THX 1138 Blu-ray Review
Warner's Blu-ray transfer for THX 1138 comes encoded via VC-1, the stark 2.40:1 image far more detailed than any previous home video version that I've seen, by far. The print hails from the Lucas-overseen restoration from 2004 which includes the alternate and added footage for the Director’s Cut. By and large, the new scenes and shots are seamlessly and smoothly integrated. Damage, or wear and tear is none existent, and the film looks clean and crisp throughout. Grain is retained, although there is a degree of inconsistency, as some shots, usually those in the blazing white of the limbo-locked prison, can appear to fizz up with the stuff in areas of the screen. There has been talk of some soft-pedalled Warner DNR, but if there is, it is minimal and looks perfectly respectful to the original image, as far as I’m concerned. Indeed, the transfer will almost certainly have been quality-checked by Lucas, himself, so I doubt we have much grounds to grumble.
So, although this is the sharpest and most detailed that I have seen THX look, the image is still quite soft. But it would be erroneous to assume that finite detail doesn’t emerge. The close-ups of human faces reveal lots of information and the skull-shaved spikes of hair are perfectly delineated. The intricate wiring inside the vast circuits and inside the metal heads of the chrome-coppers is also finely etched. The texture on the cops’ masks is well-rendered too. Surface textures are necessarily hit and miss. A lot of the sets and locations are white, smooth and clinically sterile, yet they are, at least, convincingly sterile without just being blank patches of frame. Other surfaces – the robes of the wacky monks, the tunnel walls, the monitor-housings, the stolen police car and the metal of the big long ladder at the end – by contrast, reveal genuine substance and texture. The CG-created Shell-Dwellers look good to me … well you can easily spot the fact that they are visual effects, but the shading and texture of these hairy brutes does well to blend in with the shadows.
The transfer handles a picture whose palette is distinctly monochromatic for much of the time pretty well. In fact, it is doubtful that THX has ever looked quite this bold and striking. Skin-tones are very realistic – the freckles on McOmie’s face especially – and eyes have a natural lustre. The most colourful elements are neon lights and readouts, the crazy cubes that everyone keeps buying, and the droids being assembled in the factory with their crucial nuclear isotopes. The burnished gleam of the factory and the yellows, greys and greenish hues of some of the machinery and the molten yellow/orange of the little nuclear element suddenly bring the film to life. The colour scheme during these scenes is, to me at least, very European. There is something similar to The City Of Lost Children about this selection of subdued bronze and copper. Anyway, I like the way it looks and think that it certainly provides an otherwise very sterile film with an injection of cool vigour.
Contrast is excellent – and, man, it would need to be with this stylised look. Blacks are deep and shadows well defined. The black-garbed coppers look splendid against the white walls and floors and the darker tones of the tunnel and the concrete levels at the top of the city have a more naturalistic tone. The bright whites that dominate the middle section of the film could have been problematic, or at least more problematic than they already appear. I can’t tell if it is just the photography with this dazzle-blitz white-out effect, or whether the encode allows blooming and noise to take place within it, but there are definitely some fuzz-balls floating about. However, this is such an over-the-top image that I would have expected something to sit awkwardly amongst it. Object and character delineation within the white limbo is excellent, I should add.
Some minor artefacting appears, though this is nothing to be concerned about, and I would say that there are elements of edge enhancement as well, especially prevalent around Donald Pleasance’s face. But, regardless of any minor issues, this is a great looking hi-def image of THX 1138.
Considering that THX 1138 was something of a groundbreaker in terms of sound design, and that most George Lucas productions boast fantastic audio capability, you can’t help feeling sort of disappointed with how this DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix comes over. But this is only because the soundfield, as elaborate and as inventive as it is, is primarily spread over a spacious frontal array and doesn’t really offer much dynamism or note-worthy surround activity. The lossless mix certainly doesn’t make any mistakes in delivering the babble of crowds, the whirring of machines, the thumping impacts of a holographic beating, the roar of a car’s engines and the high-speed hum of the chrome-cops on their motorbikes, and the generally abstract and hypnotic clatter and clamour of THX’s bizarre subterranean environment.
Whilst the rear speakers do carry some effects, they are restrained and, it must be said, realistically so. THX isn’t a film that needs overt bombast and shrieking steerage. We have an explosion at the factory near the start that sees various workers barbequed as bulkhead doors are blown open, but this is seen over video monitors so there is no requirement for any boom-boom-shake-the-room kinetics. The little sizzle of the electro-prods tormenting THX in the white limbo are just that … little sizzles. The big crash of the speeding bike-cop is also muffled because of the distance that it is viewed from and from the subduing funnel of the concrete subway in which it occurs. Bass is brought into play, but this is also understandably limited in depth and vigour. So although we have some action in the film, it is Walter Murch’s impressive sound creation that is best delivered … and his chilling, wacky and unnervingly mechanistic symphony is presented with scintillating clarity.
The film is also concerned with dialogue. Although there isn’t much in the way of arguments or raised voices, the speech is still very important. Even the mumbling of the inmates in the limbo is clean and clear and naturally positioned within the soundfield. The sudden transition from hushed whispers and stealth as our escapees open a door on to a street teeming with pedestrians is a nicely rendered effect of disorienting power, and there are some intuitive uses of echoes. The minimalist score from Lalo Schifrin is deliberately lacking in warmth until some final moments, but the soundtrack, despite its craziness, is still full of detail and clarity, and always interesting.
THX 1138 doesn’t exactly pack an audio punch, but it’s lossless mix is certainly faithful to the style and creativity of Lucas’ visuals and Murch’s sound design. Expect eerie clarity and unsettling presence, then, but don’t go expecting immersive, wraparound bombast.
Basically, Warner port over the extras that were found on the previous DVD edition, but this means that we get a great commentary track from Lucas and sound designer Walter Murch and a very good retro making-of, as well as the original short film THX1138-4EB that Lucas made that the film is an expansion of.
The commentary has the two participants recorded separately, but expertly edited to a smooth and flowing discussion about the film, the concept, the era, the cast and photography, and the overall style. Pretty scene-specific, this is brilliant stuff. There’s no rambling, no stammering, no dead spells. Considering just how juvenile the Star Wars movies can be, it is refreshing to hear Lucas in full intellectual mode. This is fact-packed and fascinating … but there is no mention of the alterations made with the Director’s Cut, which is frustrating considering that a great many changes have been made. I suppose most of the differences speak for themselves – merely adding to the look of the futuristic city – but some sort of acknowledgement would have been appreciated.
The half-hour making-of, entitled Artefact From The Future, packs in a lot of information and comes across as wide-ranging, intelligent and quite frank. Very solid. We have participation from almost everybody except for Donald Pleasance. Coppola makes some pertinent comments, as do other American Zoetrope filmmakers, such as the duo of directors from the couplet of Black Stallion movies. We hear from Spielberg – as he does that overly-familiar beard-nagging two-hands-in-prayer shtick from a thousand other to-camera interviews – from Murch, and from both Duvall and McOmie as they discuss getting their heads shaved and the nude scenes, and even from Don Pedro Colley, who talks about his role as the hologram come to life. This is an excellent, well-presented and marvellously comprehensive feature that will certainly please fans and film-aficionados alike.
Master Sessions with Walter Murch lasts for 30 minutes (with the Play All option) and revolves around how Murch created and employed his unusual sound design for the film. But this series of thirteen scene-specific featurettes can also be viewed whilst watching the movie via a red icon that appears when you select the Master Session Experience variation of the feature. This is certainly one of those features that fans will lap up … Murch's imagination and aural aesthetic is highly unique and often inspired.
A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope runs for 64 minutes and provides a fascinating and very entertaining look at how George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola came together, forged a studio and created a joint vision for their ventures. Narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, this is a probing and wide-ranging chronicle of the early triumphs and tribulations that the studio encountered and boasts interviews with Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese, as well as the prime duo and a whole host of other Hollywood movers and shakers.
Bald is an 8-minute vintage featurette that shows the bearded one overseeing his cast getting their heads shaved for the film.
Under the banner of Theatre of Noise Experience, the disc allows us to hear an isolated music and effects track.
And, as well as some theatrical and director’s cut trailers for the film, we get the original 2-page treatment of Matthew Robbins' concept for the initial student film as a “hidden bonus”.
THX1138 is all the things that important SF should be. It is experimental, though-provoking, boundary-pushing and demanding. It asks questions and endeavours to provide a few answers, although wisely keeps much in a darker realm of possibility that is only hinted at. The film was made at a time when the genre was at its busiest in terms of imagination, ideas and concepts, and it also clued-in to the anti-authoritarian sensibility that was so prevalent in those days. Lucas’ voice felt fresh and intelligent and, as a filmmaker, he offered scope, bravery and a visual flair that would only go on to become truly extraordinary. To be honest, no-one could have foretold where he would go next, but the seeds for Empire-building were sown right here.
Warner deliver THX 1138 to Blu-ray with a finely detailed transfer and a fairly engrossing lossless reproduction of Walter Murch's revolutionary sound design. Whilst much of the extra material will be familiar to fans, this is still a splendid package that does justice to an audacious, compelling and massively ambitious breakthrough film from a raw and emerging talent.
It should be noted that there have been reports of this region-free US disc being problematic on some players and not loading properly. I played this on a PS3 and encountered no problems whatsoever, but this is something that buyers may need to look into before ordering.
THX 1138, as cold and as bleak as strange as it is, comes very highly recommended.
Suggested retail price when reviewed: £15.49
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