In retrospect, there’s really nothing extraordinary about a USC student being given a chance to direct a feature film after making a series of well-received shorts while in school, culminating with the award-winning Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB in 1967.
George Lucas’ early work showed an interest in experimental film, and when Francis Ford Coppola took the young film graduate under his wing, the elder had already gone through the Roger Corman school of filmmaking (Battle Beyond the Sun, Dementia 13) before lucking into his own studio projects as director: the ill-fated musical Finian’s Rainbow (1968), and as a writer for hire, Is Paris Burning? (1966) and Patton (1970), the latter winning Coppola an Oscar Award.
THX 1138 (the feature film) is maybe 70% representative of George Lucas’ move into feature filmmaking, and 30% of Coppola’s decision to buckle the waning studio system and show the establishment what the New Wave of American talent could accomplish if given the opportunity. This he figured he could fulfill with the clout of his own relationships with the studios, as well as an unbridled idealism: artists making personal films via the newly founded American Zoetrope.
The company’s first venture was The Rain People (1969), on which Lucas trucked along and directed a making-of documentary. He also became friends with the film’s co-star Robert Duvall, and wrote the THX script during the on-the-road production, expanding the original short film concept into a broader tale of a world where a consumer culture has devolved into an underground society that keeps itself anesthetized, living to earn credits and buy useless goods in place of experiencing basic emotional human interaction.
THX was budgeted for around $700,000, and with co-writer Walter Murch, Lucas crafted a striking dystopian vision meant as a cautionary tale ‘from the future.’ Most of the cast and crew were new to studio filmmaking, and the roots of cinematographers David Myers (Woodstock, Save the Children) and Albert Kihn lay in documentaries.
Lucas’ original plans to film in Japan were financially and logistically impossible, but the concept of letting striking visuals tell the story without Hollywood-style exposition and explanations reflected Lucas’ own interest in Japan’s New Wave cinema.
The story in THX is very simple: a man named THX (Duvall) makes the mistake of falling in love with his computer-selected mate LUH (Maggie McOmie) and engages in the forbidden act of intercourse, as well as dumping the need to take anymore drugs. When the overlords discover his civil violations, he’s arrested, convicted, tortured, and jailed in a weird white room for an indefinite period of time. His love disappears and is presumed dead, and a man named SEN (Donald Pleasence) who jealously attempted to break their union for his own latent sexual needs is thrown in jail with THX. With the aid of a delusional convict, SRT (Don Pedro Colley), the three mount an escape, although only THX manages to reach the upper surface, where he’s finally free to evolve as a thinking, feeling human.
The film’s first third is engaging in the way this miserable, clinical future is established through fragmented scenes, montages of images captured from TV monitors, security cameras, and ‘scope lenses conveying the simple elegance of the clean lines and muted colours of a cramped, underground world.
It’s when THX is arrested that Lucas shifts away from a straight chronological structure, and the film seems to settle into a rut. THX’s torture and detention are directed like an abstract play distilled from the theatre of the absurd, with lunatics, grand thinkers, babbling fools, and polite robotic security guards.
Once the trio manage their escape – ridiculously simply, really – the film becomes a slow-building chase movie, as THX is the lone convict who runs, drives, and climbs his way to freedom.
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Lucas’ editing is top-notch, playing with pacing and geometrically composed images, movements and linear objects that often poke, jab and inject people like lab rodents.
Myers’ cinematography shows the beauty of late sixties/early seventies Brutalism, and there are some lovely touches during the final chase scene in which THX evades a pair of robotic cops racing through tunnels on their high-roaring jet cycles: the visual emphasis is on movement through and around sharp turns, and up heavy inclines, giving co-writer/sound designer Murch a key sequence to compose signature sounds for every vehicle and dramatic segment of the chase.
Murch, who went through USC with Lucas, invested a striking amount of care into creating a rich soundscape that deliberated avoided the ‘electronic blips and bleeps’ of sci-fi films, but he didn’t emulate Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) by sticking to music for montages, and sterile sounds for space; Murch built every sound (except two – a fist hit, and thunder rumble) from scratch, and created the position of a sound designer.
Warner Home Video’s striking Blu-ray replicates the contents of the 2-disc special edition DVD from 2004, and includes the branching option, “Master Session with Walter Murch,” where he singles out key sound effects, and their construction. On the BR, the feature can be activated to load during playing of the film, or as separate Play All option from the main menu. (An alternate music-and-effects track also highlights the amazing soundtrack mix.)
Murch also describes his use of classical music for a temp track that was screened for composer Lalo Schifrin, but unlike 2001 which had Kubrick stick with his temp music and reject Alex North’s score midway through production, Schifrin was inspired because Murch had warped and processed the stock music cues into an impressionistic collage of sound with blended transitions.
According to Murch, Schifrin remarked that he was currently writing modernist music, and the temp track gave him a clear idea of what extremes were welcomed by the filmmakers. To Murch’s surprise, Schifrin’s music captured the sonic flow of the temp score mix, yet it gave needed humanity to the two lovers through a brief, tender theme that broke through the film’s chilly design.
A making-of doc covers the film’s genesis, and features interviews with stars Duvall and McOmie (who apparently went back to theatre and made a mere handful of films), the film’s cinematographers, and Murch, who adds further detail on the short script idea he had written with USC-mate Matthew Robbins (Dragonslayer) and passed on to Lucas, which was developed into the Electric Labyrinth short. (Their original script is also archived on the BR as a bonus feature.)
Towards the end of the doc, the film and Lucas’ impact gets a bit gushy, but perhaps one has to understand the film’s reception: it flopped, but there’s something rather noble in the way Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, TV’s The Walking Dead) describes seeing THX as the second feature on a double-bill with the genuinely flawed (and incoherent) The Brotherhood of Satan: THX inspired Darabont to make movies, and the film seemed to earn Lucas respect from colleagues admiring his balls in making an abstract social commentary that put content on par with film technique; even if one hates the film for being a naïve, poorly written film that hints but never makes any direct statements using emotionally neutered characters, it’s a great filmmaking exercise in light, movement, and sound.
Also on the BR is “Bald,” a vintage making-of doc which, as the title suggests, deals with the cast losing their hair for the film. It’s hard to tell if it’s all tongue-in-cheek, because McOmie provides a weird narrative track regarding her feelings about losing her lovely red mane, and the barber pulling himself up from a dock to starting cutting and shaving the head of another actor.
Lucas also appears in a ridiculously contrived Q&A with Coppola who posits from a lawn chair, ‘So, how do you plan to recreate the world of the future?’ The only uncomfortable moment: Lucas B.S.’ing about being inspired by “comic books,” not Walter Murch and Matthew Robbins USC script.
Perhaps the best bonus is the documentary A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope, which covers the brilliant talents that graduated from California film schools and their intentions of shaking up the system. While ostensibly about Coppola’s artist-styled commune (American Zoetrope), it captures the mood of the period, and the aims of various artists who went on to create their own commercial empires, those who flirted with Hollywood before quietly retiring, or remained independents in and around San Francisco. (Those wanting a more detailed coda, not to mention more examinations of lesser-known filmmakers, should see 2007’s Fog City Mavericks.)
Lucas slowly evolved into a billionaire who setup his own empire after following THX with American Graffiti (1973) and Star Wars (1977), but his BR commentary track with Murch shows a filmmaker who in 1970 had a personal vision and style.
As veteran critics have lamented, the last time THX was available in its original form was the 1992 laserdisc. It was around 1997 when Lucas began digitally enhancing and redesigning scenes in the first 3 Star Wars films that he felt it was fine to obliterate any older effects with new CGI work. For the 2004 ‘director’s cut’ of THX, a number of scenes were altered, enhanced, or expanded, and the changes do stand out.
The lab and robot assembly footage is tolerable, but the wide views of highways feel like modern riffs on Forbidden Planet’s underground Krel city; and the simian creatures that attack THX before his attempts to climb to the surface look ridiculous. Sadly, WHV doesn’t own the film, so it’s Lucas to blame for mucking with his own piece of history. If he’s willing to include the crude 1967 short, why can’t he be satisfied with the creative decisions he made in 1971?
Like the original Star Wars films, the original theatrical version of THX is unavailable on DVD or BR, and most likely if Lucas were queried, he’d probably reply with a similar ‘the elements just aren’t in good enough shape anymore’ excuse, which is a shame, because a reasonable creative mind would recognize both versions should co-exist.
Much in the way Steven Spielberg created a guns-free edition of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1983), the tweaked and theatrical versions come together on DVD, giving fans a choice; and as awful as Ridley Scott’s expanded Alien (1979) is, the unnecessary re-edit is paired with the superior theatrical cut on BR and DVD.
Lucas probably doesn’t get the irony in which he’s become a manufacturer who teases consumers with bigger, better goods they should buy more than twice, but unlike the Star Wars films, THX isn’t drenched in nostalgia nor an ever-widening mythos re-tailored for younger consumers.
That may have saved it from reshoots, rescoring, and further re-editing, but the changes applied to THX are significant, as documented in this post.
Only qualms with the BR: loading time is slow and twitchy (via a LG player), and one playing the film is engaged, one cannot return to the main menu. The only alternative is to skip chapters and shuttle through three sets of lengthy multi-lingual warnings, or stop the disc and reload.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan