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Warner Bros.

Official Site

Director: George Lucas

Producers: Lawrence Sturhahn, Ed Folger, Francis Ford Coppola

Written by: George Lucas, Walter Murch

Cast: Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Don Pedro Colley, Maggie McOmie, Robert Feero, Johnny Weissmuller, Jr.


Bad news, everyone: The future will be very bleak and very oppressive. (According to most well-respected works of fiction or cinema, anyway.) Totalitarianism will be “in,” just as those faded, authentic retro ’80s T-shirts and mesh trucker caps are today. But while our freedoms will be stripped away, the government departmentalized to a bureaucratically heavenly degree, and color schemes systematically monochromatized, at least cars will be a lot more rounded, and will go a lot faster. So we win some, we lose some.

It is in this sort of totalitarian future (a future similar to that of 1984—both the film and the novel—and Brazil) that George Lucas’s THX 1138 is set. Here, however, individuality has been so bleached out that names have been replaced with meaningless combinations of letters and numbers, all heads (those belonging to men and women alike) are shaved, clothing is smock-like and colorless, all dwellings, both commercial and “private,” are monitored, and those pesky sexual urges are kept in check by mandatory drugs. Why? Because it’s the future—that’s reason enough. Our bald protagonist, THX 1138 (Duvall) suspects that his “room”mate, the female LUH 3417 (McOmie), has been tampering with his daily sedative intake, causing him a general feeling of unease and amusing (to me, anyway) fits of vomiting. THX soon comes to realize that LUH’s depriving him of his sedatives has awoken within him an animalistic desire the likes of which he has never known. The two flatmates quickly partake in the only dance more forbidden than the Lambada—the horizontal mambo—and soon those voyeuristic government bastards, by way of silver-faced robot police (Feero and Weissmuller, Jr.), aim to enslave them. As long as the pursuit is cost-effective, of course.

I must now shamefully confess that the director’s cut of THX 1138 was my first exposure to Lucas’s maiden directorial effort, and I shall, therefore, be unable to comment upon the differences/additions/deletions/alterations between the new, CGI-enhanced version and the apparently obsolete (to Lucas, anyway) original. (Give me a break, the VHS was long out-of-print in the format’s heyday, and the DVD streets in a few weeks, meaning that the optimal method of viewing the film was on laserdisc. And come on, like you had a laserdisc player?) I can say this, however, with the utmost confidence and immediacy: The CGI is as goofy-looking and as obvious as you might fear. One sequence, in fact, which has THX clumsily piloting a futuristic police car capable of speeds exceeding the 250-mile barrier, is comprised entirely of CGI, is embarrassing to behold, and is altogether unnecessary to the plot. And, the CGI sewer mutants look just as bad, if not worse. As stated, I am unaware if any Greedo-shoots-first caliber changes were made, but the clear additions to the film (mostly extended, more elaborate backgrounds) are gratuitous, and do not convey the solitude of this future society any more effectively than the series of brief, unaltered shots do which open the film. It is my (un)educated guess that the original 1971 film is a better representation of what Lucas originally conceived than this touched-up director’s cut; THX 1138 is structured around the ideas of loneliness, starkness, and claustrophobic minimalism, which the flashy new scope of the CGI-enhanced sets work against.

As a film, THX 1138: The George Lucas Director’s Cut (yes, that is the official title of the re-release; the film was seemingly incomplete without Lucas’s name incorporated into the title, as is the case with any great film) is interesting, challenging, and not what one might expect from the man responsible for unleashing the Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks into a world with enough problems. Lucas’s most pessimistic (yet ultimately optimistic) film by a wide margin, it deals explicitly with the isolation produced by technology and progress, and how disassociating it might all become. It is a disconcerting film, yet it is simultaneously, surprisingly, scintillatingly funny. THX speaks his paranoid troubles to a street-side confessional booth decorated with a glowing portrait of a Jesus-like visage, and it comforts him with helpful words of advice such as “Excellent,” and “Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more. Buy more now. And be happy,” in disconnected, soothing robot-speak. Two offscreen members of the totalitarian government observe THX on a monitor and quibble about the optimum method of maintaining the atmospheric setting in his prison cell while inattentively fiddling with said settings, causing THX to involuntarily crumple and spasm in agony. After THX outmaneuvers and dispatches a motorcycle-mounted member of the robot police, a glowing red readout fills the screen, adjusting the number of active officers from something in the area of 36,307 to 36,306. The richness of ideas found in THX 1138 is alarming, and saddening, considering the disappointing depths within which Lucas currently resides (and which THX 1138: The George Lucas Director’s Cut ironically advertises).

Worth mentioning, in brief, is the stunning and uncomfortable low-budget production design of the film, and how well the desolate subterranean future cityscape is captured in blinding, barren frames of white. While aesthetically similar to portions of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, THX 1138 is its own purposefully hideous but indelible visual creature. The 1971-era graininess benefits the film here, providing it with that sleazy coat of urgency which all movies of that time were uniformed with.

But, being a first film, THX 1138 is flawed, to be sure. The viewer is kept at such distance from the characters that it is difficult to care for their plight in any way other than the most generalized and impersonal of manners. They are, essentially, the equivalent of horror film protagonists—continually on the run from a villainous entity intent on their eventual collective dooms. The deliberate (which is a respectable way of saying “tedious”) pace of the picture and the dreamy, vignette-like editing makes THX 1138’s 95-minute runtime seem more akin to six hours. And, most unfortunate of all, the film’s most interesting concept—discovering the smoldering pleasures of human (sexual) contact after a relative lifetime of drug-induced apathy and society-induced seclusion—is introduced, resolved, and jettisoned within the film’s first 15 minutes, relegating the rest of the movie to a disjointed chase sequence. But an interesting one.

THX 1138: The George Lucas Director’s Cut is worth experiencing, especially if, like me, you’ve never experienced it before. It is easy enough to mentally discard the superfluous and contradictory CGI work stitched into this restored re-release and envision the confrontational, nauseating purity of the initial edit. Although George Lucas has long since expanded into an egomaniacal, lunatic with the regrettable tendency to “improve” his past works and that inescapable, hedonistic double chin, he was once impassioned and experimental and willing to take risks. Although shamefully, digitally amended, the core of THX 1138 supports that claim; it is the now-poignant feature film debut of a director who would come to wield the same totalitarian power as the fictional government within, and who would impose change and modification upon a public powerless against his authority.

—Nathan Baran

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