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Freedom Is Slavery!

There’s almost nothing in THX 1138 , George Lucas’ film debut, that anticipates the shaggy, freewheeling goofiness of the first Star Wars . There’s no gee-whiz, and hardly any whiz-bang. It’s sci-fi, sure, but mostly of the “Soylent Green is people!” school of sci-fi, all bleak humor and bad news; needless to say, the movie’s jackbooted robot policeman and bald, drug-addled proletarians would not have made for terribly fun action figures.

Haven’t I spoiled the plot enough by saying that THX 1138 takes place in a dystopian future society? That it’s all crib-noted from Orwell and Huxley? Do I really need to add that our hero falls in love and tries to flee? Mr. Lucas summarizes it succinctly: “The film’s about a hero who lives in an anthill and dares to go outside.”

After a long day building robots, our hero THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) likes to kick back and munch on a few government-mandated mood stabilizers; get diddled by his government-mandated masturbatory aid, plunging down upon him like an automatic pin-setter at the bowling alley; maybe check out his favorite show on the hologram projector, which could be accurately titled Robot Policeman Keeps Hitting This Guy with a Really Big Stick .

But what he doesn’t know is busy hurting him: His off-her-meds mate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) pulled an Eve and is switching his sedatives, those fruits of ignorance, for sugar pills as red as apples. So what he mistakes for illness is really drug withdrawal-his feelings are coming awake inside him. Or, in the words of Thomas Pynchon, he’s “been changing, sure, changing, plucking the albatross of self now and then, idly, half-conscious as picking his nose.”

In his DVD commentary with co-editor and mad-genius sound designer Walter Murch, Mr. Lucas encourages us to view THX 1138 , adapted from his prize-winning student short, not as one feature but as three one-acts that tell the same story of oppression and escape three very different ways. The first is a relatively linear narrative, albeit one that is as dense and difficult as most Godard. The second, where THX 1138 finds himself trapped in an all-white, wall-less prison, is absurd Beckettian comedy, a Waiting for Big Brother . Only in the action-packed finale, with all its running and chasing and driving, do we catch some glimpse of the pop director that Mr. Lucas went on to actually become.

The hagiographic extras on THX 1138 invite us to make this film a referendum on Mr. Lucas’ career. “This is really the kind of filmmaking I started doing, and it’s probably the filmmaking I’m gonna go back to someday,” he says in the closing moments of his commentary. “It’s a much more interesting style of filmmaking than I currently find myself in.”

Mr. Lucas obviously takes great pride and consolation in this idea of himself as an avant-garde filmmaker who simply fell backwards into insane mainstream success. It’s a touching notion; it’s also complete and utter bullshit. The gobs of money he earned from Yoda lunchboxes and Skywalker bed sheets alone would have allowed him to make all the small, passionate, experimental movies he could ever want. Instead, he has spent more than two decades tending to his fortunes and franchises. It’s clear that he is a man who has his independence but no real freedom, and so whatever else Mr. Lucas intended for his film, the ending, at least, feels prescient: When THX 1138 escapes from the vast labyrinth of the underground city and finally emerges into the blinding reds of a setting sun he’s never seen, he simply stands there, with nowhere to go.

[ THX 1138: The George Lucas Director’s Cut (1971), R, 88 minutes, $26.99.]

– Mark Lotto

Heaven Awaits?

Angels in America , Mike Nichols’ 2003 HBO film, was more than a movie; it was an event. HBO ran countless commercials featuring the stars-Meryl Streep, Al Pacino, Emma Thompson-extolling its importance; last year, every magazine or literary journal weighed in on not only the film’s merits and missteps, but on playwright Tony Kushner’s genius and influence. The film was reason to talk about AIDS (since, these days, we seem to need a good reason). It was a platform from which to talk about gay life in America. It was an excuse to rip on Reagan’s sins.

Even the film itself feels like an event: It’s six hours long, filled with surprisingly cheap special effects (unnecessary given the power of the screenplay), an overwhelming abundance of star power and a self-conscious sense of magnitude. One could do worse than watching the scenes, often involving two actors facing off like boxers, in chunks: say, Al Pacino as Roy Cohn vs. Meryl Streep as Ethel Rosenberg. Turn it off. Let it absorb. Mr. Kushner’s play is a lot to take in, and it deserves care. Which is all to say that there are many ways to experience Angels in America . The movie is one way, but certainly shouldn’t be the only one. The camera can cut up Mr. Kushner’s words; one sometimes longs to shut the picture off and listen to the audio, or wishes they’d seen onstage back in 1993.

Except, of course, that we’d then miss some ferocious performances here: Mr. Pacino, his face sucked dry of humanity; Ms. Streep, disconcertingly vulnerable and then unnervingly cold as a Mormon mother; Justin Kirk, as an impossibly funny and sweet dying man. We’d also miss some bizarre ones-Ms. Thompson as a Staten Island/Long Island/Brooklyn native nurse, or again, Ms. Thompson as an hysterical angel. Ben Shenkman, the lover who abandons Mr. Kirk when he needs him most, is thrilling in his angry selfishness. He confirms the worst you ever suspected in people, and then makes sense out of it. The film does that, thrusting you in and out of your own faith in the world, in the hopes, perhaps, that you’ll come away looking at it all a little differently. This DVD doesn’t include any extras, but the film is more than enough.

[ Angels in America (2003), not rated, 375 min., $39.98.]

-Suzy Hansen