The Cinema Behind Star Wars: THX 1138

Many of the ideas found in Star Wars were previously explored -- in George Lucas' first film.

 

It might seem rather obvious that the films of George Lucas would influence George Lucas and Star Wars, but there’s so much of the spirit of Star Wars in the director’s early films, I thought it was worth revisiting them.

George Lucas’ first feature film from 1971 was a hard-science fiction film that audiences today might call dystopian in nature called THX 1138. It’s about an almost alien society, oppressive in nature, that controls its citizens with drugs and religion. THX 1138 is actually the designation of the main character, played by Robert Duvall. His wife, LUH 3417, begins purposely mixing up his medications so that he might come out of the stupor of his reality. The society is so oppressive, he’s not even sure who he can trust or how to escape, but he does know that he needs to get out.

The film explores themes that seem almost universal to the work of George Lucas. That the unnamed, faceless automatons are oppressing a people and robbing of their individuality is seen pervasively through Star Wars. And the naming convention in the world of THX, letters and then digits, matches the naming structure of the clones and later the stormtroopers.

THX 1138

THX’s struggle to find his inner-humanity and rebel against the system is the same story that any rebel goes through. He goes on a hero’s journey, fighting the demons within himself so that he can fight (or in the case of THX 1138, escape) the oppressors.

There are a number of audio and visual motifs in THX 1138 that followed George Lucas across his films. Take, for example, the control rooms in THX and compare them to the Death Star Control Room in Star Wars and Return of the Jedi.

Another important bit of imagery that made its way into both films is the counting down of numbers. THX 1138 uses them to count off sections of the movie or to imply an unusual effect to cut between takes and scenes. In Star Wars this technique is refined significantly. As we watch the Death Star tick closer to the moon of Yavin and the rebel pilots edge closer to the thermal exhaust port, numbers click down on the targeting computers, helping us visualize just how little time is left before the final destruction of the Alliance and the end of their “insignificant” rebellion.

Throughout all of his films, another thing George Lucas dealt with were sequences that increasingly convey speed and danger. In THX 1138, THX is racing on a stolen motorcycle, doing his best to escape the oppressive forces that would keep him drugged and consuming more. Filming in the yet-to-be-used BART tunnels in San Francisco, Lucas found ways to increase the tension of these chases. First, you have tunnels, then in Star Wars you have the trench run. Then he adds trees to the mix in Return of the Jedi, then the Podrace in Phantom Menace and the traffic in Attack of the Clones.

As far as audio, Walter Murch, who co-wrote the film with Lucas and was responsible for the sound montages, was able to design soundscapes in THX 1138 among the controllers and faceless operators in the film that were later emulated during the trench run.

Pong Krell

Murch himself is another significant connection to Star Wars that THX 1138 has. Murch directed “The General,” the first episode of the Umbara arc in Star Wars: The Clone Wars.

The way this film is edited, as well, shares something in common with all the Star Wars films. Lucas is able to communicate story in the juxtaposition of shots of people flipping switches and pushing buttons to tell a story without any accompanying dialogue.

I’m reminded of the moment in The Phantom Menace during the Podrace where Anakin is trying to put out the fire in his pod engines. It feels like the sort of filmmaking that Lucas did in THX 1138.

Another technique first used by Lucas in THX 1138 that finds itself in Star Wars in more than a few spots is dialogue completely unnecessary to the film. During a scene in THX 1138, we’re shown monitors being watched by a pair of operators we don’t see and they’re having a conversation about something completely unrelated to the story. The every day nature of their conversation tells us much about their day to day lives and how unremarkable the things they’re witnessing on the screen, of THX gesticulating and flailing in pain, are. This is mirrored in Star Wars with the stormtroopers left to guard the bridge across the chasm of the Death Star, discussing that new BT-16. The same thing happens with a pair of Gungans in the first sweeping shot on the inside of Otoh Gunga in The Phantom Menace.

Dave Filoni, supervising director and executive producer of Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, cites THX 1138 as a key to understanding Star Wars itself. In an interview with me at New York Comic Con, (which you can listen to on the Full of Sith podcast here) Filoni explained that the oppressive regime that became the Empire was always in the mind of George Lucas. “You have to look at the society he’s portraying in THX as the Empire. I saw a correlation there, from the shot compositions, the musical cues… It’s my [goal], as we move forward, to always appreciate the DNA that is George Lucas that was in everything he made because it’s so important to Star Wars.”

Where Star Wars is one of the most important space operas and epics ever made, I’d count THX 1138 as one of the most important hard science fiction films ever made. The acting is flawless, Duvall brings a confusion to the film that is palpable and Donald Pleasance as SEN brings a gleeful menace to the film that needs to be seen to be believed. It’s a must see for anyone who wants to better understand the filmmaking acumen of George Lucas and the roots of cinematic vocabulary that make each of the Star Wars films great. It’s definitely one of my favorite films and I imagine after watching it, it would be one of your favorites as well.

THX 1138 is rated R by the MPAA for some sexuality and nudity. It’s something I’d consider showing to my teenager, but it might not be appropriate for younger kids.

Availability: THX 1138 is readily available on Blu-ray and DVD (I’d recommend the director’s cut). It is also available for a modest rental fee on streaming platforms like Amazon and iTunes.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmaker, journalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of Sith.

You can also follow him on Twitter.

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