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After completing the mainstream musical Finian's Rainbow (1968) for Warner Brothers, young director Francis Ford Coppola proposed that the studio invest in a new production entity based in San Francisco which would make high quality films at a low cost by using young, fresh talent. Like the other major studios at the time, Warners was unsure of their production slate in an era that saw enormous box-office returns for low-budget youth-oriented films like Easy Rider (1969). Coppola established American Zoetrope, and wrote and directed The Rain People (1969), starring James Caan and Robert Duvall. Several other movies were slated for production at American Zoetrope, but the only one that saw completion was THX 1138 (1971). Coppola had befriended a film student named George Lucas, who in 1967 had made a 15-minute science fiction film at the University of Southern California called THX 1138:4EB. The short film won several awards, and with it Lucas also won an internship at Warners and was sent to observe the filming of Finian's Rainbow. Lucas then served as an assistant on The Rain People, after which Coppola felt the 25-year-old was ready to turn his short film into a feature.
In the Twenty-Fifth Century, a totalitarian society works and lives under a strict, and bland, rule. Dress is plain white and heads are shaved, and everyone is on a regimen of sedative drugs; those who do not take medication are punished for "drug evasion." THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) is a worker who is part of a group that helps assemble the robot police who enforce the rules of society. He slowly becomes aware of his bleak existence because his female roommate, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie), has been diluting his medication. THX discovers love and sex intercourse has also been outlawed, replaced by artificial insemination. When the couple is found out, punishment is swift. THX finds himself held prisoner in a white void. He meets another rebel, SEN (Donald Pleasence), and together with a Hologram (Don Pedro Colley) escaping the "entertainment circuits," they determine to leave the void and the oppressive underground society.
Lucas made clever use of some existing locations for his stark, futuristic sets. For the chase sequences at the end of the film, Lucas shot in several mass transit tunnels, such as the Alameda tunnel in Oakland, California, which stretches between the airport and downtown, and the then-unfinished Broadway tunnel in San Francisco. For the impressive "void prison" sequences, Lucas filmed an enormous white set, shot with a lens so long that the camera had to be set up on an adjoining stage as the technicians communicated with each other by radio headsets. Actor Don Pedro Colley described the void set in an interview: "The floor of one stage was constructed with curved walls up to the catwalks, then painted white. The first time I entered the stage, I found myself lifting 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 on depth perception."
The storyline for THX 1138 may seem exceedingly bleak, especially from the man who would later hatch the Star Wars saga. There are moments of dark comedy to be found, however. As John Brosnan points out in his book, Future Tense: The Cinema of Science Fiction, "[one] Star Wars seed in THX 1138 is the obvious fun Lucas has with robots. For all their apparent efficiency they're far from perfect, and their foibles provide the film's main source of humor: ...'Please come back,' cries a robot as the unheeding THX flees... 'we only want to help you.'"
Writing in the genre fan magazine Cinefantastique, Dale Winogura called THX 1138 a "brilliant minor masterpiece," comparing it favorably to Metropolis (1927) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). He has high praise for the director, saying "Claustrophobia is the main concept of the film, and Lucas visually realizes this through extreme close-ups and long shots of people surrounded by machinery or white empty space." Mainstream critic Roger Ebert found that "the movie's strength is not in its story but in its unsettling and weirdly effective visual and sound style. ...The sound effects add to the illusion of a distant and different society. The dialogue 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."
Ebert was justified in praising the sound montages in THX 1138. They were created by Walter Murch, who was also the co-screenwriter with Lucas on the film. Murch had worked previously as a sound designer with Coppola on The Rain People, and with Lucas on the Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter (1970). Following his notable work on THX 1138, Murch would go on to define the modern age of sound editing, re-recording and montage in Lucas' American Graffiti (1973) and Coppola's The Conversation (1974), creating aural landscapes that were as important to the storytelling in those films as the visuals and acting. (Lucas always recognized the importance of sound in both filmmaking and in theatre exhibition, and when Murch and others at Lucas' Skywalker Sound developed new audio reproduction techniques for use in theaters worldwide, it's worth noting that the system was named THX).
When American Zoetrope handed THX 1138 over to Warner Brothers, the studio heads were perplexed to say the least. The film was reedited without Lucas' approval, and the result was quietly released with a minimum of publicity. Although reviews were quite positive, the film died at the box-office. Coppola's San Francisco company was dissolved, although he would revive it in a spectacular fashion following the enormous success of The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part II (1974), which were produced at Paramount Pictures.
Speaking on a DVD commentary, Lucas has said of THX 1138, "It was designed to be a metaphor about the way we lived in the early '60s; about consumerism, about conformity, disintegration of emotions, of trying to make everything perfect in a way that was nightmarish." Speaking of trying to make everything perfect, Lucas revisited his first feature in 2004 for THX 1138: The George Lucas Director's Cut. In this edition, he not only reedited the film 33 years after Warner Brothers took it out of his hands, he also made several changes and additions using CGI technology, creating some new environments and characters. As with the altered versions of his first three Star Wars films, this "tinkering" opened the director up to a fair amount of criticism from fans of the original 1971 film.
Executive Producer: Francis Ford Coppola
Producer: Larry Sturhahn
Director: George Lucas
Screenplay: George Lucas, Walter Murch, based on a story and earlier short film by George Lucas
Cinematography: Albert Kihn, David Myers
Music: Lalo Schifrin
Film Editing: George Lucas
Art Direction: Michael Haller
Sound Montage: Walter Murch
Cast: Robert Duvall (THX 1138), Donald Pleasence (SEN 5241), Don Pedro Colley (Hologram SRT), Maggie McOmie (LUH 3417), Ian Wolfe (PTO, the old prisoner), Marshall Efron (TWA), Sig Haig (NCH), John Pearce (DWY).
by John M. Miller