When George Lucas
began working on Star Wars
, he probably had no idea it would overshadow everything else he'd ever done. Today, many young fans discovering the Lucasfilm pantheon are familiar with the Star Wars
and the Indiana Jones
movies, but they may have never seen American Graffiti
, and even fewer have heard of THX 1138
THX 1138 was George Lucas' first feature film and first crack at science fiction. Thirty-three years after its 1971 release, THX 1138 has been obscured by the success of subsequent Lucasfilm projects, but it's not forgotten. THX 1138 was a unique filmmaking achievement that remains compelling and relevant to today's audience, and should be of interest to Star Wars fans.
The THX 1138 story is often compared to those of visionary writers like George Orwell, Aldous Huxley and Philip K. Dick. Yet, like Star Wars, which drew inspiration from everything from Flash Gordon to Akira Kurosawa, THX 1138's strength lies in its ability to combine a wide variety of influences and create a new experience.
The liner notes on the 1983 Warner Home Video release of the film describe it this way: "It is the 25th century. Humanity has crept underground to live like insects in a high-tech computerized hive where men and women live in a drug-soothed stupor with no names, no identity, no hardships ... and no memory of the birthright they have forsaken." The film follows the plight of THX 1138, superbly portrayed by Robert Duvall in his first starring role, and his cubicle mate LUH 3417 played by Maggie McOmie.
THX and LUH begin to crack under the strain of their rigid life, they stop taking drugs, they start having illegal sexual urges for each other. The central authorities intervene, THX is accused of "criminal drug evasion" and incarcerated. THX finally makes a mad dash for freedom and reaches the surface. Is it a moment of triumph or simply an escape to an unlivable nuclear-scorched Earth? See the movie, you decide.
Although it never reached a huge audience, THX 1138 left its dystopian fingerprints on the American mind. Consider some of its enduring images. Maggie McOmie looked beautiful with a shaved head years before Persis Khambatta or Sinead O'Connor. The Rodney King beating looks like it could have been rotoscoped from a THX scene were robot police are shown on TV clubbing a man with nightsticks. Lalo Schifrin's haunting ambient score predates similar aural experiments like Brian Eno's Music for Airports. Chrome policemen walking into walls, throngs of bald children, telephone booth-style robot confessionals -- all linger in the mind of the viewer.
It's hard to believe that two so completely different science fiction sagas came out of the same man's mind. Star Wars is a lush, expansive space opera filled with hope, joy and excitement, while THX 1138 is a tense, paranoid vision of the future laced with black comedy.
Despite these differences, the success of Star Wars was the main reason for THX 1138's new lease on life. Fans who had enjoyed THX 1138's nightmare vision of the future in 1971 had their own expectations of Star Wars. When Star Wars was first released in 1977, its most ardent critics were sci-fi purists who accused the film of being short on concepts and characterization, and long on cowboy-style action. SF writer Harlan Ellison caused an uproar in the pages of Starlog with his criticism of the film. He even got into heated exchanges with Mark Hamill during Mark's tireless promotion of the film.
Ben Bova, then editor of science fiction journal Analog, and author of the THX 1138 novelization, wrote disparagingly of Star Wars in a 1977 letter to the New York Times: "Those of us who work in the field of science fiction professionally look for something more than Saturday afternoon shoot-'em-ups when we got to a science fiction film. We have been disappointed many times, but I had expected more of Lucas." Bova probably lived to eat those words as Star Wars went on to create a new generation of science fiction fans, some of whom may have ended up as Analog readers. What it came down to was that Star Wars was not all things to all science fiction fans. Becoming almost instantaneously the most popular science fiction film of all time, it became a lightning rod for those who felt that true science fiction was the mature intellectualizations of Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein.
The point that critics missed in 1977 was that George Lucas had already made his mature, intellectual sci-fi epic six years earlier in the form of THX 1138. THX 1138 was by most accounts a creative success. Although it did poorly at the box office, critics responded well, and the film received a screening at the Cannes Film Festival.
Lucas was an adventurous filmmaker. He did THX 1138 and was proud of it. He had absolutely no desire to do the same thing over again. Indeed, he had already done it twice, since THX 1138 was an expanded version of a short film he had made.
He had done his futuristic conceptual sci-fi piece and wanted to give a new kind of fairy tale to a mythless generation. Anyone close to Lucas would expect that his second foray into science fiction would be completely different from his first. Nevertheless, Lucas was accused of turning his back on the sophisticated sci-fi crowd.