So, we got this new STAR WARS movie coming up at the end of the month. The world has breathed a sigh of relief that the Star Wars story and characters have been liberated from the tyrannical grip of their creator and are finally where they belong: as a trademarked intellectual property of the Walt Disney corporation to hire different less visionary/uppity directors to make authorized fake versions of every year forever.
But what do we really know about former Star Wars creator George Lucas, other than that he is one of history’s greatest monsters and childhood rapers? Not much. We know he moved millions of people for generations with his Star Wars movies, revolutionized the technology of special effects and theater presentation, sold his creations for $4.05 billion (actual number, not funny exaggerated one) and then donated almost all of that to charity. That’s kind of nice trivia, but of course it doesn’t change the sinister fact that he altered a bunch of things in his beloved movies years after the fact and then made three new movies that some people thought were bad, making him the boogie man of twenty first century pop culture.
But perhaps there is a way for us to separate the artist from the special editioner. Exhaustive research has uncovered evidence of Lucas’s name in the credits of other films that do not even take place in space. Outlawvern.com is prepared to EXCLUSIVELY report that George Lucas had a hand in some movies that weren’t about any star wars at all. And though it may be painful, though it may be politically uncorrect, I thought maybe they would be worth getting to know and understand. How do we prevent this from happening again, etc.
So, throughout this next month or two, depending on how long it takes me, I will be doing LUCAS MINUS STAR WARS, reviewing every non-Star-Wars movie released by his company Lucasfilm (note: I already reviewed HOWARD THE DUCK so I might skip that one) and a few others that he had a hand in outside of his company, starting with his directorial debut THX 1138.
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The time: late 1960s. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 has not yet odysseyed to the screen, and the science fiction movies coming out are things like MARS NEEDS WOMEN, THEY CAME FROM BEYOND SPACE, THE X FROM OUTER SPACE and SON OF GODZILLA. It is the year of THE GRADUATE and BONNIE AND CLYDE, the beginning of a revolution in American film. But the latest short film that 23 year old USC film student George Lucas decides to make is not in step with any of these things. It’s an experimental dystopian chase film called ELECTRONIC LABYRINTH: THX 1138 4EB.
Like many student films, ELECTRONIC LABYRINTH is a bit of a chore to sit through. Lucas’s later hallmarks of high speed action, innovative special effects and especially classically structured stories are in short supply. Mostly it’s a sign of his future obsessions with sound design, computer displays and degraded digital imagery. Escaping worker bee THX 1138 EB (Dan Natchsheim)’s movements are monitored through layers of distorted radio voices, beeps and security camera footage in a lo-fi high tech future that would be echoed in movies like DARK STAR, ALIEN and STAR WARS. And also Jodorowsky’s DUNE and Kenneth Anger’s STARGATE SG1 I suppose.
While Lucas was still in school his buddy Francis Ford Coppola had worked for Roger Corman and directed real movies. He was hot shit around town but back then they didn’t have studio tentpoles to sign you up for, so he just went and started his own studio, American Zoetrope, and helped Lucas make his short into a feature. A real movie with dialogue and characters and what not, starring Robert Duvall (the year before Coppola used him in THE GODFATHER) and released by Warner Brothers.
By this time it was 1971, and science fiction films were beginning to change. Since ELECTRONIC LABYRINTH we’d seen not only 2001 but two thoughtful PLANET OF THE APES movies and the post-apocalypse drama GLEN AND RANDA. Meanwhile, in Canada, David Cronenberg was launching his own hard-to-sit-through experimental sci-fi shorts STEREO and CRIMES OF THE FUTURE. Soon it would be more common to make a sci-fi movie that’s trying to say something about the world than one that has the words “FROM OUTER SPACE” in the title.
The feature version of THX is still arty and depressing, but it has more of a discernible story and world to wrap your head around. I guess it’s a stepping stone in the path between his student films and his future as a popcorn movie crowd-pleaser. This one does not seem intended to please crowds and in fact did not. Duvall plays THX (Thex to his friends), a cog in a world of shaved heads, white hallways and jumpsuits, where people live underground, perform inhuman jobs controlling robot arms to build more robots, working long shifts that they can’t get through without mandatory, government-prescribed pills. They’re assigned roommates by computer and are kept in line by silver-faced robot cops with electrified clubs who are known to go Rodney King on a guy. When THX gets home from work his favorite thing to watch is just footage of a cop endlessly clubbing some dude.
THX’s roommate LUH (Maggie McOmie), a lady, has a rebellious streak. She starts switching out his meds so he’s not as sedated as he’s legally required to be, and is able to get a taste of what it’s like to be a real living human being type of person. Next thing you know he’s performing illegal sex and cuddling and realizing he should try to get the hell out of this god damn sunless soul-crushing hellhole that seems to be the whole world.
Some of the subtext describes a world we’re not that familiar with. The idea of a government trying to stop sex and control reproduction will ring true in some countries, but not that much here, not in this way. However, a world of thankless, menial, abusive jobs, pharmaceutically balanced emotions, violent police disconnected from and without empathy for the civilians, braindead comfort-viewing of mind-numbing entertainment and a society-wide worship of commerce all have obvious modern parallels in the same way the worlds and stories of THEY LIVE and THE MATRIX do.
As in most societies, the powers that be cynically use religion to control the masses. These guys have whittled the whole thing down to a deviously simple parlor trick: a pre-programmed confession booth that’s a variation on that famous computerized psychoanalyst that mostly keeps asking you “How does this make you feel?” But its blessings don’t seem all that spiritual: “Work hard, increase production, prevent accidents and be happy.”
LUH has a co-worker named SEN (Donald Pleasence) who’s liable to get everybody in trouble. I know he wants out of this shit just like any reasonable person, but I don’t trust that weirdo. He sneakily gets himself transferred to be THX’s roommate. They end up busted and on trial together and stuck in a room of crazies out of ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST, including Sid Haig.
The movie really traffics on a fear of whiteness, blankness, nothingness, the void. What would be worse than a world with no color, no flavor, no… anything? It physicalizes the idea of extreme isolation as the characters are lost in a sea of nothing but white as far as the eye can see. I mean that was cool for DMX’s apartment in BELLY, but he could always go outside or watch GUMMO if he needed to. These poor people are stuck in that world.
And speaking of whiteness, almost everybody in the movie is Caucasion, and I think this is intentional. I believe for a while the only black people you see are comedians on TV. Later, while escaping through that endless white void, THX and SEN are excited to see another person (Don Pedro Colley) in the distance, waving at them. But when they get close enough to see that he’s black they get kinda scared. Fuckin white people. Still, he turns out to know what he’s doing and leads them out of there. (He also turns out to be one of the holograms from TV.)
This is not a graphic movie at all, but it’s pretty fuckin grim. That means that (SPOILER) the state kills LUH and we don’t even see it. We just hear that she’s been “consumed” and her name has been re-assigned to a fetus. Hell of a recycling program they got there.
SEN the hologram SRT steal a couple cars. Remember, George Lucas is George Lucas, so even in his depressing art movie there’s gonna be a pretty serious car chase. In the tradition of Michael Myers THX does very well driving, but dumb fucking SEN SRT immediately crashes. Like, barely pulls out of his parking space before it’s over. The only ever worse getaway in cinematic history is in OUT OF SIGHT when he robs the bank and then can’t get the engine to start and the cop says “I think you flooded it.”
But THX drives his car in a tunnel, reportedly at 140 mph, chased by some police on motorcycles, and there’s a great motorcycle crash stunt. Ultimately he’s able to get away when the computer calculates that the police chase has gone over budget and it’s more cost effective to just let him go. Finally capitalism cuts a guy a break.
Lucas had help on the script from Walter Murch, who also designed the sound. He had done the sound for Copolla’s THE RAIN PEOPLE and would also go on to edit APOCALYPSE NOW and THE GODFATHER: PART III and to direct RETURN TO OZ.
Like the STAR WARS pictures, modern releases of THX 1138 are a tinkered-with special edition. The director’s cut is 2 minutes longer and features a little bit of new footage and some digital alterations. Some of it looks very weird, with circa 2004 digital effects that don’t hold up. In one part he gets attacked by CGI monkeys. I don’t get it. But THX 1138 has never been beloved like STAR WARS. It’s best known as a reference: the license number on Milner’s yellow hot rod, a cell number on the Death Star, the name of Lucas’s theater sound system certification program. Nobody said this special edition ruined their childhood, because if this gloomy movie was their favorite growing up they must’ve had it pretty bad already.
After you’ve grown up, though, I recommend checking it out.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.