THX 1138
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How did you feel about George Lucas tinkering with his Star Wars movies for their release on DVD? While much of the press attention focused on this trio of movies, another less heralded Lucas movie was released on DVD by Warner Home Video—THX 1138. And this DVD release arguably showcases even more tinkering than its better known brothers, including numerous editing changes and several new special effects. As a result, many fans of Lucas's early career howled in protest, complaining that (at the very least) the original theatrical version should have been included on the DVD as an extra.

I'm sympathetic to their arguments. I wish Lucas would refrain from revising his past movies and just let them stand in their original form. I deplore his decision to alter the Han-Solo-and-Greedo scene from Star Wars where Han shoots Greedo under the table. In the revision, Lucas makes Greedo initiate the laser blasts by shooting first. But part of the fun in watching Han Solo was he wasn't a conventional hero. He was deceitful and selfish. So Lucas's revision helps make Han into a more standard action movie hero who parents won't think twice about seeing their children emulate (and thus ensure greater toy sales for Lucas and his corporation).

Having said this, though, I'm not totally against many of the upgraded CGI backdrops created for THX 1138. They increase the breadth of the movie's world and make it more convincing. In the past, when I'd watch THX 1138, I felt like the filmmakers had placed blinders on me. The viewer's perspective was severely limited. The CGI inserts for the new "director's cut" make the movie's world feel more complete without undoing the movie's palpable sense of claustrophobia. So while in general I wish Lucas would refrain from tinkering with his past films for video release, I have to admit that the CGI backdrops help make THX 1138 into a better movie.

Not all of Lucas's revisions, however, make good sense. For example, after THX (played by Robert Duvall) is arrested and imprisoned in a totally white, void-like environment with no apparent walls, a new prisoner is added—a dwarf that the other prisoners call a "shell dweller" (played by diminutive actor Mark Lawhead). So far so good. No tinkering here. However, in the movie's concluding scenes, when THX ventures beyond the city limits, he encounters a small group of shell dwellers: one is a dwarf and the rest are CGI created creatures that climb like monkeys and descend from the ceiling. Huh? The shell dwellers are both dwarf humans and monkey-like beasts? This doesn't make a bit of sense, so it detracts from the movie's considerable momentum as it nears the conclusion.

If you're not familiar with THX 1138, the movie takes place in a futuristic world ruled with ruthless efficiency and economy. The populace is medicated into a state of torpor. Love is irrelevant. Sex is outlawed. Every moment of an inhabitant's day is monitored with omnipresent video cameras. The police force (they move like humans but they're robots) talk like descendants of HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey: "Open up the door," they plead in a monotone to the fugitive THX. "We want to help you."

THX 1138 is a worker at the factory that produces the police robots. It's a high-pressure job that involves using mechanical hands to place fissionable material into a metal skeleton frame. Occasionally accidents occur—and workers die en masse. However, the computer system urges them on: "That accident over in Red Sector L destroyed another 63 personnel, giving them a total of 242 lost to our 195. Keep up the good work and prevent accidents."

THX's roommate, LUH 3417, has stopped taking her medication. She has also switched THX's medication with a placebo. Subsequently, THX and LUH start experiencing typical human emotions: they have real conversations about their future, they fall in love, and they have sex. So soon afterwards, they're arrested.

Some of the movie's most impressive scenes take place while THX is in prison. It's not a normal prison, though. It's like a stage setting for a minimalist production of Waiting for Godot. The prisoners sit in a white void that seems disconnected with everything else in the universe. However, for determined prisoners, escape isn't out of the question. In fact it's relatively easy. So accompanied by two fellow prisoners (Donald Pleasence and Don Pedro Colley), THX finds the way out and goes on the lam, leading to an extended car chase sequence through several miles of tunnels. (New inserted camera shots of vehicles zipping through traffic help jack up the suspense level of this sequence.)

THX 1138 was filmed for American Zoetrope, an amazing consortium of talented, young, West Coast filmmakers, led by Francis Ford Coppola who had secured a distribution deal with Warner Bros. for several films. THX 1138 would be the first film delivered to Warner Bros. by American Zoetrope. Warner Bros. executives were not impressed with the final product. They didn't know how to sell it, so they didn't provide much of a marketing push and allowed the movie to die a quick death in theaters. Subsequently, they told Coppola the deal was off for the remaining American Zoetrope movies. The studio would ultimately survive this setback but in a different form after the initial nucleus of filmmakers had scattered.

Back in 1970, when Lucas was looking for locations to film his movie—which is based on a student film he made at USC—he discovered the BART subway system in San Francisco was nearing completion, which meant large computer rooms and miles of tunnels were at this disposal, all in a relatively pristine, unused state. So even while the movie was filmed on a relatively small budget, the sets are frequently quite impressive in size and scope. Nonetheless, Lucas found it too tempting to resist augmenting the movie with additional digital special effects for this DVD release. On the DVD's audio commentary track Lucas says he would like to eventually return to small films about ideas, like THX 1138, instead of big studio blockbusters. I wish he'd go ahead and head that route instead of continuing to spend time revising his previous films. This is undoubtedly one reason he has directed so very few movies.

This DVD release from Warner Home Video comes with two discs. Disc one contains "The George Lucas Director's Cut"—with audio commentary by Lucas and co-writer/sound designer Walter Murch. Additional video segments (signified by an optional on-screen key) provide discussions by Murch regarding the movie's music and sound effects. Disc two contains Lucas's original student film, Electronic Labyrinth THX 1139 4EB; two new documentaries (one on the making of THX and the second on the early years of American Zoetrope); a featurette titled Bald devoted to the lead actors having their heads shaven for their roles; and several theatrical trailers. The most interesting extra is the American Zoetrope documentary, which is a fascinating document of an intriguing time in the history of American film, when the old studio system had dissolved and American Zoetrope seemed to point the way toward a new era of artistic freedom and new ways of making movies.

THX 1138 is now available on DVD from Warner Home Video. The video transfer has been digitally restored and remastered. The soundtrack has been remastered in Dolby Digital 5.1. This two-disc set contains several extras: an audio commentary with George Lucas and co-writer/sound designer Walter Murch; an isolated music and sound effects track; branching video segments in which Murch talks about the music and sound effects; two new documentaries, A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope and Artifact from the Future: The Making of THX 1138; Lucas's original student film that inspired this movie, Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB; a production featurette, Bald; and original and re-release trailers. Suggested retail price: $26.99. For more information, check out the Warner Home Video Web site.