For those of you who somehow don't know, this is the directorial debut for much hated/loved/hated film maker George Lucas from 1971. Based on a short film he made for college (with the copiously long title of Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB), but with professional actors and a higher budget at the urging of Francis Ford Coppola and released as the very first film by Coppola's American Zoetrope production company. Needless to say the sterile, gritty, and dystopian science fiction story did not succeed during it's original theatrical run in 1971. Even after the first Star Wars film garnered Lucas popularity and he edited five previously missing minutes back into the film which expanded its running time to 86 minutes, it still faired very poorly.
After viewing this trailer, it's no wonder nobody bothered to see it. No sense of bleakness or foreboding (laden heavily throughout the film) are present, just that tacky repetitious voiceover. The film takes place in the far future when mans over reliance of machines and technology finally overtakes his common sense and machines take over the running of everyday life. Men, women, and children now live out their existence in underground cities. They are heavily drugged to stay sedate and obedient to the whims of the computers that control their every thought and action. Drug evasion is a high crime, but not nearly as high as falling in love- something THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) and his room mate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) are about to find out...
Everybody knows about Star Wars. It's glitzy, optimistic, and reasonably budgeted. THX 1138 is none of these things. It's dark, riddled with social/political commentary, and decidedly not optimistic in it's vision of where mankind is headed. I think it's a masterpiece of lower budget film making. The filming locations range from the Marin County Civic Center to the then unfinished tunnels of San Francisco's BART system. Everything about it conveys a world that is closed, claustrophobic, and ultimately fascist in every way. George Lucas never made a film this dark or "real" ever again, and more's the pity. Even in interviews at the time he couldn't stress enough the claustrophobia of the world he created. So in true George Lucas tradition he decided to do what he now does best (besides resting on the 30+ year old Laurels of the Star Wars Trilogy)- re release it in a brief theatrical run and put it on DVD but not before he fucks with it digitally and adds a bunch of CGI bullshit into what was already perfectly fine.
That's right, once again he denied everyone the original theatrical cut on a home video format everybody wants it on. I do have to admit that some of the changes weren't actually all that bothersome. Maybe the most hilarious (yet still sensical) was the addition of the jerk off machine in front of THX 1138 while he watches the nude dancer on the holographic TV. I'm just imagining George Lucas sitting around the Skywalker Ranch and thinking that up, running into the development room and enthusiastically telling everybody it needs to be there. It makes sense because in this future, sex is punishable by death (and averted via heavy sedation anyway) so why would the computers allow people to just jerk off if they couldn't legally have penetrative sex in society? Touche' Lucas, you win that one at least.
Other changes made FAR less sense to me, like adding antenna and wings to the little lizard we see behind the electronics panel. Or the scene where Donald Pleasence's character comes across a rat on the city outskirts. Instead of a rat e get a REALLY poorly done giant centipede like insect instead, and I could only raise an eyebrow and go "really....?". Don't get me started on the replacing of the little people outside the city with awfully done CGI monkey beasts... I think what annoyed me most about his "director's cut" was the addition of wide open spaces in a film that really otherwise had none. These happen a lot during the car chase sequence at the end, with THX's car zooming to and fro through traffic. Guess what uncle Georgie? NONE OF US LIKED WHAT YOU DID, IT LOOKS LIKE CRAP.
There's a great 11 minute video on youtube that I cannot seem to embed here that shows comparisons between some of the shots between the original and director's cut versions. I highly recommend looking it up. One thing I DID find however was this great promo clip from 1971 talking about the shaving of the entire casts heads for their roles. Somehow I don't think it was too difficult for Donald Pleasence or Robert Duvall what with their already thinning hair...
Check it out:
Thankfully one can own the original cut but only on vhs and laserdisc. I am uncertain of whether or not the LD is in widescreen or not, but the vhs certainly isn't. Usually I don't find that terribly bothersome (though I do prefer widescreen over all) but this cassette was released in 1983, so the unusual framing choices used throughout this film rarely translate to how vhs prints were cropped during this period. Sometimes you wonder what's being stared at but having the original version is (I feel) worth it and I'll gladly take what I can get. I may not get the proper aspect ration, but I still get all the original film and no false CGI bric-a-brac. While dystopian science fiction that's bleak as all get out really isn't going to be everybody's cup of tea, I highly recommend giving it a try if only to see how cinema's number one CGI villain earned his wings. Definitely one of my personal favorites.
And just in case you were wondering where this film started from, here's the original student film I told you about at the beginning of this review. From a film making standpoint some of the film works and some of it doesn't, but the concept is definitely there. Lucas made this when he was 23 or 24, and made the feature length version at age 27. Too bad he fell off the boat, but as they say: the light that burns twice as bright burns half as long.