As opposed to what, the Brad Cook Director’s Cut? The new sub-title appended to George Lucas’ seminal first movie might seem obvious to us film fans, but the reality is that most moviegoers have never heard of “THX 1138”, let alone know that Lucas directed it. He may have gone on to bigger things, especially with a series of science-fantasy films you may have heard of, but “THX 1138” deserves a wider audience. You know the old saying that The Velvet Underground sold hardly any albums but everyone who bought one started a band? Well, few saw “THX 1138” when it first played in theaters, but it seems like everyone who saw it decided to make movies.
This film is really Lucas’ only foray into the realm of pure science-fiction. No giant furry aliens or lightsabers or samurai movie influences here. Just the titular main character, a worker drone in a futuristic underground society where the populace is drugged to keep it complacent, so that they keep making and buying stuff. They’re told to “Buy more. Buy more and be happy” by a faceless voice that intones similar sayings throughout the movie. Sound familiar? Like any great science-fiction work, “THX 1138” expresses ideas that continue to resonate with its viewers. If this film was a book, it could easily sit next to, say, Heinlein’s novels on any shelf. As much as I enjoy the films that made Lucas a household name, I can’t say the same for the many novels that bear its moniker.
“THX 1138” takes its time setting up this society before introducing the dramatic problem that propels the story forward: THX’s “roommate” (no loving relationships allowed here), LUH 3417, is clearly bothered by incidents such as a nuclear reactor overload that causes dozens of deaths but is heralded as an achievement for her sector because their overall worker loss total is lower. Off her medication and clearly feeling emotional reactions to events around her, LUH changes THX’s dosage and soon his feelings awaken too. The two realize they love each other and, unsurprisingly, their society’s overlords declare them criminals for not taking their drugs. SEN 5241, LUH’s supervisor, complicates the situation by arranging for THX to become his new roommate.
THX and LUH are captured, of course, but eventually THX makes a run for it with the help of an enigmatic character, SRT, who thinks he’s a hologram. While this film may sound like a dour one—it’s often described as “downbeat” or “stark”—”THX 1138” certainly features many moments of black humor, such as the robotic police officers who occasionally malfunction and who are worse than their thematic successors, Darth Vader’s stormtroopers, at catching their quarry. An amusing thread also pops up toward the end of the film as we learn that the search for THX is under budget, only to soon discover that it’s rapidly hitting cost overruns as he continues to evade capture, with the threat that the chase will end if it costs too much. Anyone who has ever had to deal with budgets in a corporate environment will appreciate this section of the film.
Many people who see “THX 1138” for the first time have trouble following the plot, since there is very little exposition that gives us a sense of how this society works. Lucas complicates matters by throwing in random shots that don’t seem to make much sense, such as a few-second snippet of a man looking at rows of numbers on a wall. Is he reading directions to the bathroom? A list of employee numbers? The special of the day? We don’t know, but that’s okay. Before you watch this film for the first time, keep this comment from editor and co-writer Walter Murch in mind: “We didn’t want to make a movie about the future; we wanted to make one from the future.”
In other words, “THX 1138” is the product of its environment. If we see someone reading directions to find the bathroom, for example, we don’t stop and say “Looking for the bathroom, huh?” We know what he’s doing, and anyone watching such a scene in a movie knows what he’s doing because we share common knowledge of those floor diagrams with the “You Are Here” X-mark and those little hieroglyphs of a man and a woman that signify the bathrooms. So, when you watch this film, realize that one of THX’s peers would fully understand it but you have no hope of doing so. Deal with it.
Moving on, you may have heard that Lucas decided to muck with this film by having his artists at ILM add all sorts of stuff to it, much like they did with those other movies of his. Unlike those other movies, however, you probably haven’t heard much complaining about the changes to “THX 1138.” That’s because A) this film will never have the wide fan base those other films do and B) the changes here aren’t nearly as controversial as those other digital “fixes.” Lucas took this opportunity to mostly expand the scope of THX’s world, adding crowds, cars, elevators, large assembly lines and other things that give us a greater sense of the place. I have to admit, though, that the “tunnel monkeys,” or whatever they are, that were digitally inserted into one of the last scenes in the film look pretty bad. And Robert Duvall doesn’t look quite convincing as he wrestles with one; he looks like he’s fighting a videogame character. It would have been nice if the theatrical version had been preserved for posterity’s sake, but I realize that Lucas’ attitude is that if he changes a film, it’s as if the original never existed. So hold onto your laserdiscs and pan-and-scan VHS tapes if the theatrical version of “THX 1138” is near and dear to your heart. Me, I can’t say I miss it as much as not having the original “Star Wars” (fine, I said it) on DVD.
So that’s the film. How about the bonus materials? Here’s where this release really shines. Disc one offers up a commentary with Lucas and Murch that delves into everything about the film, from the ideas the former wanted to explore to the unique sound effects the latter created. Unfortunately, though, Lucas doesn’t tell us why he made any of the changes that appear in this film; he mostly acts like they’ve always been there, which is a bit odd. It also sounds like some of the comments on the track were pulled from the documentaries, which seems pointless to me.
You can also select a “Theatre of Noise” isolated music and sound effects track that really shows how incredible Murch’s work was; “THX 1138” features a cacophony of unique sound effects and music that’s interesting to experience even on its own.
Over on disc two, we have “A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope” and “Artifact From the Future: The Making of THX 1138,” two excellent documentaries that clock in at just over an hour and approximately thirty minutes, respectively. The first one covers the rise and fall of American Zoetrope, which Coppola created as a haven away from Hollywood for him and his fellow budding filmmakers. Unfortunately, his propensity for overselling and overextending himself eventually caught up with him when Warner Bros. screened “THX 1138” for the first time and hated it, canceling their seven-film deal with him and effectively shutting down the company, but what a wild and fun trip it must have been at the time. Both documentaries feature a wide range of Lucas and Coppola’s contemporaries, including such directors as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorcese, who weren’t part of the collective but who were part of what many call “the American New Wave” of the late 60s and early 70s. The Zoetrope documentary is really worth the price of this DVD on its own, if you’re really into historical pieces that serve up plenty of rare footage and pictures.
Disc two also features Lucas’ original 15-minute student film, “Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB,” which served as the springboard for the full film. If you find the movie hard to follow, you’ll probably go crazy watching this one, which nevertheless scooped up accolades from many of Lucas’ fellow students at USC. We also get the original production featurette “Bald,” a unique eight-minute look at the making of the film that offers a conversation between Coppola and Lucas running over footage of the actors and actresses getting their heads shaved for their roles. (Other reviewers have mentioned how upset Maggie McOmie looks, but I don’t think she seemed any more upset than your typical woman would when getting her hair chopped off.) Finally, we have the original theatrical trailer, which is an amusing exercise in trying to present a movie as something it definitely isn’t, as well as five trailers created just for the brief theatrical re-release that happened the week before the DVD came out. If you enjoy Easter eggs, press the right arrow on your remote when viewing the credits screen on disc two and you can read the original two-page treatment for Lucas’ student film.
So that’s “THX 1138: The George Lucas Director’s Cut,” a must-buy for fans of the film and a must-rent for anyone even remotely intrigued by this review. Come for the movie but stay for those awesome documentaries.