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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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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.