Dark Star (1974) is still the best. Nevertheless, a bit of business where THX buys a red "dendrite" just to recycle it as soon as he gets home retains its Marxist junior appeal, almost as much so as the hologram/ghost in the machine that comes to bemused life, or the phone booth/confessionals that offer the bland visage of Christ as rendered by German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach as father-confessor. The story proper commences when THX's platonic roommate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) decides to wean herself off the state-prescribed mood modifiers and tricks THX into doing the same. Before you know it, nature reasserts itself Jurassic Park-style and the two fall in love and into the sack. Because both are crimes against the state, they find themselves separated, sanctioned, and imprisoned in a bright-white sanitorium, all of which inspires THX to attempt a life lived authentically. It's done better by Gattaca, but THX 1138 gains something in its indescribable filthiness--the "used" future a thing that Lucas really embraced before losing his mind. While the film's main colour is blinding white, there's something decayed and re-circulated about it just the same--at least until Lucas successfully sublimates it once and for all.
Fans of the original Star Wars trilogy will find a lot of touchpoints herein, though fewer than there were before. Someone says something about hitting a "wookiee" on the expressway, and there's a scene like the tractor beam sequence from Episode IV. The droid policemen predict the Imperial Stormtroopers and the sound of their cattle prods suggests a precursor to the lightsaber buzz, while Duvall in headphones could be the prototype for The Empire Strikes Back's Lobot. Apologists will call it auteurism, naysayers will call it a limited imagination. A late scene where THX is attacked by a pack of what look to be pre-Jawas is replaced in this version with Duvall wrestling computer-animated monkeys--some things just speak for themselves.
The first key to the picture is Duvall's marvellous performance, attached as it is to a formalistically experimental project that trusts his ability to improvise and implode. For all the praise Duvall has gotten, I don't know that he's gotten it for the right things: his ineffable dignity, which translates into something as hard to define--and impossible to fake (or sand down with a computer)--as gravitas and poise in THX 1138. It's another interesting parallel: THX, the everyman hero unbroken by a mechanized future that abhors imperfection, survives Lucas's attempts to render the film as frictionless and flaxen as angel's hair. The second key is ace sound designer (and co-screenwriter) Murch, whose electronic noise tapestry, reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann's experiments on The Birds, moreover presages Murch's extraordinary work on The Conversation. A lost art to a large extent, sound design is so crucial to the richness of this text, such as it is, that Murch by all rights deserves a co-director's credit (likewise on The Conversation--which, at the end of the day, is as much Murch's film as it is Francis Ford Coppola's). Over the course of THX 1138, Murch plays things backwards, applies reverberation, conceals messages subaurally... One of the most unsung heroes of the film brat generation at the service of the most overrated, he's dead genius here.
THX 1138 - The George Lucas Director's Cut is a cyborg: half flesh, half machinery. Tellingly, the most affecting moments of the picture are also the subtlest, chief among them the dawning realization that the picture is a silent movie comedy (particularly in a sequence where THX is accidentally tortured by clueless technicians) and fulfills, on those terms alone, Lucas's once-fervent desire to make movies that honored his oft-quoted heroes: Jean-Luc Godard, Akira Kurosawa, and, yep, Joseph Campbell. What works always worked, and what doesn't (like a souped-up car chase in an environment that disturbingly resembles the Star Wars prequels' Coruscant) are "improvements" that distract (ironically) for their anachronism. It's a little like painting a cell phone into "The Last Supper" so that today's kids will identify with it more readily: there are people who will think it's a good idea. And they are called "cretins."
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Warner's Blu-ray release of THX 1138 - The George Lucas Director's Cut is above critical reproach--Lucas's storied affection for fast cars and shiny surfaces has resulted in a meticulous 2.35:1, 1080p transfer. The source print's pristine beauty, however, is a Catch-22, for in addition to killing the maverick texture of the piece, it erases Murch's logic of inserting sounds of thunder in the middle section's all-white scenes. As celluloid ages and degrades, the image begins to streak. Against a white background, those streaks resemble rain--and Murch, knowing this, laid down subtle rumbling in order to psychologically preempt the film's natural degradation. That's fucking extraordinary, you know; that it's rendered moot now is another reason to suspect this "director's edition" stuff. In any case, there's no obvious edge enhancement--and, surprising for a film so starkly contrasted, there aren't even any banding artifacts. Black is black and it all looks lovely, I admit grudgingly, except for the CGI monkeys, of course (and the car chase, and the robot carcasses). These alterations are instantly dated and, instructively, of the wrong date besides, and if there's a drawback to this HiDef rendering, it's that its clarity only italicizes the contrast between the old and the new.
Murch's soundmix deserves an article to itself. Presented in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, it locates spine-tingling echoes in rear channels, with roaring acoustical tricks and thrown voices emanating from every egress like a warm embrace of chatter. Tinny recorded dialogue is reproduced with a chilling canned fidelity--and just a bit more substance than it had on DVD. There's true wisdom in the available option to watch the film with not only an intermittent little-red-pill icon that branches the viewer to different portions of a 30-minute interview with Murch (wherein he discusses the specific tricks and techniques), but also his genius work (along with Lalo Schifrin's score) isolated from the dialogue track--in 5.1, to boot. (Called "Master Sessions with Walter Murch," these can also be accessed from the main menu.) On another track, find the abovementioned yakker featuring Murch and Lucas, both of whom offer fascinating production anecdotes. What causes me to reassess Lucas, to reserve a little sympathy for him, is what appears to be his genuine ignorance about the damage he's doing to a legacy he all but disdains, as well as his love of the avant-garde and Godard's cinema of motion. How that has translated in Lucas's work into the most cynical, over-written bits of juvenilia in his prequel trilogy seems as much a mystery to Lucas as it does to the rest of the sentient world. Shocking, to me at least, is how Lucas wraps-up the commentary:
...It's still a lot of my sensibility. I've just gone off on this strange path that is not at all what I thought I was gonna be. This is really the kind of filmmaking I started doing, and it's probably the filmmaking I'm going to go back to someday. It's a much more interesting style of filmmaking than I currently find myself in. I enjoy doing the more traditional, Hollywood-style movies...but these more sort of slightly offbeat movies are really where my cinematic heart is.
The disc recycles the video-based supplements from the Two-Disc Special Edition DVD, too, starting with a documentary on Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope project, "A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope" (64 mins., SD/16x9)--begging the question of whether there were anything but "early years" in the abortive project. The sort of rose-tinted hagiography that Stacy Peralta might make if he wasn't doing surfing flicks, the piece pushes the idea of the film brat generation being the golden boys of American cinema; for the longest time, I believed that the Seventies in America were the single most important decade for film anywhere in any country. I'm more ambivalent towards that assessment now, although that doesn't diminish the depth of the '70s well: reach in and you'll most likely find a gem. In truth, the doc spends too much time on Lucas to be anything other than a rather thinly-disguised PR love-in, but what the hell--it's fun to see all these guys together (Coppola, Spielberg, Murch, Martin Scorsese, Carroll Ballard, John Milius, Duvall, etc.) giving their non-Biskind version of how things went. If it's shameless propaganda, it's more shrug-worthy than infuriating.
The lacklustre "Artifact from the Future: The Making of THX 1138 " (31 mins., SD/16x9) reiterates Lucas's statement that his feature debut is a documentary from the future, alternating clips from the film with talking-heads of Lucas, Murch, and various unspecified members of the creative team. I kept waiting to hear that Lucas named his student project after his telephone number at school, but alas it remains an apocryphal artifact. More disquieting an omission is any reference to the tampering that Lucas has inflicted upon the film for "The George Lucas Director's Cut"--killing the hope, neatly, that we'll ever get to see the theatrical version again. The centerpiece, however, is Lucas's original student film THX 1138: My Telephone Number on Campus--just kidding, Electronic Labyrinth: THX-113 4EB (15 mins., SD). Oddly enough, it's barely distinguishable from the experimental garbage that is Godard's current output. Think of Electronic Labyrinth as Strindberg to the feature's Samuel Beckett: overwrought, undercooked Bergman. Not without interest, it's a wonderful bit of history that, to my eye, hasn't been augmented with CGI simians. Yet.
The fun continues with "Bald" (8 mins., SD), a short, vintage promotional reel that frames itself with Coppola interviewing a shockingly idealistic, enthusiastic Lucas trying, with little success, to articulate his vision. (Lemme give it a shot: Buck Rogers + muscle cars.) I don't know who thought it'd be a great idea to put footage of McOmie freaking out while getting her head shaved in a glorified commercial for the film, but there it is in all its sick, Peeping Tom glory. Hurrah! The original 1971 trailer as well as five re-release trailers--none, disappointingly, remastered in HD--round out this maddeningly revisionist history. For the record, the version sans augmentation would get an extra half-star from me. Originally published: October 7, 2004; October 20, 2010.