Monday, September 13, 2004

 

Movie Review: THX 1138 Director's Cut.

I went into THX 1138 tonight with few preconceptions.

While I've seen nearly every "great" science fiction film, I hadn't seen THX 1138 in its entirety in close to 20 years. Thus, going into the theater tonight was almost like seeing the film for the first time.

I'm intimately familiar with the iconography of the film, however. Bald heads, faceless automaton enforcers, no sex, religious fundamentalism, and prisons without walls. You know, just like Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

I also remembered some scenes-- Robert Duvall being "accidentally" electronically manipulated during his reconditioning, the sex scene amidst infinite white prison walls, and the tunnel chase finale.

That all said, for the most part, it was all pretty new to me. With that in mind, I found it intriguing, if somewhat stale, especially given how many times its been copied over the years in other films and media. Yes, the themes of dehumanization and loss of control to faceless authority are universal, but novels like A Brave New World and 1984 covered them first, and did a more coherent job than this film.

However, the imagery is still impressive, even after over 30 years. This was not only George Lucas's first time directing, it's also his most visually arresting film. Yes, Star Wars is great-- but after The Empire Strikes Back it's been nothing but a long slow decline for Lucas. You watch THX 1138 and for a moment you think this guy could have been as great a director as his contemporaries Martin Scorcese, Francis Ford Coppola, Terrence Malick, and even Steven Spielberg.

Or, you think: wow, I never knew Lucas took this much acid while at USC. THX 1138 is seriously bent, particularly during a long rambling sequence between Duvall and Donald Pleasance in the prison without walls. Eventually, he just walks out-- people being so conditioned by society that society doesn't even expect them to risk walking out of their jails.

Some of the concepts are rusty, and others simply make no sense. For an omnipresent totalitarian society, it oddly trusts its citizenry to take their daily meds-- obviously, Lucas didn't forsee drug implants, let alone "the patch." If sex is forbidden, why not simply castrate people?If sexual desire is chemically suppressed, what's with Robert Duvall using a "masturbation machine" during the hologram? Why even tempt people into having sex by pairing men and women together as "roommates"? Why bother with women at all, when babies are raised in vats?

One particularly clunky concept is the manufactured religion in the film, especially its message encouraging "consumption." Yes, George, even in 1971 we knew mass consumerism was evil. However, in the THX 1138 universe, what, exactly, is there to consume? More identical white smocks from GAP 1138? White latex paint? In THX 1138, it's apparently never after Labor Day.
Given its logical limitations, the film is still often fascinating to watch. And while Duvall's character is mostly a cipher, it's nice to be reminded that Donald Pleasance not only was once an actor, but a damn weird one at that.

I also got a laugh out of the holographic entertainment of the age. One program Duvall enjoys consists solely of endless footage of a police robot senselessly beating its prone victim. This is, in fact, the most realistic part of the movie, as I can practically guarantee you that an identical program will sooner or later run on the FOX network.


L.A. '92! L.A. '92!

As you probably know, this limited theatrical run corresponds with the DVD release, and also involves a number of "special" scenes inserted into the film. As it's been so long since I've seen the original cut, I couldn't tell you which scenes are original, and which were deleted scenes re-incorporated into the film. However, a number of new effects shots are included in the movie, ala the Star Wars Special Editions.

Unlike with the Star Wars reedits, the new material is never really that jarring. Again, perhaps it's due to my lack of familiarity with the original edit of THX 1138, but if you change a single scene in a Star Wars movie, people take notice. With THX 1138, a few sequences-- the robot factory where Duvall works, the holograms shown in his apartment-- are actually visually improved by the new effects. Other sequences, like new "bustling city life" shots of the underground city, as well as a new "highway" stretch of the finale car chase, add nothing, and in the case of the fairly cartoony addition to the car chase, actually look quite out of place.

To conclude, THX 1138 is still obviously an influential movie. But as entertainment, it feels a bit musty, and is never quite as "deep" as it appears on its surface. I will highlight that the print looks absolutely stunning, and the sound edit is lush and vibrant. Actually, given how great this restoration looks-- practically brand new-- I think that one day Industrial Light & Magic may end being even more well known for its digital restoration abilities than its skill in special effects. The movie looks and sounds THAT good, even better than most first-run movies; quite an achievement for a 30-year old movie.

So-- if you're a fan, pick up the DVD. If you've never seen THX 1138, rent it; or if you're lucky enough to have it playing near you, throw a few dollars its way. It's worth checking out.
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UPDATE: Angus correctly points out that Irvin Kershner directed The Empire Strikes Back. Yes, of course I know that, but I chose my words poorly-- my complaint about the decline of Lucas is that Empire represents the top of the bell curve for movies he was involved in, and not only directed.

In fact, to be precise, I should have used 1981's Raiders of the Lost Ark as a better example, as Raiders and Empire are both equally "great." From that point on, however, I'd still argue the obvious, that Lucas has been in decline, with only occasionaly fits of brilliance since then (the two Indiana Jones sequels he wrote are very good movies, and for all their flaws, the Star Wars prequels still work their magic at times).


Comments:
Dave,

You know good and well that Lucas did not direct "The Empire Strikes Back" but it was the exquisitely sublime Irvin Kershner and his directorial genius is what made Empire the best of the Star Wars series to this day!

Angus
 
Watched the DVD of THX 1138 tonight, and unlike Dave, I had seen it recently enough on Bravo! to recognize where Lucas went all crazy Star Wars on it...

For the most part, Lucas reserved himself to adding Sci-Fi touches to the facotry seen, where I do not believe that originally there were manufacturing robots, but running a nuclear power plant... as well as adding vast cityscapes a la the new Bespin scenes. But the changes are enough to damage the sterile lonliness motiff that George was supposedly going for.

The cityscape additions lessen the visual imagery for me because they take away from the stark 'operating room' feel that the rest of the movie has. Also, the additions made to the car chase at the end, specifically where Duvall is swerving in and out of traffic, take away the images of intense lonliness that you are supposed to feel as Duvall is fleeing down stark white tunnels under the earth.

Finally, the monkey creatures at the end. In the original they were midgets, a la the one in the 'prison' Why add monkeys? Is the a Planet of the Apes remake? Also the 'scorpion thing' that scares Donald Pleasance back to the city. Duh George, it was supposed to be fear of true aloneness and strangeness that scares Pleasance back to society, not a F/X rubber looking scorpion...

To paraphrase the immortal words of David Sedaris...

"A rubber looking alien scorpion... that's just f@#$%d up"
 
Garfield Ridge,
For a truely strange Donald Pleasance performance watch Roman Polanski's "Cul-de-Sac."
 
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