Of course he’ll always be best known for Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, his involvement with the sequels and prequels that followed and the subsequent ILM/Lucasfilm empire, but a number of fascinating works can be found elsewhere in the filmography of George Lucas, whether we’re talking about the man as a writer, as a director or as a producer. He’s credited as a an executive producer on the international version of Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, for example, after he and Francis Ford Coppola convinced 20th Century Fox to cover a budget shortfall (Toho Studios ran out of money). He’s also listed as a producer on the second film in Godfrey Reggio’s incredible Qatsi trilogy, Powaqqatsi, while in 1971 and 1973 he was at the forefront of the New Hollywood movement after writing and directing a truly diverse pair of movies: THX 1138 was his first, while the second was the hugely-popular 60’s-set coming of age comedy-drama American Graffiti.
THX 1138 is probably the strangest film that Lucas has made: an Orwellian nightmare influenced by the ‘coldness’ of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and, more generally, the French New Wave. It’s a minimal, sparsely-decorated dystopian sci-fi picture that presciently addresses the (so-called) developed world’s obsessions with surveillance, robotics and instant, pill-centric healthcare, while also throwing into the mix the oppression of unaccountable authorities, religion as a tool for control, mass conformity and the joylessness of work. It’s a thoroughly depressing film, albeit one with a hopeful ending, and when watching THX 1138 today it’s possible to see many negative aspects of our own modern western societies in just about every scene.
Lucas drops us, with an incredibly stylish and disorienting opening sequence, into the middle of this unnamed interior place, and the plot is largely concerned with the attempts made by the titular character (played by Robert Duvall) to escape it. THX 1138 lives and works within a fascist police state, where the cops in charge are identikit jackbooted robots (understandable for a movie written by a student who witnessed police brutality on various campuses): think stormtroopers crossed with the motorcycle officers from CHiPs crossed with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis Maschinenmensch. They share that last influence with Lucas’ later creation C-3PO, as well as the gold droid’s permanent politeness, which is spun into a rather soothing and deliberately unthreatening instrument here; it’s an extremely sinister aural device and indicative of the excellent work by the sound department (Jim Manson, Lou Yates, Walter Murch, the latter a key collaborator on other elements of the film as well).
In this society the humans work as slaves and are kept alive in order to build more of their robotic masters – nice flip, George – while their uniformity of appearance (shaved heads, identical clothes) is designed to reduce any semblance of personality while also bringing to mind the Holocaust. In order to keep the docile status quo humans are assigned mind-altering pills, an idea first explored in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and this appears to keep them focused on work while also suppressing their sexual desires (though in one peculiar scene Duvall’s character masturbates with the aid of a strange machine). THX has a female roommate called LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) who tampers with his pill box, and this subsequently makes him ill, before the pair eventually make love. The parallels with Adam and Eve’s story in The Bible are clear (a red, apple-shaped object belonging to THX is promptly thrown away at one point) while it’s interesting to note that Lucas’ story punishes the female character for the supposed transgression, but not the male.
The sets are generally decorated and populated in a minimal way, with some scenes even shot against a pure white backdrop (the effect is supposed to suggest that the characters are in a prison, or some kind of limbo). Lucas also used striking locations in the San Francisco area, most notably the BART subway system, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin County Civic Center, The Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley and San Francisco International Airport, using the clean lines of these modernist spaces with great skill (David Myers and Albert Kihn are both credit as cinematographers). Indeed the look of the film is consistent and well-realised, whether we’re talking about the costumes, the locations and sets or the ephemera contained within (confession booths, primitive-looking computer screens, digital clocks, etc.). Meanwhile the sheer oddness of THX 1138 is accentuated by a series of sudden, unexplained shots of incongruous creatures: a strange-looking lizard munching on some wires, for example, or a group of monkeys that roam around an underground road. There is a vibrant imagination at work here, and one clearly belonging to a man who doesn’t give two hoots as to whether mainstream or niche audiences get his ideas or not.
Though the concept underpinning the film was not new in 1967, when Lucas made his student film version, THX 1138 has still proven to be extremely influential. It’s legacy can be traced through the likes of Soylent Green, Westworld, Logan’s Run, The Running Man, The Matrix, The Island, Cloud Atlas and even Under The Skin, while those that have complained about Lucas’ tampering with the original Star Wars trilogy should note that the additions made to this film for a 2004 director’s cut work very well indeed, helping to create a greater sense of a densely-populated world with shots of crowds in corridors and factories that were presumably beyond his budget in 1971. The director made some fine minor decisions back in the early 1970’s too: the opening scroll of the credits as they move from the bottom of the screen to the top is a device that would later thrill Star Wars viewers, but it also intelligently prefigures THX 1138‘s ending, while the decision to begin with old footage of Buck Rogers somehow works against the odds.
It’s not perfect – occasionally there’s a sense of a young, inexperienced filmmaker trying hard to impress, or perhaps trying too hard to obfuscate, and the chase scene near the end is a little pedestrian even though it sounds superb – but Lucas manages to outline several themes clearly and has the conviction to stick with them throughout, his downbeat approach to the subject matter scored moodily by Lalo Schifrin. The director’s political voice can be clearly heard, and while it was simplified and toned down for Star Wars in order to attract a wider audience, the two films share several obvious allegories as well as influences. Most explicitly Lucas incorporated quotes from Richard Nixon in THX 1138, which further reveals his simmering anger at the direction America was moving in.
Directed by: George Lucas.
Written by: George Lucas, Walter Murch.
Starring: Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasance, Maggie McOmie, Don Pedro Colley, Ian Wolfe.
Cinematography: David Myers, Albert Kihn.
Editing: George Lucas, Walter Murch.
Music: Lalo Schifrin.
Running Time: 84 minutes.
Year: 1971 (2004 director’s cut viewed).