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THX 1138: The George Lucas Director's Cut

George Lucas' stunning first feature, THX 1138 (1971) is a deeply allegorical science fiction film about a guy (Robert Duvall) trying to escape a mind-numbing underground dystopia. It's dark, challenging, absurd, abstract, and darkly funny. But it's not the best film to lead with when you're trying to sell a major Hollywood studio on funding your stable of hot young filmmakers. That's exactly what Francis Ford Coppola tried to do circa 1970, forming American Zoetrope to win studio funding for films such as THX, Apocalypse Now, and The Conversation. But THX's muted box-office thud pulled the rug out from under the manic Coppola, launching Zoetrope's legendary roller-coaster of hubris, brilliance, and debt. And so we find THX 1138 lost in the morass of its own troubled history and the subsequent successes and failures of its director and producer. The film tells an almost primally simple story about a guy making an escape attempt, three times and in three different ways. THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) and his platonic female housemate LUH (Maggie McOmie) live in a massive underground city packed with observation cameras. Into this little love nest blunders SEN (Donald Pleasence), a hacker of sorts who decides he wants THX as his roommate — so he arranges to have LUH transferred out of the apartment. THX reports SEN to the authorities just before causing an industrial accident. Soon, both he and SEN are sharing a prison cell — with several other "free thinkers," catatonics, and congenital idiots. A highly allegorical middle section finds THX sitting among a gaggle of philosopher-idiots who blather endlessly about "choosing a leader" and escaping (none of them, of course, actually do a damned thing). Finally, THX just starts walking — trailed by a reluctant SEN and joined by a giant man-boy (Don Pedro Colley) who thinks he's a hologram, leading to pursuits through electronic labyrinths and a final car chase. Despite some critical opinions, it's difficult to dismiss THX 1138, taking into account its low emotional temperature; it's just too much of a cinema bomb to shrug off. The white-on-white cinematography is weird and careful and perfect, and its dry, dark humor avoids obvious punchlines. The sound design by Walter Murch does a wonderful pas de deux with the visuals, and along with Lalo Schifrin's score, contributes to an innovative soundbed. And finally, THX 1138 is just interesting as a sort of ur-text of Lucas' future themes, obsessions, and filmmaking techniques. The director would essentially tell the story of a man leaving home two more times, in American Graffiti and Star Wars — and one can certainly hear echoes of Murch's aural influence during the Death Star raid radio chatter in A New Hope. Warner's DVD release of THX 1138 features a CGI-enhanced "Directors' Cut" with restored video in a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) and Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Supplements include a commentary track with George Lucas and co-writer/sound designer Walter Murch, a music- and sound-effects-only track, 13 "Master Sessions with Walter Murch" featurettes as branching video, the documentary "A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope" (63 min.) , the documentary "Artifact from the Future: The Making of THX 1138" (31 min.), the original short film "Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB"(15 min.), the very odd promo featurette "BALD" (8 min.), and a collection of trailers. Dual-DVD digipak.
—Alexandra DuPont

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