THX 1138 is definitely a change of pace. In an era of film where everyone and everything is laid out in front of an audience, George Lucas’ first feature hides its explanation. It’s buried underneath the electronic babble hovering over the majority of the film, computers talking to people in their electronic voices, pushing sedation drugs, safety, and a general lack of feeling.
Most film futures are decrepit, hidden by shadows or lighting that has long since faded. THX is bright, clear, and sanitary. It’s awfully controlled, certainly great for for the budget, if not much for looks.
The film tends to sit around, expecting the audience to appreciate that it’s almost nothing but white rooms. The lack of striking imagery wears thin; things look the same and redundant. Whatever effect it has on the story and the lives of these people is limited once this is established.
The ideas are what save the film, the concept of not being able to love, express emotion, or in the scheme of things, act human. The indoor world THX (Robert Duvall) calls home is policed by robots, created by the very people who are forced to obey them. It’s a movie of profits, the government computers assigning a value to any escapees and whether or not they can remain profitable.
One of the themes is to buy, although what exactly in this world is for sale is a mystery. Everyone is so heavily restrained, the sense of commercialism is lost. Rooms contain a bed, basic facilities, and some drugs. A hint of a more open world is revealed by the end, a rather dull car chase still keeping a rather monotone style intact, yet not making it clear why some people are so restricted in their ways, while others have some freedom.
That car chase marks one of the many updated inclusions to the film, CG sequences crafted back in 2004 that sorely stand out. It’s comical now to hear Lucas speak within a vintage featurette on the disc how he wanted everything to be real to get a better sense of the future. The glossy images used to extend the film into backgrounds or add machinery don’t fit, glistening brightly or becoming too unbelievable for their own good. The original version is not included, although the new visual effects do add something to look at.
Warner issues the film with a VC-1 encode, one that seems peppered with some DNR, certain scenes showcasing some hard to miss smearing. The film’s nearly monochromatic look already gives the flesh tones a pale, flat hue. Any additional processing sort of adds to that.
At times, the light grain structure seems natural, well resolved and left alone. Sporadically, that’s not the case. Inside the prison, at 47:04 specifically, a shot that was long out of focus to begin with has been softened further, the level of mosquito noise about the character’s heads is awful. Compression can also be visible along the bottom of the frame just before the negative area. This can be more pronounced in certain shots than others.
It’s not the softness that proves bothersome. In many ways that seems natural, a low-budget film given a generic film stock to work with will also end up in this manner. Where it becomes unnatural is the obvious smoothing applied, wiping any sense of texture from the frame, while not even trying to disguise the manipulation. Duvall at 43:34 is so terribly waxy as to be an example of what can go wrong when noise reduction fails on every level.
It’s a shame too since this flat, rather uninteresting world does prove it has some life. Close-ups are almost instantly impressive, a worker at 5:21 the first of note. Some of the extreme Duvall close-ups look superb as well such as 23:45. The CG effects also carry a level of sharpness not found in the rest of the feature, further causing them to stand out, although for the sake of this review, are generally a highlight in some way.
Warner’s DTS-HD track is, like the video, limited by the source, although the level of tinkering here is basically nill. Dialogue carries a significant, hollow sound, some phones able to deliver better voices through their tinny speakers. Add in the digital manipulation of the various electronics tweaking the voices for that futuristic effect and it becomes even more difficult to discern in spots.
Many of the iconic sound effects, nearly all of which would become instantly familiar as a certain other franchise that was started by Lucas, are quite fine. Digital sounds are clean, and the car chase at the end preserves the sort-of-but-not-really future car engines rumble well. A car smashing into a pole is loud and forceful, thankfully not lacking in fidelity while producing a crisp high-end.
Not much happens in the surrounds, leaving them alone for most of the film, with just an occasional “whoosh” effect to appease those who require something. The subwoofer is much the same, save for the sequence in the causeway, the steps of the people producing a nice, clean, natural rumble to aid in the effect.
A commentary includes George Lucas and sound designer Walter Murch dissecting their work, followed by the 15-minute student film that prompted the feature version. Bald is a short vintage featurette that promotes the film, while A Legacy of Filmmakers is an hour-plus documentary on George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola’s failed studio and how it changed Hollywood.
A 30-minute making-of THX 1138 is excellent. A pop-up track details the sound effects during the film, and there is an isolated effects audio track as well. Trailers remain.