THX 1138 - Blu-ray review

...while hardly a world-beating movie, it is certainly worth a look, if only for its atmosphere and, well, its look.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

We've seen the initials "THX" often enough. It's just one more branch of the multizillion-dollar Lucas empire that includes movie production, sound production, special effects, you name it. "THX 1138" is where it all started, and it's nice to have the film looking and sounding better than ever on high-definition Blu-ray.

"THX 1138," produced in 1970 and released in 1971, is the first full-length motion picture George Lucas ever made, following several short films and a couple of brief documentaries. Lucas, who co-wrote, directed, and edited "THX 1138," based the movie on a student film he made a year or so earlier with the more cumbersome title "Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB," which in turn he based on a short sketch. It was Francis Coppola, seeing promise in the lad, who encouraged Lucas to expand his idea; and with the modest backing of Warner Bros. and executive produced by Coppola and his American Zoetrope company, Lucas did just that. The result, while hardly a world-beating movie, is certainly worth a look, if only for its atmosphere and, well, its look, its appearance.

One notices early on that any number of previous books and movies must have influenced the young filmmaker. We can Stanley Kubrick's "2001" in the stark interiors, the sparse dialogue, and the almost purely visual style of "THX." Then, we can see George Orwell's "1984," Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," even Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" in Lucas's bleak vision of the world.

Lucas is quick to point out in his accompanying audio commentary, however, that he wasn't really trying to expound upon the future at all in "THX" but says he was creating a parable about the way people behaved in 1970, when he made the film. Of course, that's exactly what Orwell, Huxley, Bradbury, and Kesey were doing, too, parabolically observing their own societies. All of these writers were commenting in their own way on their own day, which provides us in the present with some interesting history lessons as well as sociological documents. None of these writers were trying to predict the future; they were criticizing their own present, now, ironically, our past. In any case, it's a credit to the genius of all of them that their observations about the way people behaved back then were so prescient and are as meaningful as ever today.

The problem with Lucas's narrative, though, is that after the first thirty minutes or so he rather runs out of story. He sets his tale in some undefined future world where the government controls everybody's lives; where the equivalent of Big Brother watches people's every move; where drugs and religion are equally the opiates of the masses; where the government places a monetary value everyone and everything; and where thought and feeling and love are a crime. Their "normal" is our abnormal and vice versa. As I said, it's Orwell and company.

Everyone gets lettered and numbered in this future society, and the main character's designation is THX 1138. Robert Duvall plays him, shaved bald like everyone in the film and like everyone dressed entirely in white. It's a cold, calculating, sterile world Lucas portrays, which Lucas implies represents the conformity, regimentation, and consumerism of the present age. Most people are automatons, says Lucas, going through life uncaring and unseeing, shopping 'til they drop but never getting anything in return. Sounds a little like what Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson were saying about their society a hundred and fifty years ago.

"Be efficient. Work hard. Increase production. Prevent accidents. Buy. And be happy."

These are the government's watchwords, along with other such gibberish. But the people hear the lies so often, they believe them. They live them. And they believe in their religion, founded on huge photographs of a Christlike face to whom the authorities encourage them to confess their sins and the sins of others.

Because the movie "2001" obviously influenced Lucas and he recognized the value of minimalism, the filmmaker uses virtually no dialogue in his movie and extremely sparse sets, white walls and concrete tunnels and hallways, for a totally antiseptic feel. In the first half of the film, THX falls in love with his roommate, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie), something that would not normally happen if they took their medications like everyone else; but they don't. They want to live and breathe and feel. Unfortunately, it's illegal. The State forbids love and sex and emotions. By the second half of the film, THX meets several more like-minded individuals, SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasence), a corrupt official who wants to be THX's roommate, and SRT (Don Pedro Calley), a hologram who wants to be human. After LUH's disappearance, they attempt to escape together to the outer world.

The concern I have with much of this, besides its having been done before, is that some of it can be slow and tedious. The pace seems to be at a standstill at times, which for "2001" was fine because the music and visuals were so spectacular, but here the moody music of Lalo Schifrin and the bare-bones set designs of Michael Haller seem so laid back that after our first few minutes of delight, they are practically sleep inducing. The final chase sequence is just as tiring and just as somber as much that goes before it, meaning that despite the racing cars used and the high speeds involved, it's never terribly exciting, nor did Lucas probably mean it to be.

Symbolism runs rampant in the film, and one can make of the symbols almost anything one chooses. But Lucas pretty much depletes the symbolism by the first half hour.

More interesting is that most of the film's material plays like black comedy, dark satire, yet Lucas shows no trace of humor in the proceedings. He does it all in deadly earnest, which may, in fact, increase the fun. It's hard to tell if Lucas is joking when he has robotic policemen running aimlessly into solid walls or people filing mindlessly into elevators that go nowhere. Still, it works, as I say, as black humor, so I'm not complaining.

Maybe if Lucas had lightened up just a bit, the tale would have unfolded more naturally and with more clarity and insight. As it is, "THX 1138" is a still a good attempt at something bolder than it really is, and it shows what a filmmaker can do on a limited budget. Of course, having Francis Coppola, sound editor Walter Murch, composer Lalo Schifrin, and the Warner Bros. studio behind you helps, too.

Warner Bros. remastered both the video and the audio of the film several years ago, with a few new, digitally added shots to bring it up to speed. There is no indication on the packaging about what exactly is new to the Director's Cut, but the timing remains about the same at eighty-eight minutes. I assume the filmmakers have altered and improved a few of the backgrounds; and the fact that they changed the film's rating from its original GP to R because of sexuality and nudity tells us something.

The WB video engineers transferred the movie to Blu-ray disc using a VC-1 codec and a dual-layer BD50. The widescreen dimensions measure a theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1, providing plenty of rich, solid colors when needed. Most of the time, however, the picture is content to display large areas of pure white, which sometimes reveal a small amount of film grain, most of it undoubtedly inherent to the original print. The overall image quality can sometimes appear a tad soft, but object delineation most of the time looks quite good, certainly an improvement over the standard-definition product.

The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is a bit more problematic than the video because one cannot really compare the 1970 sound to today's state-of-the-art sonics. The 5.1 mix does provide a good, believable, although limited, front-channel stereo spread; some strong bass and dynamics when necessary; a well-detailed midrange; and the occasional noise thrown into the surround speakers, which, admittedly is not often. Composer Schifrin's atmospheric score and Murch's sound montages come off well, without the slight degree of harshness, the metallic quality, I noticed before on voices, especially.

There is really quite a lot in the way of extras on the Blu-ray disc, all of it carried over from the two-disc, standard-definition special edition. First up, there's an audio commentary by co-writer/director George Lucas and co-writer/sound designer Walter Murch, which anyone interested in film or filmmaking should hear. "Theatre of Noise" is an isolated music and sound-effects-only track. Then, there is a feature called "Master Sessions with Walter Murch," comprised of brief, scene-specific video clips wherein Murch tells us about the sound design at particular points in the film.

After that, there are two excellent documentaries, plus various other goodies. The main documentary, "A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope," 2004, lasts over an hour. As the name suggests, it tells us about the filmmakers who gathered around Francis Coppola during the early Zoetrope era. The other documentary is also from 2004, "Artifact from the Future: The Making of THX 1138," which is more specific to the "THX" film and lasts over half an hour. After that is Lucas's original fifteen-minute student film, "Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB," which Lucas made at USC and which inspired the later movie. No, it's not as good a film as the later, more-polished product, but in some ways it works better at a quarter of an hour than the later one at nearly an hour and a half. Following that, there is an eight-minute vintage promotional, "Bald Classic Production: The Making of THX 1138," wherein we see a young Coppola interviewing an even younger Lucas, with shots from the movie to illustrate their points.

The extras wrap up with several theatrical trailers; twenty-four scene selections; English, French, German, and Spanish spoken languages; Danish, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Norwegian, Swedish, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
I like what Lucas tried to do in "THX 1138," even if the movie is overly long for its subject matter and rather hammers home its points too obviously. On an unassuming budget, Lucas created a cold, weird, frightening world that is all too reminiscent of the way many people still carry on today. I believe if the director had turned his criticisms of society into more pointed black humor, as Kubrick did in "Dr. Strangelove," Lucas's movie might have attained even greater success. But who can argue with a guy who's gone on to become a legend and whose first feature film is a bona fide cult classic? Not I. At least, not much, especially now that it looks so very good on Blu-ray.


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