Take a lightsaber to the nameless underworld dystopia of George Lucas’ THX 1138 and you could slash through the whole thing in T-Minus 30 minutes without much opposition at all. Stiff robotic guards enforce order around the complex but they’re somehow more flimsy than a pack of stormtroopers, instead, this is a land held together by complicit law and order.
George Lucas’ 1971 directorial debut precedes his time on the now-iconic Star Wars franchise, with shades of the sci-fi epic visible in his first film. Set in a dystopian future, where the population is controlled through mandatory drugs that suppress emotion and android police figures, we follow the individual titled THX 1138, a white-robed, bald-headed cog in a sterilised system. These subterranean areas are made up of prison-like apartments, corridors, and vast open space, much like the strange otherworldly interior design of a shopping mall without the luxury of the shops themselves.
The blinding porcelain whiteness of each and every wall of the vast complex creates a strange feeling of isolation. Despite the apparent enormity, life here is so devoid of character it’s claustrophobic. This is, by some stretch, the film’s strongest feature, driven by a clear stark vision from writer/director George Lucas. Not only the empty, flat decor of the inner complex but also the ethereal presentation of ‘holobroadcasts’, or the strange feral beings that inhabit the world’s outer regions. You feel as if this is a mere corner of a strange, luscious world you’d love to explore.
Likely a product of the fear of communist rule, triggering a unified body of thought, stories of the individual vs the state were not uncommon in sci-fi literature, popularised by George Orwell’s 1984 to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. A timeless story of individual struggle, of love over authority perhaps, but this is ground well-trodden and Lucas has very little to add in the story department. Characters discuss their lives and the matters of the state with a detached apathy like they don’t care what’s coming out of their mouth, or will care what comes out of yours. It’s a narrative decision that makes sense but that makes assimilation very difficult and the film, perhaps intentionally, dull. Speaking of his intentions for the film, Lucas said: “My primary concept in approaching the production of THX 1138 was to make a kind of Cinéma vérité film of the future – something that would look like a documentary crew had made a film about some character in a time yet to come.”
In this sense, a young George Lucas, in-part, achieved this by crafting a world so devoid of joy, or even much visual stimulation, that you felt it could only be real. Many dystopian sci-fi films make sure every pixel of the screen is filled with colour, digital advertisements and futuristic impressions of celebrity culture, but Lucas’ suggestion that maybe the future is far bleaker is, in some ways, visionary.
Whilst THX 1138 may not demonstrate George Lucas’ storytelling abilities, it does illustrate his deft talent for creating a convincing sci-fi world out of a mere blank canvas. This film would of course prove to be valuable experience and research in the production of the Star Wars series, from the wider intergalactic architecture to the smaller particular oddities that such a world would occupy. George Lucas is evidently a visionary filmmaker though as with The Empire Strikes Back where his role was to outline the story, his skills are simply better suited to the conceptualization of a galaxy far, far away…