There are both rational and irrational reasons for hating the prequel trilogy. With the rise of Red Letter Media, that internet phenomenon that has made a name shit-talking the Star Trek: Next Generations films, and The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, there is a more present sense of disappointment with the Lucas empire- but it’s something that has been haunting Lucas about a couple days after people started seeing TPM and word set in. But as not great as the prequels were, there’s other reasons to be bummed about those films besides just fan service. Until he made the prequel trilogy, George Lucas had a stunning cinematic record as a director. His first film THX 1138 is a classic, and deserves to be appreciated. Another reason to be disappointed is that he led the way for films like Lost in Space, the 1998 warm-up for the prequel trilogy. Lucas whetted a lot of appetites, but the man also showed a talent for the game. My review of both THX 1138 and Lost in Space on Blu-ray follow the jump.
THX 1138 was a watershed moment, even if upon release it was a disaster. It was an extension of Lucas’s film school work, and to that it’s one of (like Eraserhead) the great “first feature as student movie” legacy that paved the way for the first films of David Lynch, and to a certain extent Spike Lee and Richard Kelly. At the time of release it was the fiasco that helped sink Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope production company for the first (though not the last) time. It’s also the film a lot of hard core film sci-fi fans went back to when Lucas went all silent on the directing front for two decades.
And to that, there’s Lucas pre-Prequel Trilogy, and Lucas Post-Prequel. Sure, Lucas spent the1980’s producing the rest of the Star Wars trilogy, Indiana Jones, and some egregious spin-off material – but also put his name on the works of Akira Kurosawa and Paul Schrader’s Mishima. Though Willow might have been mostly terrible, there was still hope that Lucas was a creative engine. And though there was crap to deal with, when you look at those first three films, you see a genius filmmaker.
THX 1138 is one of the few truly great science fiction films, as it both comments on the then reality of the personalization of the early 70’s, but also manages to turn parking lots and new buildings into something distinctly other. The Blu-ray and subsequent releases of “The George Lucas Director’s Cut” confuses the analog and digital technology of the original, but – unlike a lot of the modifications done for the Star Wars Special editions – most of the digital effects are quite good and enhance the otherworldliness. But Lucas and his eye at that time – regardless of some antiquation – manages to take things that are familiar and make them feel foreign.
THX 1138 is a person played by Robert Duvall. He lives with LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie), who in a fit of loneliness takes THX off his medication, which leads them to having sex. But it also causes him to go to a prison, and is pestered by SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasence), who seems to have a homosexual lust for THX. Once THX learns of his and LUH’s fate for disobeying, he decides his only option is escape.
More than the anemic plot, the film is about using the language of film to get across the dehumanization of society. From the masses surrounding the characters, to the angles that create shapes out of walkways that feel impersonal, to the use of technology as a day to day thing, Lucas uses then-modern locations and an unerring eye to create a sense of complete cultural disconnect. Though some of this is hampered by the special edition cut, which mixes technologies in an unfortunate way, much of the original film is here, and that immersive quality is both brilliant and rare. Yeah, this still has some of the trademarks of a young filmmaker, including using the retarded and midgets to signify oddity, but it’s still an impressive achievement.
Warner’s Blu-ray presents the film in widescreen (2.35:1) and in 5.1 DTS-HD. The transfer is amazing. Though materials were restored for the 2004 special edition, this 1080 upgrade is well worth it, and the film is made for the format. The film also comes with a very on-point commentary by Lucas and sound designer and co-scripter Walter Murch. The film also comes with branching-point icons so you can watch the “Master Sessions” (30 min.) which has Murch walking through his sound work for the film. “A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope” (64 min.) gets Lucas, Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Carroll Ballard, John Milius, Caleb Deschanel, and others to talk about the first years of Zoetrope, which segues nicely into “Artifact from the Future: The Making of THX 1138 (31 min.). The film, its production history and Coppola’s idea of Zoetrope is fascinating, and this disc (or the DVD) would be worth having just for these stories about Coppola and Lucas. And though this is somewhat sanitized (no one’s too mad about anything, there’s some sex, and drug use – but not by the major players), it’s still pretty honest. Also included is the Lucas short film “Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB” (15 min.), and the period making of “Bald” (8 min.). And – as an Easter Egg – the treatment for the film. Also included is a sound effects only track, and trailers, one for the theatrical release, and five trailers for the 2004 reissue. The former offers the only glimpses at the unaltered footage.
Lost in Space came out between the gap of the Star Wars re-issues (which, with the first film, grossed over $100 Million dollars) and The Phantom Menace. Trivia nuts remember that it was the first film to trump Titanic’s long run at the top of the box office. It – otherwise – did not set the world on fire and yet here it is on Blu-ray.
Gary Oldman top-lines as Dr. Smith, the nefarious scientist who sends the Robinson family off course with his sabotage. The Robinsons made up of the youngest Will (Jack Johnson), tweener daughter Penny (Lacey Chabert), eldest daughter Dr. Judy (Heather Graham), mother Dr. Maureen (Mimi Rodgers) and father Professor John (William Hurt). Along with hot-shot pilot Major Don West (Matt LeBlanc, doing the worst Harrison Ford impression imaginable), and a Robot (voiced by the original TV actor Dick Tufeld) they get stranded both somewhere and somewhen in time by Dr. Smith, when they were supposed to go on a simple voyage.
The film starts out okay, with a not-great but at least trying-to-be-something space battle, and a launch sequence that sets up the characters. They then have to fight space metal spiders, and though the sequence isn’t great, at least it’s action. This is from director Stephen (Predator 2) Hopkins, who already lowers the bar by his presence. But the last third of the film is dedicated to a time jump (which will reset the action we’ve already seen), father-son issues that leaves more than half the cast with nothing to do, and the standard Hollywood “daddy didn’t pay enough attention to me” narrative that clogs up way too many kids films. Done on the relative cheap, what is most fascinating about the movie is the cast assembled. It’s one of those once in a lifetime “how the fuck did these people all come together for this?” I can understand most of it, in the sense they all got a paycheck. And yet Graham was coming off of Boogie Nights and had reinvented herself a little. William Hurt has always been a serious actor. Mimi Rodgers – though near the tail end of her career – was always a solid actress whilst also a sexpot. Gary Oldman was an Oscar-nominated serious actor. So, what the fuck? (everyone else was TV). Is the main draw the TV guy, or that it’s based on an old TV show or that it’s sci-fi? Doesn’t matter, It’s bad, and that’s that.
The Blu-ray includes all of the old DVD’s supplements. That is: a commentary with director Stephen Hopkins and writer-producer Akiva Godsman, and a second commentary with VFX supervisor Angs Bickerton VFX producer Lauren Ritchie, DP Peter Levy, editor Ray Lovejoy, and producer Carla Fry. Lovejoy was a Kubrick regular, so that’s worth something. There’s featurettes “Building the Special Effects” (16 min.), “The Future of Space Trvael” (10 min.) – which talks to environmental issues – and “Q&A with the original Cast – TV Years” (8 min.) that gets June Lokhart, Angela Cartwright and Marta Kristen to talk about the TV series. Also included are deleted scenes (12 min.), a music video and a trailer.