The Lesser Seen 10: George Lucas’s ‘THX 1138’

thx 1138So, how many films has George Lucas actually directed? This titan of modern cinema has actually only helmed a measly six features in his four decade plus career. Four of those are Star Wars films, one is American Graffiti, and the other is THX 1138.

THX 1138 began life as a 15 minute student film called Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, which Lucas produced in 1967. After his short received some notice, Lucas was able to rework it into a full length feature film, (on which Francis Ford Coppola is credited as executive producer). It was released in March of 1971, receiving mixed reviews and little financial success. After the release of Star Wars in 1977, Lucas made some slight alterations to THX and gave it a re-release, again to little notice. He went back to it one more time in 2004, adding in some CGI tinkering and a small amount of new footage. Hey, no one loves a re-release quite like George Lucas.

Looking back at THX 1138 through the history of George Lucas productions, the first thing you can’t help but notice is how ‘mature’ it appears to be. Unlike his child friendly blockbusters, this film is aimed squarely at adults. That’s not to say that there’s a ton of sex and violence in it (there’s a bit) but the contemplative tone of the film is in sharp contrast to what we know Lucas for.

The film takes place in a colourless, dystopian city of the future. Everyone is bald and dressed in the same plain garment. No-one has a name, only assigned initials and numbers. Human emotions are suppressed by mandatory, enforced drugs, and sex is illegal. It is a very dreary looking future to be sure. THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) is one of the many emotionless drones working at an android-producing factory. One day, his roommate LUH 3417, begins altering her medication and then his too, enabling them to experience feelings for the first time, and ultimately putting them in danger for breaking the law.

One can’t help but notice a few visual similarities to Star Wars that pop up here and there, such as the projected holograms and the androids, but a lot of the imagery and visuals of THX 1138 are quite striking in their bleak depiction of the future.

Unfortunately, the film’s is, on the whole, a very slow moving and un-engaging affair. The plot is quite confusing and it’s often difficult to deduce what’s actually going on and why. The dialogue, Lucas’s famous weak point, is minimal, but having a story about emotion-free people isn’t going to result in particularly interesting characters. I’m not saying it needed to spell itself out blatantly but a little assistance would have helped. As it is, the film may have some good ideas buried within it of the individual rebelling against the oppressive regime holding them down, but Lucas generates no excitement in telling this story.THX1138 poster

THX 1138 is worth checking out for its vast differences to the work George Lucas would later gain fame and fortune for, perhaps offering a glimpse of where he might have gone had Star Wars been a failure. But it also serves that American Graffiti aside, Lucas has maybe always been someone much better at coming up with ideas for stories than conveying them himself.


‘The Lesser Seen’ is a feature in which I highlight a lower-profile film or two by a well-known director.


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