Today, who would think that George Lucas once had the soul of an avant-garde filmmaker? Anyone only familiar with the overblown Star Wars prequels or his revisionist versions of the original trilogy would only see the purveyor of soulless special effects and the possessor of a relentlessly stubborn personality that refuses to acknowledge any so-called “inferior” versions of his works.
With THX 1138, you get to see both Lucases — the visionary filmmaker and the meddling, perpetually unsatisfied revisionist. Originally released in 1971, THX 1138 was an expanded version of a short film Lucas made as a student at USC. It was a sparse, minimalist, and menacing work.
Then in 2004, Lucas decided to revisit THX just like the Star Wars films, and he infused it with a litany of CG effects that often create a baffling incongruity between the subdued and oblique tone of the film and the newly added visual frenzy.
As is his modus operandi, Lucas now essentially refuses to even concede the original version’s existence. If you want to see it in its proper aspect ratio, you better have a Laserdisc player. Only the “Director’s Cut” is available on DVD, and now, Blu-ray. An extensive rundown of the updates (and they are vast and often inexplicable) is available here.
As it stands, some of the film’s more impressive features still shine through, including Walter Murch’s densely layered sound design, as well as the film’s avant-garde flourishes. Even with the newly added winged lizards, monkey-like creatures, and flashy car chases, no one will mistake this for a film with a strong narrative.
Robert Duvall and Maggie McOmie’s performances as THX and LUH are also mostly undiminished. The pair’s resistance to the dystopian society’s anti-sex, pro-sedative police state is still a raw nerve of futile desperation. Donald Pleasence also does excellent work as SEN, a meddling cohabitant with a fascination for THX.
Fortunately, Lucas mostly leaves the film’s most striking sequences alone — those in the blank limbo space where THX and SEN are imprisoned in a vast white world. The oppressive minimalism remains intact, and for that we can remain thankful.
Even in this bastardized state, THX 1138 remains a compelling and engrossing piece of thoughtful sci-fi that stands in direct opposition to the space opera of Star Wars. It’s just too bad Lucas never learned to leave well enough alone.
The Blu-ray Disc
THX 1138 is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 2.4:1. For the most part, this is a fabulous high def upgrade, with excellent detail and superb sharpness and clarity. The skin tones of the characters really stand out, showing great detail against the blank environments (those that haven’t been tampered with, that is). The only real issue with the transfer is some occasional halos that are visible around characters’ heads and faces when they are against completely white backgrounds, but this is by no means a consistent problem.
The audio is presented in a Dolby DTS-HD 5.1 track that is fantastic in every way, showcasing the intricate sound design Murch created. It’s hardly an overwhelming track and dialogue can seem too quiet or muddled at times, but this is the way it should sound.
Everything is carried over from the previous special edition DVD of the film, and though it all remains in standard definition, this is an impressive collection of extras. There’s a commentary by Lucas and Murch, as well as the option to watch the film with an isolated sound effects track and a collection of features on Murch’s sound design. It’s wonderful to see him get his due in the extras, as his influence on the film can’t be understated.
Also a great bonus feature is an hour-long documentary on American Zoetrope, the studio that Francis Ford Coppola founded with Lucas, and of which THX 1138 was the second film released.
Lucas’s original short film, Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB, shows the genesis of the idea, and hey, he hasn’t gone back and altered this one yet, so score!
There’s also a fairly standard making-of featurette, a vintage piece on cast members having to shave their heads, and a collection of trailers.
The Bottom Line
It’s a shame Lucas won’t release the original version of his film alongside his director’s cut. When he does the exact same thing with the Star Wars trilogy on Blu-ray next year, there’ll be much more of an uproar, but THX deserves better too.