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reviewed by Donald Melanson

October 25 , 2004 | George Lucas' THX 1138 was the first and very nearly the last film produced by Francis Ford Coppola's indie studio American Zoetrope. As the excellent documentary included on the DVD, A Legacy of Filmmakers, explains, Zoetrope bet the company on Lucas' film, and its failure to impress Warner Bros. executives nearly bankrupt Coppola and his company.

It's not hard to see why studio execs would find the film puzzling. It is neither your average science fiction film nor your average independent film. When Warner Bros. agreed to fund the film, they were hoping to get a movie that appealed to the same audience that embraced Easy Rider a few years earlier. Instead they got a heady, avant-garde science fiction movie that appealed more to cineastes than to stoners.

THX 1138 is firmly in the Orwell camp of science fiction, dealing with a future society that oppresses its citizens, literally reducing them to numbers. But as with Orwell, and the best science fiction, it is not really about the future at all, but a mode for examining issues of the present day (in this case the excessive consumerism of the late 1960s).

Despite its modest budget, THX 1138 is one of the most visually striking science fiction movies of its time. Lucas shot most of the movie using real locations around San Francisco, in particular making extensive use of the uncompleted BART tunnel system. This, combined with the minimalist sets, make for an extraordinarily effective vision of the future, and one that looks far less dated than other science fiction movies from the period.

Equal to the visuals is the incredible sound design by Walter Murch which, in a film with as little dialogue as this, takes on a prominence not often seen in movies. The DVD includes a number of special features devoted just to the sound of the film, including a sound effects only track and a number of short clips with Walter Murch explaining how he created some of the sound effects in the movie.

Now there is one big point of contention with this DVD that has divided fans of the film. As he did with the new Star Wars DVDs, Lucas has decided to add a number of new special effects to the film for this release. And, like Star Wars, the original version of the film is nowhere to be found on the disc. While I would much prefer to have both versions of the film on the DVD, the new special effects are not as egregious as some may expect. Most of the changes come in the way of brief shots between scenes that expand on the world of THX (we see a robot factory, a subway system, an underground cityscape, etc.). Surprisingly, there is no mention whatsoever of the changes in either the documentary or the DVD's commentary track.

That oversight notwithstanding, the DVD does come with a slew of special features. Disc one has the commentary track by George Lucas and Walter Murch, the sound effects only track, and the video clips of Murch's sound work. The second disc has two of the best documentaries I've seen recently on a DVD: A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope and Artifact from the Future: The Making of THX 1138, both directed by Gary Leva. Also on the disc is the vintage production featurette Bald, a number of trailers, and George Lucas' original student film Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB. (As far as I can tell, no new special effects were added to it.)

Near the end of the DVD's commentary track, Lucas says that after he's done with the Star Wars movies, he wants to get back to making films like this. Let's hope he's still got it.

Donald Melanson is the founder and editor-in-chief of Mindjack and a freelance writer for hire. He also rants and raves about movies on his film blog.


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