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A chilling exploration of the future is also a compelling examination of the present in George Lucas' THX 1138, starring Robert Duvall as a man whose mind and body are controlled by the government. THX makes an harrowing attempt to escape from a world where thoughts are controlled, freedom is an impossibility and love is the ultimate crime.
For more about THX 1138 and the THX 1138 Blu-ray release, see THX 1138 Blu-ray Review published by Kenneth Brown on September 5, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Starring: Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Sid Haig, Maggie McOmie, Don Pedro Colley, Ian Wolfe
Director: George Lucas
» See full cast & crew
THX 1138 Blu-ray Review
"Thou art a subject of the divine, created in the image of man, by the masses, for the masses."
Reviewed by Kenneth Brown, September 5, 2010
CG killed the filmmaker. At least in the case of George Lucas. Watching THX 1138, Lucas's 1971 feature-length film debut, it's clear that character and story were once far more important to the Maker than Gungan land wars and Kaminoan clone facilities. Lucas has always fancied himself a world-weaver, but a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, his worlds were more tangible, more evocative, more intriguing, more... meaningful. Even with its polished, 21st century Director's Cut makeover, THX 1138 isn't about the dystopian future Lucas's oppressed and repressed populous inhabit, it's about a man who awakens from a walking coma, discovers his humanity and takes his fate into his own hands. It isn't groundbreaking science fiction, but it is science fiction done well; a finely tuned medley of still-relevant satire and arresting drama. It isn't a timeless classic, but it is an unnerving, thought-provoking cautionary tale; a haunting indictment of psychotropic drugs, Orwellian groupthink, socio-political propaganda, and the forfeiture of fundamental rights. Sound vaguely familiar? It should.
On its surface, THX 1138 offers a simple dystopian tale set in an unnamed, underground city in the not-so-distant (or perhaps-quite-distant) future. Though under constant surveillance, the city's inhabitants are required to take mind-altering narcotics that suppress their emotions and desires, and are forbidden to pursue sexual relationships. Law and order is maintained by androids built in human-run factories, and religious belief is centered on a disembodied, seemingly omnipresent man-made deity dubbed OMM 0910. That all changes though when a female surveillance operator named LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie, in her first and only feature-film role) decides to go off her meds. Overcome by a surge of foreign feelings, she takes her rebellion one step further and secretly replaces her male roomate's pills with placebos. Her roommate, a factory worker named THX 1138 (Robert Duvall), experiences a similar reaction, and immediate gravitates to the one person who understands the emotions flooding his body and mind: LUH 3417. Whether by love, lust or some intoxicating mixture of both, THX and LUH consummate their ideological marriage and forge a dangerous relationship, one that forces Lucas's lovers to choose either mental or physical imprisonment, state-sanctioned conformity or illegal happiness, and comfortable ignorance or the harsh unknown. It isn't exactly red-pill, blue-pull, but you get the idea.
THX 1138 has two distinct heartbeats: its at-times minimalistic, at-times vulnerable performances and Walter Murch's disquieting sound design. The former comes courtesy of Duvall, McOmie and Donald Pleasence (who plays SEN 5241, THX's soapbox-mounting cellmate in the city's eerie Limbo prison), a trio of fine actors who give their all, hair included, in service of Lucas's monochromatic dreamscape. The latter is a dissonant cacophony of computer beeps, ominous radio chatter, bursts of static, mechanical murmurs, OMM's instructions, effect-driven musical tones and more, all orchestrated in a manner befitting the Orwellian nightmare that unspools out of Lucas's pocket. Both the performances and the sound design propel the film along, infusing soul into a world devoid of humanity and filling maddening silence with a spine-tingling symphony of ordered chaos. The two work in tandem to illuminate the themes at the center of the film, as well as the subtle and not-so-subtle symbolism integrated into the underground city and OMM's rituals. There are moments when the loud-speaker voices' incessant chatter, Lucas and Murch's future dystopia jargon, and SEN's spittle-flinging philosophy threaten to overwhelm THX and LUH's plight with meaningless gobbledygook, but there's a definite method to the filmmakers' madness, and it makes their world all the more interesting.
Debate has raged for six years now as to whether or not Lucas should have tampered with his original cut of the film. For the record though, the vast majority of alterations Lucas makes are far from distracting, and only one -- an extension of THX's run-in with a pack of underground, shadow-cloaked, mutants -- proves to be a disruption (and a somewhat unnecessary one at that). Otherwise, we're not talking about Greedo shooting first, Jabba slugging his way across a hangar bay, that god-awful song at the beginning of Return of the Jedi or anything of the sort. No, this is more akin to the slight snips and inoffensive bits that grace the redux of The Empire Strikes Back. An extended background here, an expanded factory there, an enhanced car escape for good measure... all courtesy of carefully employed CG. (Most people won't even notice 80% of the actual changes Lucas made to his original cut.) Would including both versions of the film help quell the outcry of purists? Definitely. For the life of me, I can't figure out why Lucas hasn't tapped into the wonders of seamless branching to do just that with all of his controversial re-releases. Be that as it may, the uproar over the THX 1138 Director's Cut is fueled more by lingering Star Wars angst and hyperbole-tainted principle than any legitimate cause for concern. Ahem... in my humble opinion, of course.
Whether or not you shrug your shoulders or froth at the mouth whenever Lucas brandishes his CG pen, it's easy to appreciate the artistry and resonance of THX 1138, regardless of the cut you're exposed to. Duvall and McOmie deliver excellent performances, the story is smart dystopian science fiction, and the world Lucas weaves -- a world of barren walls, endless prisons, icy order, steel-faced authority, and Murch's unsettling sound design -- is both fascinating and, to my surprise, more relevant than ever. THX isn't going to blow anyone's mind, nor is it a time-honored masterpiece, but at the very least, it deserves a fair chance.
THX 1138 Blu-ray, Video Quality
THX 1138 underwent an extensive, Lucas-supervised restoration in 2004, and the results are most impressive. The film isn't laser-sharp, nor does it look as if it were produced yesterday, but it does look far better than its thirty-nine years suggest, and even holds its own against more recent, high profile catalog overhauls. David Myers and Albert Kihn's sterile photography is both startling and striking; its eerie white spaces and fittingly oppressive shadows a testament to their commitment to Lucas's intricate simplicity. Skintones are rightfully pale but incredibly lifelike, contrast is relatively strong and stable (for a film of its age), and the few brief bursts of primary brilliance that grace the screen -- be it the flushed cheek of an anxious lover, the unsettling yellow glow of an android factory, or the piercing red lights that dot LUH's surveillance booth -- pop with precision and power. Detail is remarkable as well. While a fair amount of filmic softness is apparent throughout, particularly those scenes that take place in the Limbo prison, it hardly matters. Closeups boast some surprising textures, the film's unobtrusive grain field is intact (for the most part), object definition is quite satisfying on the whole, and delineation isn't nearly as stingy as I anticipated.
Some intermittent smearing does seem to confirm the use of scene-specific noise reduction, but since the Blu-ray edition has been minted from Lucas's hands-on restoration, I would direct any complaints to Skywalker Ranch, care of George Lucas. For better or worse, it isn't cause for alarm, and rarely distracts. Likewise, while some faint banding and negligible artifacting creep into the latter half of the third act, the rest of the presentation is as pristine as one could hope for. Print blemishes are kept to a bare minimum, and macroblocking, aberrant noise, inexplicable crush, aliasing and other anomalies aren't a factor. Ultimately, the presentation may not amount to frame-to-frame perfection, but it handily trumps its DVD counterpart and should easily please anyone armed with tempered expectations.
THX 1138 Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The quality of Warner's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track isn't as readily apparent, but it's just as satisfying. Dialogue is clean, intelligible and relatively clear, and the strange, dystopian psychobabble that floods every room and hall of Lucas's underground metropolis, intentionally garbled as it is, sounds fantastic. As it stands, Walter Murch's hypnotic, altogether unnerving sound design has never been more engaging, and overcomes its humble origins and era-specific limitations to steal the sonic show. The mix still has that patented '70s timbre we've all grown to know and love, but every beep, buzz, mumble and sheen has been preserved and enhanced. Yes, voices are thin at times, almost metallic at others. Yes, LFE output and rear speaker activity is reserved, and the whole of the experience is rather front-heavy. But for a 5.1 remix of a thirty-nine-year old film, particularly one that boasts able-bodied dynamics and decent directionality, concessions should be made. Suffice to say, THX 1138 has never sounded better. While its lossless track won't exactly draw a crowd, it complements Warner's video transfer nicely and rounds out the disc's commendable AV presentation.
THX 1138 Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Blu-ray edition of THX 1138: The George Lucas Director's Cut arrives with the same arresting and thorough supplemental package that adorned Warner's 2004 2-disc DVD. Yes, the content is still presented in standard definition, but with five-plus hours of pitch-perfect special features like these, it hardly matters. This is exactly the sort of treatment every catalog title of this caliber should receive.
THX 1138 Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Different films appeal to different people in different ways. THX 1138 will never unite the masses, nor is it likely to leave the same lasting mark as cinema's future dystopia classics. However, it's an intelligent slice of sci-fi in its own right, and a greater testament to Lucas's talent than many of his... let's just say less-than-beloved films. Warner's Blu-ray release isn't perfect either, but that shouldn't dissuade anyone from adding it to their cart. Its video transfer is fit and faithful, its DTS-HD Master Audio track is equally commendable, and its supplemental package will keep fans busy for a good four or five hours. I don't know about you, but I already found a home for THX 1138 in my collection.
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