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.