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DVD Pick: "THX 1138"

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Before the "Star Wars" films and "American Graffiti" made George Lucas famous, he co-wrote and directed an excellent movie titled "THX 1138" (1971) starring Robert Duvall. Now a restored director's cut of that debut film is being released as a superb two-disc DVD set loaded with worthwhile bonus materials.

Although it had been years since I had seen "THX 1138," I remembered it as being absorbing, but quite different from "Star Wars." Watching it on DVD, I found I still felt the same way about it, and this time around I was struck by what an accomplished piece of filmmaking it is, even though Lucas was only about 25 when he made it.

"THX 1138" is set in a dystopia and is more or less in the spirit of "Brave New World" and "1984." The story takes place in what is apparently an underground city where people are made docile by medication and kept under constant surveillance. The workers, who are shaved bald and wear white uniforms, have alphanumeric designations instead of names—for example, the protagonist is a man known as THX 1138 (Robert Duvall).

Circumstances arise where THX 1138 ends up off his medication, making love with a woman. This earns him felony convictions for drug evasion and sexual perversion. The rest of the movie follows THX’s experiences with the correctional system, his quest to reunite with his lover, and finally his attempt to escape to the outer world. But I don’t believe it's the narrative or the characters that make “THX 1138” memorable—it's the world the movie creates through a stunning combination of visuals, sound effects, and words.

Lucas co-wrote "THX 1138" with Walter Murch, who also served as sound designer, and the two of them team up on the DVD audio commentary track, which is one of the best I've heard. I find it fascinating that Lucas and Murch didn't particularly think of their movie as being set in the future—as far as they were concerned, it was a metaphor for society circa 1969, which they perceived as repressive. It may help to understand their mindset to remember that they were creative young guys making a movie in hip and happening San Francisco during the Vietnam War. Still, I think the notion that it’s important for people to resist societal repression is just as relevant today as it was when the film was made.

Disc 2 of the "THX 1138" DVD set includes one of the best documentaries I've seen, namely the 63-minute "A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope." This is about how Francis Ford Coppola established American Zoetrope operating out of a warehouse at 827 Folsom Street in San Francisco and assembled a remarkable collection of young talent. "THX 1138" was the first movie his company produced, but it bombed at the box office, most of the company's talent drifted away, and several years passed before American Zoetrope produced another feature film.

Disc 2 also contains the 30-minute "Artifact From the Future: The Making of THX 1138," which I would rate as a well-above-average making-of documentary. Lucas mentions that Coppola set the film's budget at $777,000.77, which doesn’t seem to me to have been all that paltry for 1969. Lucas also states the movie is about "being trapped in a cage with the door unlocked, but being unwilling or afraid to open the door and go out."

Another bonus material on Disc 2 is "THX 1138 4EB," the 15-minute film Lucas made as a student at the University of Southern California that was a sort of prototype version of "THX 1138." The student film demonstrates that Lucas already had a flair for the visual, but I found it abstract and almost totally devoid of any sense of drama. The shoestring budget is painfully obvious—for example, Lucas spends quite a bit of time showing his protagonist running around in what looks to me like a USC parking structure.

The DVD version of "THX 1138" reviewed here is a two-disc set that has the words "The George Lucas Director's Cut" on the box, which features a picture of a side view of a bald human head wearing an ear tag. There's also a single-disc DVD version of the movie being sold cheaper, but missing most of the extras. With either DVD version you'll get a first-rate movie and an excellent commentary track, but I highly recommend spending a few dollars more for the terrific bonus materials included in the two-disc version. On the next page I've listed all the special features of the "THX 1138" two-disc DVD set.

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