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THX 1138 was once a darned good movie. Under the auspices of American Zoetrope, George Lucas fulfilled the dream of every film student and enlarged his 16mm USC project into a 35mm feature in color and 'scope. The resulting movie had 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 was retro-revised for a 2004 release, and 'augmented' with extensive CGI computer work to the point where we barely recognize it any more. Movies can become Clockwork Oranges too.
Lucas reportedly accepted a great deal of Walter Murch input while writing his script. Sometime in the 21st century (now, perhaps?), THX (Robert Duvall) and LUH (Maggie McOmie) are cheerless proles living in an underground city where all citizens are controlled via Orwellian monitoring and Huxley-style sexless breeding. THX and LUH defy the ban against sex. They also commit the crime of drug avoidance - everyone is kept on mandatory stimulants and depressants. Under the stress, THX causes an accident on an assembly line that uses radioactive materials. A meddling admirer of THX, SEN (Donald Pleasance) manages to get LUH arrested so he can have THX to himself. Both THX and SEN end up in a featureless limbo that serves as a kind of detention room. That's when THX decides to flee to the unknown world outside the city.
THX 1138 was a superior product of its day, and it's too bad that we can't see it any more. Only fans with old Warners laser discs and players have that option. In its place, George Lucas has given us his revised version, adding many visuals and filling out what were blank spaces in many scenes. The formerly Spartan and featureless future 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 handful of original pedestrians now share the road with enough aliens to fill a page in a Where's Waldo? book. 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 in the city's outer shell, is now a full-on attack by a pack of mutated monkey creatures. We once admired Lucas's ability to conjure a compelling future world with so few resources. THX is now like everything he does -- grossly overblown.
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 wings and antennae to it. What happened to old-style film directors, who were too excited about new projects to screw around with old ones?
Viewers new 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 really notice her absence. Robert Duvall's controlled performance hasn't changed, but the extra cars, screaming monkeys and teeming crowds distract from our 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 and behold the orange sunset, the effect was liberating but ambivalent. Where is he going to go now? Is the topside environment an ecological wasteland or the preserve of a lucky ruling elite? The final shot seems has 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 THX thinking, "What the heck was that?" With all the unnecessary visual additions, THX's triumph now plays as a letdown.
For audiences unaware of film history, Warner's new Blu-ray of THX 1138 will certainly not be the cultural outrage described above. The beautifully mastered image looks far better than it ever did projected on film, where all those featureless white rooms showed every tiny scratch and piece of dirt. The CGI work is also very attractive. I can imagine that other viewers will see this as a significant improvement. But Lucas has no intention of ever letting the original out again. The THX that wowed a small but loyal audience of film students, is no more.
The plentiful extras replicate the special edition package from 2004. There's a nice transfer of Lucas's intriguing original USC student film, and a featurette that focuses on all the actors having their heads shaved. We get a commentary from Lucas and Walter Murch. A variety of smaller featurettes share space with a number of trailers and other promotional items. Special effects whiz Dennis Muren seems bored with it all in the docu coverage, 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 transcribed the 'notes' produced by Murch's classical records run backwards at 1/4 speed.
The best docu is an elaborate, comprehensive telling of the early years of the Zoetrope Company and its unfulfilled creative promise. This in itself makes this disc a worthy purchase. But nowhere is there any mention of the extensive CGI revision. As with Star Wars, George Lucas wants control over his films even after they are released, when they should become part of the record of their time. Even Gary Kurtz is finally coming out with simple contradictions of the "director's version" of the genesis of his Star Wars franchise. Does Lucas expect movie history to change to suit his personal agenda?
For a full visual comparison of the elaborate, expensive revisions done to the 1971 THX 1138, see Movie Censorship.com's fascinating comparison page. The Lucas CGI makeover must have cost five times the budget of the original film.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
THX 1138 Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.