THX 1138 was once a darned good movie. George Lucas creatively enlarged his USC film as a 35mm feature in color and 'scope, the dream of every 1970 film student, resulting in a movie with a great look on a minimalist budget. The intense young filmmaker pulled off a heady blend of 1984 and The Great Escape told through visual montages of buttons, flashing lights and television screens, and complex audio montages invented by his eager fellow student Walter Murch.
Unfortunately, the 1971 feature has been retro-revised for a new 2004 release, and 'augmented' with extensive CGI computer work. Movies can become Clockwork Oranges too.
THX 1138 was a superior product of its day, and it's too bad that we can't see it any more. In its place, George Lucas has given us his revised version, adding visuals and augmenting scenes. Once a downright spartan and featureless world, the film now has giant factories assembling golden robots that look like C3PO. Escher-like tangles of high speed roadways have been added where once stood monotonous views of the same BART tunnels. And every previously vacant space is now packed with crowds, dozens of vehicles, etc. It's like those street scenes in Star Wars where a couple of original pedestrians now share the road with enough aliens to fill a page in Where's Waldo? THX's lonely escape in a sole vehicle has been replaced with a full-scale Grand Prix of zooming Formula One cars. And a short skirmish with some dwarf denizens of the city's outer shell, is now a full-on attack by a pack of mutated monkey creatures.
In other words, THX 1138 has gone the way of Star Wars, which it seems Lucas will also never again let out in its original form. You can't have a simple image of an ordinary lizard sitting on some computer wires without adding CGI moth antennae to it. What happened to old-style film directors, who were too excited to move on to new projects to screw around with old ones?
New viewers to THX 1138 will be able to follow the film just as well and will enjoy the sound design, which isn't appreciably changed from the original even with the addition of 5.1 audio. LUH's disappearance was once a tragic shock, but now there's too much happening for us to miss her. Robert Duvall's controlled performance hasn't changed, but the extra cars, screaming monkeys and teeming crowds distract from the focus on his character.
The basic structure of THX 1138 is still there, like a good layer cake with too much frosting. Duvall's soulless life gains meaning once he gets off drugs and becomes determined to leave the city, as LUH had hoped to do. When we originally saw THX burst through to the surface to be confronted with an orange sunset, it was a wonderfully ambiguous finale. Where the heck is he going to go now? Is the environment topside an ecological wasteland or the preserve of a lucky ruling elite? The final shot seems to have been processed to put more of a visual distortion on THX's tiny figure silhouetted against the sky. That distracts from the final joke where a bird flies by and we imagine him thinking, "What the heck was that?" With all the unnecessary visual additions to the film, THX's triumph now plays like a letdown.
For audiences unaware of film history, Warner's two disc set of THX 1138 will certainly not be the cultural outrage described above. The beautifully mastered image looks far better than it ever did projected, where all those featureless white rooms showed every tiny scratch and piece of dirt.
The extras are plentiful. There's a nice transfer of the original USC student film, and a featurette that focuses on all the actors having their heads shaved. We get commentaries from Lucas and Walter Murch. In the docus special effects whiz Dennis Muren seems bored with it all, while Walter Murch delights in detailing his sound designs to the nth degree and making sure that we know he inspired the music score - he says that Lalo Schifrin simply recorded the 'notes' produced by Murch's classical records taped backwards and at 1/4 speed. The best docu included is an overview of the early years of the Zoetrope company and its unfulfilled creative promise. Nowhere is any mention of the extensive CGI revision. Does Lucas intend to rewrite movie history to fit his personal agenda?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,