In 1967, a 23 year-old USC graduate named George Lucas wrote and directed an ambitious futuristic short film called “Electronic Labyrinth THX-1138 4EB,” which chronicled the escape of a dissident (Dan Nachtsheim) from a futuristic dystopia. The film runs just 15 minutes, but it acquired a lot of notice for its unusual editing, juxtaposition of electronic imagery, and innovative use of technology. Throughout the short film, we see glimpses of life within this conformist dystopia, with its worship of an electronic god-figure named OHM, as well as monochromatic white clothing and numbers tattooed on the foreheads of its citizens.
Lacking the digital tools of today’s filmmaking (much of that came later, thanks to Lucas’ pioneering work), this futuristic chase film was interesting enough to warrant expansion into feature-length by producer Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather,”) who mentored George Lucas in his early career, and would be one of his staunchest allies. Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios would partner with Warner Bros to produce the 86 minute movie for theatrical release in 1971.
33 years later, George Lucas’ Lucasfilm company would remaster “THX-1138” with new digital effects and other tweaks. Despite the digital upgrade, the bleak, dystopian austerity of the original story would remain intact. This 2004 special edition of “THX-1138” is more artistically cohesive than some of the clumsier, arbitrary ‘fixes’ made to the original Star Wars trilogy over the years (1997, 2004, 2011, 2019).
Note: Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope Studios was created to get away from the Hollywood-based studio system, independently producing films in the creatively fruitful San Francisco Bay Area instead. While the company went bankrupt in the early 1980s, it’s back in business today, producing films and holding short-film/screenwriting competitions for new filmmakers. Lucas would also seek to create his own production comapany, Lucasfilm, which was far more commercially successful than American Zoetrope. Lucasfilm would also begat Pixar as well as THX Ltd. (wink wink). Ultimately, Lucasfilm was sold to Disney in 2012 for $4 billion (!). Considering the money Disney’s made since the acquisition? I’d say it was a bargain…
Opening with a 40-odd second trailer for a 1939 “Buck Rogers” serial chapter, we then cut to a bleak, dystopian 25th century nightmare world of “THX-1138”; a world policed by brutal robots, where sedatives and other drug use is strictly mandated by the state to keep the population from feeling or thinking too much. Individuality is so forgotten in this world that even hair (let alone hairstyling) is no longer allowed, as men and women are forced to routinely shave their heads. The clothing is equally austere, with everyone wearing the same unisex white garments. Names are reduced to three prefix letters followed by a four-digit number (perhaps a future-blurring of initials and social security numbers?). People unburden themselves in electronic confessionals representing the state’s electronic god-figure “OHM” (ahm); OHM is a blending of Judeo-Christian iconography, but with the oppressive conformity messaging of the Soviet Union on steroids. Daylight is never experienced firsthand, as this entire world seems to be subterranean (perhaps following a nuclear war…?). This is not the wondrous future imagined by Buck Rogers…
Note: The incongruous “Buck Rogers” trailer that precedes the movie stands as a contrast to the bleak 25th century of the main story. Buck Rogers is a 20th century man who wakes up in a wondrous 25th century full of scientific advances, but “THX-1138” is the nightmarish flip-side of a world where technology has far outpaced (and oppressed) humanity. It’s also interesting that Lucas uses a Buck Rogers serial trailer for “Chapter Nine”, as his own Star Wars movies would later be chaptered as well, beginning with “The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. The first “Star Wars” movie (1977) would later be retroactively chaptered “A New Hope” for its rerelease in 1981 (before then, it was known only as “Star Wars”).
The sterile white corridors within the unnamed future city (filmed on practical locations throughout the Bay Area) are regularly patrolled by the ‘kindly’ robot policemen who occasionally allow kids to take a closer look at their batons, as the monochromatically garbed population blithely goes about its business.
Note: One of the two credited chrome-faced robot policemen is Johnny Weissmuller Jr, the son of Hungarian swimming star and actor Johnny Weissmuller, who played “Tarzan” in a series of movies in the 1930s and 1940s. Many of the bald-headed extras in the film were volunteers from a local drug rehabilitation center who had to routinely shave their heads anyway, in order to allow their counselors to check for needle marks.
We see the manufacture of these robots under human supervision, using remote manipulator claws behind protective shielding as the workers carefully insert nuclear fuel into the robotic brains. The irony of the image is easy to see; human beings, working tirelessly and dangerously, to help build robots that will be used to police and control them, or even brutalize them, if they are ever arrested. Drugs and sedatives routinely given to the population at mealtimes ensure that no thoughts of unionizing or striking would ever cross the minds of these human drones. One of these worker drones is THX-1138 (Robert Duvall), who seems to have a little difficulty concentrating on the task at hand…
Note: The dialogue heard throughout the film is deliberately technical and obtuse; a gibberish of numbers, directions or sentence fragments, filtered through shortwave radio distortion (much like the fighter pilot dialogue during the Death Star battle at the end of “Star Wars”). According to the DVD commentary by Lucas and sound designer Walter Murch on the special edition, this was done to make the English of the movie sound almost a foreign language—just as our own current version of English might sound to someone from the 17th century. Think of the current sentence: “I used my iPad to retweet that meme from FaceBook.” That entire sentence would’ve been utter nonsense 25 years ago. Our immersion into this movie’s world is given without any prologue or narration–as if we’re waking up in a strange foreign country.
In a control booth overseeing the massive assembly complex by remote monitors, we see controller LUH (Maggie McOmie), who is overseeing her housemate THX as he grapples with a robotic manipulator. Banks of monitors placed near each and every worker immediately give an oppressive, ‘Big Brother From Hell’-vibe to the dark and claustrophobic control room.
Note: Yes, the black & white CRT monitors, analog number displays, and other clunky early-1970s technology of the movie look very dated now (50 years later), but it adds to the movie’s oddness. Seen today, “THX-1138” has more of an alternate universe feel (ala “Blade Runner 2049”). Watching the film over the weekend on a 7 ft. screen in a darkened room, its older, uglier technology actually enhances the oppressive mood of the movie’s universe.
Carefully watching THX on her screen, LUH is distressed to see THX having difficulty concentrating with the tasks at hand. Unbeknownst to THX, LUH has been carefully weaning him off of the sedatives and other state-mandated drugs served at mealtimes (which she prepares) because she is falling in love with her assigned housemate, and she’s hoping that by awakening his own latent emotions, he might reciprocate her feelings. Such weaning from state-prescribed drugs is, of course, illegal–it’s called “criminal drug evasion” (now there’s a twist). People choosing to remain sober would be a far greater threat to the state’s power than those who stay sedated.
Note: Lucas’ commentary is particularly sharp and well-honed in this film. He riffs on both the prosecution of minor drug offenses as well as the mass seduction by big pharmaceutical companies, who routinely advertise on TV, internet and elsewhere for drugs you never knew you needed but suddenly can’t live without. These companies make ungodly sums of money pitching to the hypochondriacs in the audience who think every random facial tic must be a symptom of terminal illness. The internet, with easy access to bad medical advise, has made Big Pharma’s job a lot easier. The movie’s riffing on state-mandated drugs and its upside-down penalties for “criminal drug evasion” are especially resonant today, as some states/countries are rethinking the criminalization of recreational drug use.
Overseeing LUH’s anxiety for her housemate is SEN (Donald Pleasance), a predatory coworker with designs on having THX for himself. Despite the barrage of noises in the control room, as well as the crosstalk between automata and people, SEN remains very focused on THX’s domestic issues.
Note: It’s a bit of a shame that the only gay character in the movie is stereotypically depicted as a predatory sort. SEN is seen forever stalking THX, always trying to lure him away from a potential relationship with LUH. I get that this was 1971, and that most psychiatry books of that time still listed homosexuality as a ‘mental illness,’ but perhaps they could’ve made SEN’s motives a bit more complex somehow? I dunno.
After his troublesome shift, THX leaves work and heads for home. We see him stop by an electronic confessional, where he unburdens his inner emotional turmoil to the dulcet-toned platitudes of OHM’s automated voice (James Wheaton). OHM’s prerecorded responses are random and vaguely worded—a machine clumsily feigning human empathy. It’s like trying to get detailed psychoanalysis from fortune cookies or horoscope columns. After more of OHM’s mindless assurances, THX leaves. He then strolls though a large shopping mall-like complex (the Marin County Civic Center), stopping by a store that only sells colored decahedrons. For reasons unknown to us (or him), he buys a red one, and leaves. THX arrives to the colorless domicile he shares with LUH, and promptly flushes the useless red decahedron into a wall disposal.
Note: Once again, Lucas making pointed commentary on the futility of consumerism; buying something because you’re told to, only to realize that it’s useless to you as soon as you bring it through the door. Was the red decahedron a fad item? The latest gag gift? Who cares. It’s flushed and forgotten as soon as it’s home. This is doubly ironic coming from the man whose contract with “Star Wars” a few years later included merchandizing rights, from which he made a fortune selling all manner of equally useless but highly sought-after Star Wars-labeled trinkets and doodads.
Arriving home, he finds LUH in the kitchen preparing THX’s mandated drugs in his evening meal (served in an old, foil-covered TV dinner tray). While she prepares the meals, THX ‘unwinds’ in the other room by masturbating to a life-sized hologram of a nude female dancer (Mello Alexandria). Using some kind of ‘milking machine’ to relieve himself, THX does his business in a robotic and perfunctory fashion. After he’s ‘done,’ he casually switches the hologram to another channel–a program of a man being repeatedly beaten by robot policemen. Senseless violence for its own sake, with no plot, no story, no moral. Meanwhile, LUH is opening the medicine cabinet as an automated voice asks, “What’s wrong?” Under video surveillance, LUH takes the required pills but carefully cuts THX’s doses. She’s been doing this for quite some time, and THX’s emotional awakening is the result of sedative withdrawal. Disappointed that THX still seems to be under their influence, a frustrated LUH changes the violent hologram to a ‘comedy’ channel instead.
Note: All of the entertainers, dancers and newscasters seen on the holographic entertainment channels in “THX-1138” are played by African-American actors, including actor Don Pedro Colley as the hologram actor SRT. James Wheaton, the voice of OHM, is also African-American. For a science fiction film in 1971, this was curiously progressive, even though none of the lead roles were played by people of color.
We see THX starting to experience worsening symptoms of his withdrawal from the drugs, as he goes back to the useless OHM confessional. Once again, the dulcet recordings behind the bland, Christ-like image plays pacifying words of nonspecific encouragement. Feeling suddenly ill, THX vomits in the booth as the OHM voice repeats the same assurances. THX goes home, worrying that he might be dying…
Note: The confessional booth looks more like an old-style airport phone booth, with its Eurocentric Jesus face supposedly representing all spirituality in this decidedly nonspiritual world. The ‘face of OHM’ is the bland cover for a heartless society with no real compassion or empathy for its people. Like the confessionals pre-taped responses, this is a society on autopilot, just going through the motions as its people work mindlessly in service of it.
Back at their domicile, it’s confession time for LUH as well. She comes clean with THX, telling him what she’s been reducing his mandatory drug intake. LUH wanted THX to experience real emotions as she does, and she hoped cutting his drugs would allow that to happen for him as well. Their emotions engaging, LUH and THX begin to tenderly touch each other, as each’s sexual drive fully awakens. Before long, they are making passionate love, smiling and weeping in gratitude for each other. For a fleeting moment in this horrifying place, there is warmth and human unity.
Note: Composer Lalo Schifrin (the original “Mission: Impossible” theme) uses a cold, inorganic score for much of “THX-1138.” Schifrin’s one major exception to his score’s deliberate coldness is the warm, melodic music he uses as the theme for LUH. LUH, whose name is pronounced almost like “love,” inspires THX to change. It’s fitting that her theme bears all the warmth of the movie’s soundtrack. THX’s name is pronounced “thex,” like sex—or thinks. The man whose thinking is reawakened after experiencing sex with “love” herself.
After their night of passionate (and highly illegal) lovemaking, THX and LUH are back at work the following day. The snooping SEN is aware that THX is engaging in this illegal affair with LUH and changes their shifts, prompting THX to anonymously complain to the higher-ups about SEN’s own behaviors. Later on, THX has increasing difficulty using the remote manipulators to carefully insert tiny nuclear fuel rods into the robot policemen. Feeling ‘seen’ by his coworkers as well as the battery of surveillance cameras, THX nervously continues working, but is unable to focus…
While inserting a fuel rod, THX’s aberrant mental state is detected, and a “mind lock” is imposed on him–causing his eyes to go white and his muscles to seize–just as he is inserting a dangerous rod of unstable nuclear fuel. The plant managers quickly release the mind lock, and THX is able to successfully complete the job without causing a nuclear meltdown. However, the “criminal drug evasion” of both and he and LUH leads to their mutual arrests. THX is given a perfunctory ‘trial,’ which is little more than a prosecutor and defense attorney speaking unrelated legalese over each other before THX is found irredeemably guilty and sentenced.
Note: This scene undergoes perhaps the single greatest changes of the 2004 special edition, while never changing any of the scene’s intent, unlike some of the changes to “Star Wars” (I’m looking at you, Greedo shot first…). With the newly added CGI elements of the robots’ manufacture, the nuclear fuel rod burning into the robot’s cranial case, as well as THX’s eyes going fully white during his mind-lock, this near-nuclear meltdown scene is far more energized now than in the 1971 version. The original version had to ‘cheat’ many elements with quick cutting and extreme closeups so that we couldn’t tell exactly what THX was doing with the manipulators. Most of the 2004 special edition’s other changes include additional establishing shots of the subterranean city, cleaning up early 1970s special effects work, the CGI creation of more ‘animalistic’ shell-dwellers, and other smoothly integrated changes.
THX is then banished to a white zone—an eerie sort of spatial void that functions as a boundless prison and mental hospital. There he is reunited with LUH and she tells him she is pregnant. As they make love once again, they are broken up by robot police and THX is stunned by one of their long electric prods. His limp nude body is then carried away by one of the robots.
Note: Once again ironic that the two characters are tormented by the very creations they help manufacture at their plant. Much of the commentary of the film is directed at the dangers of humanity becoming controlled by its own technology–this is a lesson some say Lucas himself failed to heed when he went somewhat overboard with computer graphics technology in his later films, or his near-endless tweaking of the original Star Wars movies.
Hooked up to various devices and with a tube shoved down his throat, THX’s limp, unresponsive body is given ‘drug therapy’ before he is returned to prison.
Note: For anyone who thinks George Lucas’ sci-fi fantasy career began with the family-friendly “Star Wars”, this R-rated science fiction film might be something of a shock. There is nudity, torture, violence, implicit rape and enforced use of drugs everywhere. It’s easy to imagine studio reluctance towards George Lucas ‘Star Wars idea’ based on what they might’ve seen in the very R-rated “THX-1138.” It’d be a bit like green-lighting a Barney the Dinosaur family film from David Lynch. That said, I think “THX-1138” is also Lucas’ most sophisticated and disturbing film to date.
Putting his clothes back on, THX is soon taunted by the robot police shortly before being electronically tortured by two unseen operators, who, from their casual voiceovers, sound as if they’re fine-tuning stereo equipment. After having their way with the helpless THX, the controllers seem to tire of their torment and move on. The robot policemen then release THX to the prison-void’s common area.
Note: I remember seeing photos of this movie in old issues of “Famous Monsters of Filmland” magazine, and the robots used to remind me of brushed aluminum mannequins you’d see in department stores back in the 1970s (and well into the 1990s as well). When I saw clips of the movie on television, my then-child brain thought the policemen were department store dummies who’d somehow come to life. Hey, I was all of eight years old and I was cursed with a very active imagination, okay?
The void’s ‘common area’ includes a colorful variety of characters. There is PTO (Ian Wolfe), a blathering elderly idiot who nonsensically speechifies all day long. NCH (Sid Haig) is a violent young rapist who sexually assaults female prisoner IMM (Irene Forrest) before he’s removed by robot police. We also meet a “shell dweller” (Mark Lawhead), a dirty, semi-feral little person with a full head of hair who grunts like an animal. Others make disdainful comments about the shell dweller’s foul “smell.”
Note: George Lucas manages to employ lots of unusual physical types in his movies, with a particular eye towards little people. In this film, we see the small-statured “shell dwellers”, who live as semi-feral scavengers outside of the main city. Six years later in “Star Wars” we meet the Jawas, tiny robed creatures with glowing yellow eyes who collect droids and scrap, which they sell from their giant traveling ‘sandcrawler.’ Other little persons would go on to play droids (actor Kenny Baker as R2-D2) or other exotic creatures, such as the ‘Ugnaughts’ of “The Empire Strikes Back.”
THX is later met by the unstable SEN, who was also arrested following THX’s anonymous complaint filed at the plant. SEN insists that he holds no grudge against THX for turning him in, and still offers to help him as best he can during their incarceration together. SEN prattles on endlessly, as THX sits impassively, staring straight ahead and ignoring him entirely. THX is working on an escape plan…
Note: Once again, we see old SEN, tirelessly trying to win favor with THX, who just ignores the older man’s pitiful advances at every opportunity. It’s clear from the way Donald Pleasance plays him that SEN has serious issues, even by the yardstick of this movie’s terribly upside down world, but I still wish that SEN weren’t stamped so firmly with the ‘disturbed queer’ branding iron.
With the ceaselessly complaining SEN hovering at his side, THX walks along the endless white abyss ahead, until he sees a figure waving his arms in the distance. The two men pick up their pace and meet with a towering former hologram entertainer named SRT 5752 (Don Pedro Colley), who was thrown into prison as well after he quit the entertainment circuit, choosing to live as an everyday person (apparently quitting one’s designated line of work in this world is also a crime). Not sure of which way is forward or backward in the white void, the three of them make for a tiny flashing beacon up ahead and find that it leads to an exit hatch. Pulling the hatchway open, the three men are thrown into an avalanche of pedestrian street traffic. THX and SRT keep an eye out for each other, as SEN gets separated in the crowd and lost. THX then tells SRT that he wants to find LUH…
Note: The easily escapable ‘prison’ is interesting as well; with a population that is sedated and under chemical control, one wouldn’t expect violent jailbreaks, let alone the need for a maximum security prison. One can also see the white void prison of “THX-1138” as a metaphor for being ‘trapped’ in one’s own mind, too often ignoring ‘exits’ that are plainly marked within.
Pursued by the robot police, THX and SRT make their way to a fetal growth chamber, a storage space of gestating fetuses growing inside of artificial wombs. They discovery that LUH’s name has been reassigned to a new fetus, since she has been “absorbed” (killed). THX is heartbroken, but LUH’s death only renews his urgency for leaving this dystopian hellhole. By reigniting his emotions, LUH has also awakened a newfound feeling of rebellion within THX. Meanwhile, the separated SEN makes his way to a train car, and makes his way to the broadcast television studio for OHM’s broadcasts of encouragement to the masses. Thinking he’s somehow found his world’s upside down version of a ‘holy land’, SEN is then quickly kicked out by a fake TV priest. The dejected SEN later meets with a group of schoolchildren. He helps one of the kids reattach an intravenously attached ‘education bottle’ back into their arm. After his little outburst of rebellion, the conformist SEN is safely back in the cradle of the system.
Note: This pretty much closes the book on SEN’s story. One wonders if he will be sent back to prison, or whether he’ll ‘redeem’ himself by doing a public confession of some sort, like Winston Smith in “1984.”
Things get considerably hairier (excuse the pun) for THX and SRT, who find themselves in an “electronic labyrinth” of computer banks, barely one step ahead of the pursuing robot police, who are given a ‘pursuit budget’ of only 14,000 credits—not to be exceeded under any circumstances. After outrunning the cops in the computer center, THX and SRT make their way into a parking garage, where they find a pair of formula-racer style police cars. They each pop the hatch and climb into their respective vehicles, although the somewhat altitudinal SRT has difficulty squeezing into his vehicle’s tiny canopy cockpit. After a few moments, the highly motivated THX manages to start the unfamiliar vehicle, but SRT isn’t having as much luck. THX speeds away, leaving his escape partner behind, fumbling with his controls. After pressing random buttons and flicking various switches, SRT finally gets the ignition going, puts the vehicle in gear—and then crashes into a concrete column, just as he is surrounded by robot police. For SRT, the chase is over, but THX is still on the run.
Note: In a more typical action-adventure movie, the ‘hero’ (THX) would probably do just about anything to save his partner from the bad guys, just as Han Solo would return at the last moment to help Luke destroy the Death Star in “Star Wars.” But this isn’t that kind of movie, nor does it try to be. THX isn’t a hero; he’s just a desperate man trying to break free from an oppressive nightmare, and he really doesn’t care about others or their plight. As a man who’s probably a bit disoriented after years of sedation, THX hasn’t yet developed emotionally enough to care for other people, aside from LUH. Emotionally speaking, THX is little more than a needy infant.
With his police car being hotly pursued by a pair of robots on motorcycles, THX is knee deep in it now. He manages to ram into a barrier, creating an obstacle for one of the motorcycles before his own car’s engine overheats. THX has to wait for the vehicle to cool down. It eventually cools enough, and THX floors it, putting some distance between himself and the second motorcycle. With one motorcycle down, the allotted budget for the pursuit climbs ever higher…
Note: This scene makes extensive use of Bay Area tunnels and even the then-incomplete BART train system. Because of this, the film shot the chase scenes late at night and on the fly, as they were concerned that the noises of the vehicles (much louder than the electrical whining of the film’s sound design, I’m sure) would attract the attention of real police. The ‘pursuit budget’ was Lucas’ thumbing his nose at the arbitrary allotment of money for certain film budgets. Lucas despised the notion that a movie’s entire production could be cancelled simply by going a few bucks over budget. Once Lucasfilm became an entertainment juggernaut itself, Lucas would independently finance most of his future projects.
Finding construction scaffolding up ahead, THX plows his car right into it, creating yet another obstacle for the second robot CHiP, as the robot’s bike hits the debris and flips through the air–the crashed robot deactivates. The ‘death’ of the second robot cop brings the pursuit budget even higher, with human controllers threatening to terminate the pursuit altogether if it goes over budget.
Note: According to the DVD commentary, the motorcycle stuntman who hit the scaffolding debris was seriously hurt after the crash, and had to be hospitalized. The stuntman survived, and his near-disastrous take of the crash was used in the final film. Hey… why waste the poor guy’s efforts, right?
Abandoning his now crippled police car, THX makes his way into a large cement structure surrounding the city–this is the ‘shell.’ There, of course, THX is met by more shell-dwellers; some of whom are humanoid dwarves, others have devolved into more apelike forms, complete with tails and thick body hair—like human rodents. They attack THX, but he breaks free of their grasp. Pursued by a fresh pair of robots, THX makes his way to a vertical shaft at the end of the shell. Looking up, he sees daylight peering in from the top, and begins his climb. The robot policemen order him to return, insisting that there is “no danger” and that he won’t be harmed. THX ignores them, and continues his ascent. Just as the robots close on his position, the pursuit is called off–it’s too far over budget, and is no longer ‘practical’ in terms of spent resources. Um…thanks?
Note: The ‘shell dwellers’ in the climax were another obvious CGI-enhancement made for the 2004 special edition, as the original shell dwellers were simply little persons in thick robes whose faces weren’t seen very clearly. In the revised version, there is still a single visibly human actor, but the rest of the shell dwellers are more animalistic, like large rodent-apes. Kind of hard to imagine human devolution working so quickly, but perhaps these are post-atomic war mutations of some kind…?
Reaching the top rungs of the shaft, THX climbs into natural daylight for the first time in his life, just in time to see the full majesty of the setting sun. The glorious music of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” fills the scene…
Note: As a piece of science-fiction filmmaking, “THX-1138” is easily George Lucas’ most sophisticated film, with a story that combines elements of George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” along with Lucas’ own recurring theme of characters breaking free of their familiar worlds for greater adventure (see: “American Graffiti,” “Star Wars”).
“Before the Empire.”
Watching “THX-1138” today, you can clearly see George Lucas sowing a few important seeds for “Star Wars” six years later. Robots, police states, gleaming white corridors, little people (“Jawas,” “shell dwellers”), holograms, fast vehicles, and a soulless autocracy seeking to crush individuality. How the ideas are presented in “THX-1138” and “Star Wars” are radically different: “THX-1138” is a dystopian, cautionary, very adult science fiction story, while “Star Wars” is an unabashedly romantic, swashbuckling fantasy. However, a few common themes and ideas in both movies are presented very similarly.
George Lucas sees sunsets as gateways to a new life. The ending of “THX-1138” sees THX break free of his claustrophobic subterranean existence to witness his first sunset. It signifies a new life awaiting him–a rebirth. The ending as beginning. “Star Wars” depicts Luke’s final gaze into the binary sunset of Tatooine as an expression of yearning for adventure. Tatooine’s twin suns set on his old life just before the dawn of his new life among the stars. Luke’s sunset gazing takes place relatively early in “Star Wars”, whereas THX’s escape into the sunset is the end of his desperate escape into his new life on the surface. The sunsets in both “THX-1138” and “Star Wars” feature dramatic music by Johann Sebastian Bach and John Williams, respectively.
Robots and holograms are also very prevalent in both stories. The robots (i.e. ‘droids’) of “Star Wars” are much more benign (and charming) than the featureless, chrome-faced police of “THX-1138.” C3PO and R2-D2 bring Princess Leia’s desperate holographic plea for help to Luke Skywalker’s attention. The robot police of THX’s world are also mirrored in “Star Wars” as the faceless Imperial Stormtroopers, who are organic beings reduced to soulless clones and mindless draftees who might as well be robots, with their identical white armor and conformity to their Empire. Even the names of the humanoid Imperial stormtroopers are reduced to ‘operating numbers.’ In some ways, the Empire’s troops are more robotic than “THX”‘s robots.
Love (or at least attraction) for women also drive both stories. THX falls in love with his ‘mate’ LUH, and gets her pregnant. She dilutes THX’s sedative intake, thus awakening the same emotions in him that she has felt all along. When THX learns LUH is pregnant, it prompts him to seek a better life for them both. Though LUH is killed (“absorbed”), THX’s love for her spurs his desire for escape. Luke Skywalker’s life is changed after he “stumbles across a recording” of the Princess while cleaning R2-D2 in his uncle’s garage. Despite Lucas’ insistence that Luke and Leia were planned to be siblings from the very beginning (not true, according to the late Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz), Luke is clearly smitten with the beautiful young senator from Alderaan, and a love triangle was hinted between Luke and Han and Leia in the 1977 movie. Love is the motivation for THX to seek a better existence for himself, while Luke is a smitten farm boy compelled to rescue a beautiful princess. Sex, or even the promise of sex fuels the desire for change in both THX and Luke Skywalker. The two protagonists are trapped in bleak circumstances until women spur them towards radical changes in their lives.
Vehicles (particularly fast ones) are seen as a means of escaping a dull, meaningless life. Lucas’ own boyhood dreams of driving fast cars were ultimately dashed when he was nearly killed after crashing his Fiat at age 18. That crash also set him on a path towards filmmaking and away from the immediate dangers of racing. THX uses his stolen formula racer-style police car to escape the robot police bikes, but easily abandons it to continue his escape on foot. Luke is forced to sell his once beloved landspeeder in order to buy passage off of Tatooine and begin his new life off-world as a Jedi in training. The vehicles of both THX and Luke Skywalker are important to the characters, but they’re ultimately discarded for a greater good.
The police robot’s cafe racer-style motorcycles are later reflected in the Empire’s speeder-bikes in “Return of the Jedi” (which would also feature prominently in Disney’s “The Mandalorian”). “THX-1138” sound designer Walter Murch gave the robot police bikes a high pitch echoing whine not too dissimilar to what sound designer Ben Burtt used for the speeder bikes of “Return of the Jedi.”
These commonalities between “THX-1138” and “Star Wars” are seen in Lucas’ semi-autobiographical 1973 teen comedy “American Graffiti” as well. The future writer Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) also seeks to leave his home (and he is successful). Vehicles are critical to all three stories, with drag racing playing a large part in “Graffiti” (much like “The Phantom Menace”‘s fateful pod race). Curt is also smitten with a girl—a “blonde in a T-bird” (Suzanne Somers) who remains elusive, though her beauty instills a sense of ambition in the young man (just as Leia’s beauty would spur her unwitting brother, Luke). All three films revolve around the desire to leave the familiar in order to embrace a larger world of adventure elsewhere.
Written by Marcus Hearn with a foreword from actor/director Ron Howard (who first worked for Lucas on “American Graffiti” before becoming a world-class director himself), “The Cinema of George Lucas” (2005) is must-own coffee table book for those curious about the producer/director’s work. Laid out in chronological chapters, the book begins with the filmmaker’s early life in Modesto, California, his apprenticeship under Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather”), and the founding of American Zoetrope. Each successive chapter chronicles the next directorial or production effort of George Lucas, beginning with his student work, then onto “THX-1138,” “American Graffiti,” “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “Radioland Murders,” and beyond.
There is also a detailed chapter chronicling Lucas’ little-seen 1992-1993 TV series, “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles,” which highlights Lucas’ ambition for the series to function as de facto history lessons for young viewers, as well as entertain them. There is little supplemental material for his largely forgotten TV series, and this book makes a perfect companion to it. There is also extended material on the production of the Star Wars prequels as well, which Lucas personally directed.
While I have admittedly mixed feelings on some of Lucas’ later work, there is no denying that he changed filmmaking forever. Even today I tend to think of moviemaking technology as being divided between pre and post-Star Wars. Seeing that massive paradigm shift firsthand in 1977 as a 10 year old boy, it was nothing short of a true cinematic revolution. Generations born afterward have grown up with the kinds of fast-paced editing and immersive visual effects that Lucas helped pioneer, but oldsters like myself bear in mind that he is to credit for much of what is taken for granted in entertainment today. If you can find a copy of this book on eBay or Amazon? I highly recommend it.
“THX-1138” is currently available for streaming rental on Amazon Prime Video or YouTube (prices vary from $3.99-$5.99). To my readers, I once again wish you and all of your loved ones good health and strength during the current coronavirus pandemic. The current number of COVID-related deaths in the United States are around 536,000 as of this writing. Meanwhile, several vaccines have been developed and inoculations have began in earnest (I myself have received my first shot of the Moderna vaccine), but it will take time for herd immunity. Even with vaccines, the overall situation is far from safe. Many questions remain regarding the coronavirus variants, or if vaccines fully prevent unwitting transmission from an asymptomatic carrier. So for the time being, please continue to practice social safe-distancing as often as you can, wear masks in public, and avoid overly crowded outings as much as possible. Some theaters promise safety for their screenings, but the CDC guidelines currently don’t advise indoor dining or indoor theaters, so please bear that in mind.
Take care and be safe.