Monday, January 23, 2012

DVD Review | THX 1138 (1971)

Where Were You in ‘71 and ‘72?

by Thomas Delapa

Forty years ago in a movie galaxy far, far away, George Lucas was just a bearded, bespectacled young filmmaker struggling to make it in Planet Hollywood. While today’s audiences may know that American Graffiti was Lucas’ mega-breakthrough on his road to mogul-dom, far fewer recognize that his debut feature was 1971’s THX 1138, a bleakly futuristic sci-fi fantasy that’s as distant from Star Wars as Alien is from E.T.

Lovingly restored by Lucasfilm and Warner Home Video in a two-disc DVD set first released in 2004 (and now out on Blu-ray), THX 1138 Director’s Cut Special Edition comes uploaded with stellar extras, including the director’s original student short that provided the seeds for the feature. For sci-fi fans, the film should be a revelation, not simply for a peek at Lucas’ early creative sensibilities but also for the pivotal part it played in the rise of a brave New Hollywood that would transform—and jumpstart—a stalled American movie industry.

If the meteoric path of Lucas’ career has by now entered into popular myth befitting Joseph Campbell, a review is worthwhile, if only because the Modesto, Calif.-born multi-media tycoon amazingly intended to shoot for a career as an avant-garde filmmaker. After a bumpy 1950s youth racing cars part-time, Lucas shifted gears to attend the burgeoning University of Southern California film school, where he sped into a prodigy during the premiere decade of the so-called “film brat” generation—movie-mad young turks like Steve Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, Brian De Palma, et al. Meanwhile, crosscutting to a parallel universe known as Hollywood, legacy studios like MGM and Warner Bros. were running on fumes in the 1960s, betting on elephantine old-school boondoggles like Dr. Doolittle and Cleopatra while largely dismissing the hip, youthful audiences that had hitched up to such anti-Establishment hits as Easy Rider and The Graduate.

At USC in 1968, Lucas made Electronic Labyrinth THX-1138 4EB, an award-winning experimental short about one man’s desperate escape from a sterile, automated Orwellian underworld. While obviously a cinematic whiz kid, the shy, slight Lucas lacked at least two parts necessary to mesh in Hollywood: fearless brio and bluster. Francis Ford Coppola, a heralded young Italian-American filmmaker at rival UCLA was hard-wired with both.

After an apprenticeship with producer/director Roger Corman at the low-budget American International Pictures (famed training ground for a long list of future luminaries including Scorsese, Bogdanovich, Jack Nicholson, Jonathan Demme and John Sayles) and one audacious self-financed film (1967’s You’re a Big Boy Now), Coppola vaulted the studio moat, landing as a writer/director at Warner Bros. In one of the golden meet-and-greets in movie lore, Lucas wandered onto the set of the musty musical Finian’s Rainbow, where he so forcefully impressed Coppola that the brash young cineaste made Lucas his assistant.

Some of these bright flashbacks can be gleaned from A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope, a 60-minute documentary included in the DVD set (along with Lucas’ THX student film and a smarmy “making of” studio featurette from 1971). As ringleader in a band of rebels battling a fading movie empire, Coppola enlisted Lucas in his grandiose plan to create his own independent studio, splicing together a classic studio model with an “auteur”-centered élan inspired by the great 1960s European directors like Godard, Fellini and Bergman. Coppola dubbed his studio American Zoetrope (after a 19th-century pre-cinematic toy), based it in counterculture capital San Francisco, and managed to attract such raw USC talents as screenwriter John Milius and the gifted sound designer Walter Murch. Zoetrope’s debut, backed by a semi-bamboozled Warner Bros., would be a feature remake of THX.

Forty years later, the digitally upgraded THX 1138.2 is a widescreen eye-opener, especially enhanced by the spirited tag-team commentary of Lucas and Murch. Then-unknown Robert Duvall (one year before Coppola’s The Godfather) stars as the titular THX, just a cog in a stark-white, high-tech totalitarian society where sex is verboten and citizens are controlled by drugs and Big Brother-ish video surveillance. Using such futuristic locations as the nearby Lawrence Livermore lab and the under-construction BART subway tunnels, the 25-year-old Lucas and his guerrilla crew fabricated a striking alternate reality on a shoestring budget, with eclectic bits and pieces cobbled from 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, and Godard’s Alphaville. Looking ahead, Lucas’ far-out vision appears to anticipate such dystopian milestones as Blade Runner, Brazil and The Matrix. (As in his digital tune-up of Star Wars, Lucas has slipped in stealth footage in spots, which may strike purists as a walk on the disingenuous dark side.)

Both Lucas and Murch say that the film was meant as a cautionary quasi-documentary “from the future,” which helps explain its deliberate foreignness as well as its chilly, off-putting absence of conventional plotting and character. Light years away from the warm-and-funny androids in Star Wars, THX’s black, baton-wielding robocops call up allusions to 1960s campus riots—as well as eerie flash-forwards to the incendiary 1991 Rodney King beating.

Betting on another revved-up Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde or maybe even 2001, the Warners studio suits reeled at their first look at the finished film. Far from the ultimate trip, they thought it was the ultimate bummer, demanding cuts and re-edits. Despite good critical reviews during a heady year that included such cutting-edge hits as The Last Picture Show and The French Connection, THX self-destructed in theaters, partially sabotaged by Warners’ lackluster marketing campaign.

Zoetrope’s misfire was not only a personal and professional blow to Lucas, but, worse, it caused Warner Bros. to pull the plug on Coppola’s dream studio (including a project written by Milius tentatively entitled Apocalypse Now). Yet like Star Wars’ rebel alliance, the Zoetropers would regroup to strike back against Hollywood, in both individual and collective sequels. Back at the front after a 1971 Oscar for co-writing Patton, Coppola reluctantly gave in to Paramount producer Robert Evans, who made him an offer he couldn’t easily refuse to direct a controversial novel about the American Mafia—a project that a dozen-odd elite directors had rejected. Much more the money-minded businessman than his mentor, it was Lucas who helped convince Coppola to take the job.

Over the decades in the duo’s leapfrogging rise to the top of a reborn Hollywood, Coppola has repaid his friend the favor several times over, most critically in his fronting of American Graffiti, made possible only because of Coppola’s clout after The Godfather became the biggest, baddest New Hollywood blockbuster until Jaws hit the beach in 1975. A jaunty semi- autobiographical comedy about hot-rodding teens in Northern California one night in 1962, American Graffiti was cool, fast and commercial, whereas THX was cold, grim and a black hole of humor. Riding the first crest of a 1970s nostalgia wave after a decade of tumult, the film would pass up Easy Rider on the list of the most profitable low-budget productions in history. Ever the anti-Hollywood outsider (even today), by 1974 Lucas had zoomed into the fast lane, ready to shoot for the moon—and far beyond—with cast and crew in a souped-up Millennium Falcon.


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