Six years before he entered the canon of legendary American filmmakers with the release of Star Wars, George Lucas was a 25-year-old film student who had just been given an unusual opportunity. Faced with the (perhaps unexpected) opportunity to direct a motion picture for a major American film studio, Lucas chose to expand on his own 1967 student film, which had impressed an 18-year-old Steven Spielberg and won the prize for best drama at the 1969 National Student Film Festival. Lucas later described the concept as a “cinema verité film of the future – something that would look like a documentary crew had made a film about some characters in a time yet to come.”
Taking place in the 25th century, THX 1138 chronicles an escape from the clutches of an overbearing police state, our two protagonists pursued by the underground city’s android police force. Starring Robert Duvall as the eponymous lowly factory employee, joined by Donald Pleasence as his partner-in-escape SEN, THX himself was the hero of one of the first major works of science fiction dystopia in film. Joined by friend Francis Ford Coppola and his anti-studio studio American Zoetrope, Lucas had managed to convince Warner Bros. to pick up THX as one of seven planned films from Coppola’s firm. Equipped with a budget of $777,777.77 (seven was purportedly Coppola’s lucky number), Lucas and his production crew began filming the movie in San Francisco in September 1969. Production continued for a little over a month, at locations that included San Francisco International Airport, the Lawrence Hall of Science, and two underground tunnels that were used for the chase sequences – San Francisco’s Broadway tunnel and the Alameda Tunnel, which carries traffic between downtown Oakland and Oakland International Airport.
Though he had taught a course in photography at the University of Southern California, Lucas was still relatively inexperienced in the finer points of directing, and production presented a learning curve for him in numerous areas, including in his relationship with the cast. “I think George was not comfortable with actors,” Don Pedro Colley, who portrayed the hologram SRT, later said. “We were not chess pieces he could move around in his technical wizardry.”
THX is a sterile-looking picture, as colorless and bleak as a color film has ever managed. Though the sets are often vast and open, the entire film is full of a claustrophobic, almost suffocating sense of dread. Permeated by a feel of dialogue-light, not-quite-there haziness reminiscent of Kubrick’s 2001, for its time the movie was nonetheless unique in its vision of a polished, gleaming exterior to a future that is anything but free.
The film’s plot draws on the work of writers such as Aldous Huxley and George Orwell more than on the comic strips and serials that would later form the basis for Star Wars. Equally critical of mass surveillance and mass consumerism (“Buy more. Buy more now. Buy, and be happy.”), it is cynical and dystopic, decidedly rebellious in tone, and unmistakably a product of the American political milieu of the late 1960s. The story’s drug-addled and complacent masses are straight out of Huxley’s Brave New World, and the city’s omniscient and omnipresent computer system is strongly reminiscent of Nineteen Eighty-four’s Big Brother. As in Orwell’s novel, the citizens of THX’s world are emotionally repressed, leading lives of unquestioning obedience to the state in lieu of any personal connections. Until the film’s main characters begin to withdraw from the tyrannical society, weaning themselves off their mind-numbing, government-issued pharmaceuticals, they are perfect symbols of alienation and rebellion. Later in the film, engaged in active revolt against the tyrannical state, they are radical analogues to the waning counterculture movement, representative of the ships-passing-in-the-night generational disconnect that had shaped the politics of the late 1960s.
But, more than an Orwellian examination of government control and social isolation, THX 1138 is a true marvel of cinematic engineering. Following up on the experimental student film (Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB) that had inspired it, the studio production featured pioneering effects work of the type that would become familiar in Lucas’s later work. The title character’s second-act imprisonment in a seemingly boundless white limbo world was filmed on a pair of sound stages, in a studio that had once been owned by Elvis Presley. The camera used to shoot the scene was five feet long, equipped with a one-thousand-millimeter lens, and was unable to focus properly at distances less than 250 feet. It required a team of five cameramen to operate.
“The first time I entered the stage,” Colley said, “I found myself lifting up my feet as if I were walking in knee-deep cotton. You had to hold your arms out for balance until your eyes could focus. … This whole unit was set up at the back of one stage, facing out the huge sliding doors … into the other stage of the white set, where the fifth part of the crew was stationed on the catwalk. On the floor of the white stage were distance marks for the camera [to] focus. … As the actors moved through the stage, passing these marks, adjustments were choreographed like a huge ballet.”
The climactic chase scene of the film’s third act was shot on location in a pair of Bay Area automotive tunnels. The cars – modified Lola and Chapperell racing cars – drove at speeds of up to 140 MPH during filming, according to cameraman Caleb Deschanel.
For his part, despite the disconnect he noted between director and cast, Don Pedro Colley recalls a brief moment of almost mystical import during filming of the “limbo” scene. “Just out of camera range sat George atop a four-step ladder, directing,” Colley said. “This may sound strange, but, as I watched this circus unfold, I looked over to George, and I swear I saw a halo reflected around his head. With his beard and longish black hair, he, for a split second, looked like one of those cameo shots of Jesus you might see on the wall of your friend’s bathroom. Somehow, even the black horned rim glasses he wears fit in the whole image.”
Production of the film concluded in late October 1969, and from there the film moved into post-production. George Lucas and co-screenwriter Walter Murch began the task of editing THX at Lucas’s home in Mill Valley. While Lucas compiled the finished cut of the film, Murch focused his work on the complex audio track, which, as Roger Ebert would later comment upon its release, “[adds] to the illusion of a distant and different society. What dialogue there is seems half-heard, half-forgotten; people talk in a bemused way, as if the drugs had made them indifferent. Their words are suspended in a muted, echoing atmosphere in which only the computer-programmed recorded announcements seem confident.”
Editing took the greater part of 1970 to complete, but Murch and Lucas had handed over an almost-final cut to Warner by the end of summer. Barring a few last-minute edits by the studio, the film was complete. When it finally premiered in March 1971, THX 1138 proved a modest success. By the end of its run it had grossed slightly under $2.5 million, returning its budget to Warner and American Zoetrope three times over. George Lucas may not have been Jesus, but in the summer of 1971, he successfully made the transition from graduate student at a film school to the role of professional director.