Genre: Sci fi/Fantasy
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Director: George Lucas
Once upon a time George Lucas -- the man who virtually invented the "Bigger! Faster! More!" school of blockbuster filmmaking -- was a freshly minted film school graduate stretching tiny budgets into entire worlds. "THX 1138," currently showing in a new director's cut, was one of his oddest, earliest efforts, and one of the slowest and most deliberately minimalist science fiction films ever made.
Shot in San Francisco's then-uncompleted BART tunnels on a relatively low budget with the help of producer Francis Ford Coppola, Lucas shamelessly cribs from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" and George Orwell, not to mention tidbits from Carl Dreyer's "The Passion of Joan of Arc" and other classic films. But at the same time, fans can get a glimpse of early "Star Wars" ideas simmering on the back burner.
A young Robert Duvall stars as THX 1138, a worker in a sanitized, ultra-conservative future. Everyone must shave their heads and pray to a video Jesus in a little electronic booth. Black entertainers amuse from every channel on holographic television, and Big Brother is always watching.
THX commits a crime by refusing to take his government-issue, spirit-dampening drugs and by having sex with his female roommate, LUH (Maggie McOmie). Along with the creepy, leering SEN (Donald Pleasance), he's sent to prison -- a giant, expansive all-white room with no visible ceilings, walls or seams of any kind. The pair meet a refugee from the entertainment channel, a huge genie-like hologram come to life (Don Pedro Colley) who wanted to see what the "real world" was like, and he helps them escape.
In an early burst of blockbuster inspiration, Lucas revs up the pace in the third act. He throws THX into a great chase scene, complete with spectacular crashes, malfunctioning futuristic cars and pursuing faceless, Stormtrooper-like peacekeepers on motorcycles. Best of all, when the budget allotted for his capture runs out, everyone simply stops and lets him go!
The most remarkable thing about "THX 1138" is its unsettling sound design, pieced together by Lucas and another local legend, Walter Murch (later a sound man and editor on such films as "Apocalypse Now" and "The English Patient"). In an industry where everything must sound spectacular, Lucas and Murch instead concentrate on half-finished, half-heard sounds, suddenly interrupted in mid-thought.
In one striking scene, a couple of unseen technicians experiment with some kind of torture device on the incarcerated THX. Lucas cuts back and forth between their murmured conversation to Duvall screaming in pain, always cutting in the middle of a word or a sound.
Some of the flaws apparent in the two recent "Star Wars" films are on view here; in his frenzy to create a specific world with sights, sounds and smells, Lucas forgets to let us know who his characters are and why we should root for them. As a result, "THX 1138" drags more than it really should. Even dedicated fans of leisurely movies like Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" or Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Flowers of Shanghai" will find themselves nodding off during portions of this 88-minute film.
Technicians at LucasFilm have done a wonderful job restoring the film, both in an audio and visual capacity, especially given the problems of the unique soundtrack and white backgrounds. The film will play for a limited run in theaters, then Warner Home Video will release a fantastic two-disc DVD Special Edition on Sept. 14, featuring an audio commentary track, featurettes and Lucas' original student film, "THX 1138: 4EB," which was expanded to feature length when he won financing from Warner Bros. after his graduation.