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THX 1138 (1971) – DVD Review

THX 1138 DVD cover


Written by: George Lucas & Walter Murch, based on a story by Lucas
Directed by: George Lucas
Starring: Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Maggie McOmie, Don Pedro Colley


  • Running audio commentary with scribe/director Lucas and scribe/sound designer Murch
  • Sound effects only audio track
  • Series of audio featurettes with Murch
  • Docu: A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope
  • Docu: Artifact From the Future: The Making of THX 1138
  • Lucas’ original student film, “Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB”
  • Featurette: “BALD”
  • Trailers

Released by: Warner Brothers
Region: 1
Rating: R
Anamorphic: Yes.

My Advice: Rent it.

[ad#longpost]In a strange, stark dystopia of the future, THX 1138 (Duvall) is a factory worker, a drone, who is having difficulties. It seems that in this world you get assigned roommates, with little regard for the genders involved, since everyone is too drugged up to find themselves attracted to anyone else. Still, THX’s roomate, LUH 3417 (McOmie), has tried going off of the drugs…and has fallen for THX. In an attempt to get him to reciprocate, she’s manipulated his drug intake as well. However, in this society, love and emotion and physical intimacy are crimes and oddities, so this does not bode well. Especially when you consider that one of the many people watching is SEN 5241 (Pleasence), who has his own plans to set in motion.

Let me warn you up front: if you’re looking for a review that heaps slavish praise on this thing, you might want to stop reading now. Because let’s just be honest about what this thing is: it’s a fairly nifty experimental sci-fi film from 1971. It’s a far cry from Lucas’ later works, which were actually meant to entertain…as opposed to his more recent works, which were meant to piss everyone off…this film is merely supposed to mess with your head and get you thinking about modern life and such.

And a lot of the stuff it pulls off to do that work very well. The fact that OMM is the god you pray and confess to, with a picture of Jesus backlit to look at and a canned recording to listen to–that’s cool. The rather chilling voices that ask “What’s wrong?” when you open the medicine cabinet or applaud the workers for having had less fatalities than the workers across the way…that’s effective.

It’s in the story that things are clunky but you can tell that they were meant to be clunky, so you just kind of deal with them as best you can. The LUH storyline doesn’t really come to a very good conclusion, nor does the hologram turned flesh SRT (Colley) make a lot of sense. In the sense of the film as an experiment and a mindgrope, it’s understandable, but again, it doesn’t really make for an enjoyable story and those unneeded wrinkles are enough to throw off the viewer. And the ending gave me the same feeling I felt watching The Quiet Earth, namely “Ummmm…okay, what the hell was that all about?” What it lacks in story it makes up for in style…Lucas’ decisions to film entire scenes through panes of glass, to distort both video and audio, to use an empty train tunnel as a vertical shaft…these are all bits that elevate it to a film worth watching for sci-fi buffs or film students.

Robert Duvall is THX 1138

Lastly, the acting is all solid. The four main cast members all do their best, especially for those periods of long silence that Duvall has to contend with. Pleasence is…well, he’s Donald Pleasence, at his weasel-esque best. And it’s odd that McOmie only has this credit to her name (though perhaps she went back to the stage), since I thought her performance was worthy.

The two-disc set is a mixed bag. The film looks clean and sounds great, so that’s a no-brainer. But there are two major problems here. The first is that this is the “Director’s Cut” of the film, i.e. Lucas’ ongoing attempt to erase all previous versions of his films and replace them with newer versions that he’s happy with. I have no problem with him making as many revisions as he wants–they’re his films after all–but the fact that you can’t go back and watch the original is a huge point of contention for me. We’re big around on stuff hitting DVD just for the sake of posterity, and revisionist cinematic history really bothers the hell out of us.

The second problem is that the audio commentary track with Lucas and Walter Murch is one of the most pretentious things I’ve ever heard on a DVD. While I don’t dispute what the other bonus features put forward, that the film broke ground and really shook things up–that’s fine–do we really need to know the symbolism behind the lizard in the wiring? Personally, watching the film I just thought, “Oh, look–a lizard in the wiring. Somebody probably had a lizard and they said, ‘Hey, Fred, go grab Butch the Iguana and stick him in that wiring there…that’ll be cool.'” Instead, hearing how the lizard is a symbol for THX and the whole story is just…a bit too meta, to be frank.

George Lucas directing THX 1138

The docu that covers the American Zoetrope production company, its creation and its legacy, clocks in at just over an hour. This is a bit of an odd inclusion. On one hand, again, it’s obvious that American Zoetrope had an effect on American cinema–Christ, just look at the roster of filmmakers involved–so that portion of the docu is good for those needing to brush up on their cinema history. However, it’s a bit weird to hear so much praise slapped on Lucas in a DVD bearing “The George Lucas Director’s Cut” on the cover, as though unless specified it could be THX 1138: The Farrelly Brothers Director’s Cut.

This is especially odd given that the student film that started the whole deal, “Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB,” is included on this set. Having heard how wicked cool the original film was, it was bewildering to sit and watch it. Dan Natchsheim plays 1138, and he…well, runs. A lot. I kept flashing back in my mind to Jim Henson‘s “Time Piece,” in which Henson is running for his life most of the time. Some elephant painting really would have helped “1138.” Again, not to smack around a student film…because that’s like shooting lemurs in a barrel…but it’s just jarring to watch after having seen all of these great filmmakers talk about how great it was.

A very humorous bit of posterity is included with the short semi-docu “BALD,” which starts off talking to the filmmakers and then kind of devolves into a weird look at people getting their hair shorn for the movie. McOmie looks really upset, the big hulking guy from the prison seems to be gleeful, and one woman (who plays the victim in the prison sequence) appears to be on some really bad acid…or something. And a lot of this is done with the folks talking in voiceover in an echo chamber. Ooooh, trippy. It’s hilariously odd to watch.

"Bald" a documentary of THX 1138

The other docu on the set is the “Artifact From the Future” making-of docu. This contains contemporary reviews with pretty much everybody who’s still with us, and they talk about the difficulties in finding an actress willing to shave their heads, and also how they passed up spending the cash on Japan in favor of using locations in the immediate vicinity. It’s decent enough.

Probably the best feature on the set is the series of vignettes where Murch discusses how he went about created the sounds for the film. I know it sounds like it would be dry as hell, but he actually makes the whole thing fascinating. From the way he figured out how to use speed and distortion to create different effects, to low tech tricks for utilizing multiple machines, the whole thing’s like a crash course in film sound design.

Basically, the set is good for Lucas completists or sci-fi buffs. They might want to consider owning it. However, it’s not exactly the sort of film that I can imagine anyone outside of film scholars or students wanting to watch repeatedly. Therefore, if you haven’t seen it, it’s worthwhile for the bonus features if nothing else–but definitely rent it before you do anything else with it.

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