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Shelf Life: George Lucas’ “THX 1138”

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Just six short years after shepherding the last installment of the “Star Wars” series into theaters, “Revenge of the Sith,” George Lucas returned to the big screen last week with the release of “Red Tails.” Lucas didn’t direct the film himself – that honor went to Anthony Hemingway – but its story was one that Lucas was interested in for years, and which he financed himself with the knowledge that it was unlikely to make all of its money back.

Of course, decades of “Star Wars” discussions, not to mention the various changes he’s made to the films, and his seeming obliviousness (or ambivalence) about his fans’ feelings about those changes, have cast Lucas in a decidedly unflattering light: we understand that the films are his to change, they say, but why antagonize us by denying us versions that we love as they are? Regardless, it’s because of all of this that people forget that he was for a time a pretty impressive, unique filmmaker; he wasn’t close friends with folks like Francis Ford Coppola and Carroll Ballard for nothing. As such, we decided to take a look back at his earliest filmmaking effort, “THX 1138,” and see if it still speaks to his abilities a director as well as it seemed to at the time of its release.


The Facts

Released on March 11, 1971, “THX 1138” was George Lucas very first feature film, an expansion of a short that he made while in film school at USC. Unlike his later triumphs with the “Star Wars” films, Lucas met with commercial failure when it was released, and even when it was rereleased after Lucas’ name became a draw, it remained commercially unsuccessful, earning only $2.4 million total from its various theatrical runs.

Meanwhile, the film enjoyed a healthy level of success among critics, who responded to its dystopian story. The film hovers at 89 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 57 reviews.

What Still Works

Unfortunately, neither of the two original theatrical cuts were ever released on DVD, so the only version of the film available to watch is the Director’s Cut, released in 2004. Nevertheless, Lucas’ film retains all of its ominous power today, offering a portrait of an anesthetized, totalitarian society whose edges begin to fray after one of its citizens diverges from a steady diet of mind- and sense-numbing medications. Especially today, the film seems obviously inspired by Stanley Kubrick, in particular “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “A Clockwork Orange” in terms of its set design, camera angles, and underlying concepts. But Lucas somehow manages to work all of those ideas into a story that’s fully his own, and creates something emotionally evocative and thematically resonant even as he turns a generally unhurried story into a thriller via his Director’s Cut updates.

Amazingly, “THX” may be the only film of his whose changes either don’t affect the viewing experience, or improve it. His use of CGI to flesh out the city in which THX and his fellow citizens live gives the film a broader scope, but it also enhances the victory he achieves when he escapes its underground confinement. As suggested above, meanwhile, the action is intensified, amplifying some of the shots where cars have to be navigating space in traffic or in the society at large, but the truth is that Lucas did such a great job creating this elliptical chase between THX and pursuing authorities on motorcycles that the enhancement is at once welcome and superfluous.

Notwithstanding some digital trickery in which THX’s eyes roll up into his head, the performances of the actors is unilaterally terrific: As the title character, Robert Duvall embodies a certain kind of confused consternation, even when he’s finding unexpected pleasure, and throughout the film he lends the character’s saga a momentum whose significance – or even purpose – seems to escape even him, although he must play it out anyway. As LUH, THX’s “roommate,” Maggie McOmie is also great, albeit understated, and disappointingly absent from the final act of the film, precisely because we’ve grown to care about her. And as SEN, Donald Pleasance gives the film a sniveling sort of bureaucracy, a social and even technological hierarchy where he controls one small quadrant of THX’s life, but it’s enough to ruin it.

What Doesn’t Work

In retrospect, the idea of striking back (or at least positioning oneself) against the existing political or social mores of the day feels like a fairly conventional idea for the culture at large in 1971, and even then wasn’t especially original as an artistic choice (George Orwell’s “1984” was released 22 years earlier). If you’re especially dismayed by Lucas’ employment of Kubrickian ideas and visuals, that’s probably an issue as well, although his utilization of them doesn’t impugn the impact of the films from which he borrowed, and his photography as a whole is quite beautiful.

Despite the general consistency in quality of the Director’s Cut, it’s been so long since any real version of the original cut (or cuts) was available that it would be interesting to see what Lucas changed or enhanced, and what he left the same. There are two specific instances in which the CGI just doesn’t hold up, and calls too much attention to itself – during the rolling-eye scene mentioned above, and when THX is encountering the fringe dwellers at the entrance to the tower he climbs up through in order to reach the surface. Again, however, the changes in the film are mostly aesthetic, and in fact quite understandable – Lucas had little money to create the sorts of vistas he was able to utilize to great effect in the Director’s Cut, and those decisions are oddly justified by the scale of the storytelling.

The Verdict

“THX 1138” is a surprisingly great movie, even for today, and in many ways eerily prescient: Lucas foresaw the advent of a society that is constantly medicated and its senses numbed. His depiction of television and other technology is also really fascinating and accurate as well. But the bottom line is, does the film tell a solid, engaging story, and it absolutely does, then and now. So even if you’re no longer a fan of Lucas’, or think his work and re-work and re-work on the “Star Wars” films renders him unredeemable, “THX 1138” still manages to be a great film, even if you have to squint a little bit and forget who made it – or perhaps more accurately, what he made after it.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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