George Lucas’ legacy is always going to be that he ushered in the age of the blockbuster with Star Wars, and it’s ironic when you consider that he very much saw himself as an outsider, a student of film and of storytelling who managed to make wildly successful films while butting up against studio heads. Now the formula he created is the dominant influence on American moviemaking: hot young stars in an adventure fantasy with tons of action scenes and special effects, telling serialized stories about coming to grips with destiny and fighting bad guys.
And yet, he’s largely vanished from Hollywood. Lucas has not directed a feature-length theatrical film since 2005. Since he sold the rights to the Star Wars universe, he has been mostly uninvolved in the phenomenon he created. He’s served as producer on a number of projects, but only a few have been feature-length films and none have reviewed all that well.
We think of Lucas—of all directors, really—as auteurs. We believe that they are the sole creative force behind the amazing stories that make it to the screen. This is not accurate, and Lucas’ fall from grace following the poorly received Star Wars prequels is sort of Exhibit A. The (out-of-proportion, infantile) disdain fans held for the prequels was rooted in a feeling of betrayal: How could the guy who gave us The Empire Strikes Back have also given us Jar Jar Binks and Chewbacca knowing Yoda? But lots of people gave us Star Wars. Lucas was just one among the (very important) handful of people that the first six films had in common.
THX 1138 isn’t solely a product of Lucas’ imagination, either. But when you hold it up against his other work—and it’s inevitable that you will—you see the kind of things that interested the young director from Modesto before he was famous, and the filmmaking techniques that eventually found their way into a galaxy far, far away. You see George Lucas the filmmaker, rather than George Lucas, the guy who invented Star Wars.
It is the distant future, though we don’t know when. (The 1967 short film that Lucas made while at the University of Southern California in which he set forth a sort of proof of concept for the movie is set in 2187. It was entitled, with his usual talent for the succinct, Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB.) The future is sterile and cruel. Individuality has been completely suppressed: Everybody wears blank white clothes and sports bald heads, lives in dark and unadorned homes with cohabitants they barely acknowledge, and goes to work in harsh industrial settings where hundreds of their fellow workers regularly die in nuclear meltdowns, all under the unblinking gaze of a ruthless surveillance state with a mechanized police force and a twisted synergy of consumerism and religion.
What must that be like?
The hapless THX 1138 (Robert Duvall), whose job seems to be carefully installing plutonium, is having a hard time coping with this dystopia. In a completely unintended parallel to our current lockdown, THX’s society is entirely underground, all on sickly lit indoor sets that look like they were scouted inside hospitals, factories, urban parking garages and malls. THX and his companion, LUH (Maggie McOmie), begin purposefully missing doses of their government-mandated sedatives and, horror of horrors, develop feelings for one another.
For this crime, they are separated and imprisoned. THX and the troublemaker SEN (Donald Pleasance, in a role as quirky as any of his most iconic) are herded into a bizarre prison, escaping back into a society on the hunt for them. THX manages to evade capture when his high speed car chase finally pushes law enforcement over budget, but we don’t get to see what sort of world his flight has delivered him to.
Here’s the thing. THX 1138 has nothing particularly new to say. Its authoritarian dystopia is of the kind you find in 1984 or Brave New World. Its story of a man seeking freedom beyond the stifling confines of society would have been familiar to moviegoers of 50 years ago, who were hitting theaters in the aftermath of the broken-down old Hollywood studio system to see films by young upstarts.
To the extent its world isn’t terribly original, THX 1138 makes the good choice not to sit around blathering at you about what exactly it’s about and how exactly it works. It’s mostly tableau, showing rather than telling: THX goes to work, another factory floor explodes, the exhausted surveillance state employees push the right buttons and pull the right levers to keep him under surveillance, he goes home, he watches the same kind of dumb TV we’ve always watched, and all of it takes place over a backdrop of a nightmare world. We absorb what we need to know about it while Lucas does what he does best, which is build a tactile world of special effects.
The thing audiences who saw Star Wars first will recognize, the thing that jumps out more than any other aspect of the movie, is the sound design—no surprise that Lucas named his trademark sound system after the movie. THX is monitored at all times by voices garbled or crackled over radios and computer monitors, badgered by voices over loudspeakers, that sound instantly familiar. The machinery and vehicles of the setting are constantly humming along, making the kinds of sounds that make them feel real to us in a way no old rocket-centric episode of The Twilight Zone ever did.
Even when THX is imprisoned, he’s surrounded by mostly doddering old men who are talking over or ignoring one another, who are delivering their lines in a conscious effort to convince the viewer that what they have to say is noise, the particulars of which are less important than the impression that old men who have never lifted a finger to stop the authoritarian dystopia should not be listened to. Lucas is patently not interested in the lines, and doesn’t want you to be. So many of the lines of dialogue, especially all those by the ever-present surveillance state, are delivered in this indirect, atmospheric way, meant to come across to the viewer as incidental rather than scripted.
Lucas sure is interested in the prison, though. It’s a vast white emptiness, a floor with no ceiling or walls, a featureless alternate dimension in which prisoners just mill about unattended but for the occasional beating by robot police and their zappy-sticks. Visually, you wonder how they pulled it off in 1971, as you wonder how they scouted those locations, mocked up the miniatures that they used to portray THX’s final daredevil car chase through the tunnel system with the cops hot on his heels. Lucas is a filmmaker who, at least in his early creative years, loved to ask how you could achieve things like that on film, and THX 1138 is animated by that question far more even than Star Wars, which was also at least nominally concerned with telling a character-driven story.
As for the why, that’s less important. But THX 1138 doesn’t bog you down with details that beg that question.
The movie flopped, but its mixed reviews included several that praised Lucas’ vision. And of course, six short years later, Lucas would give the world the movie that redefined special effects. Somewhere along the way, he was crowned a filmmaking genius, much as people crowned M. Night Shyamalan the same after his first few films in the early ’00s.
Neither man is or was a perfect filmmaker. Neither is any other director. When Martin Scorcese’s longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker was asked how such a nice lady like her edits such violent movies, her response was, “Ah, but they aren’t violent until I’ve edited them!” Everybody knows Scorcese’s name, or Coppola’s, or Lucas’, while much fewer know Schoonmaker’s name, or the name of the person who sat down with whatever microphones and breathing apparatuses were used to produce the sound Darth Vader makes when he breathes. Yet those things are just as important in explaining the phenomenon of Star Wars as Lucas’ original vision.
When I say THX 1138 is actually Lucas’ best film, I mean that it’s his best film, a movie that played conspicuously to his strengths as a director and mostly left behind the stuff he wasn’t capable of or interested in doing. There is accordingly no emotional denouement: THX emerges from the chthonic dystopia into a surface world drenched in bleeding red sun, and the camera is far enough away that we don’t know for sure how he feels about it, and the credits are already rolling.
But that also gives us the freedom to make of the ending what we will. Pair it with a more experienced scriptwriter and editor, and I could see it working. You wonder, if Lucas hadn’t created the world’s prototypical blockbuster and become an untouchable auteur, if he’d have made more movies like it (with a little help, of course).
Kenneth Lowe appears to be heading outside the city. You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.