George Lucas is one of the most famous and successful filmmakers in movie history. His creation of the Star Wars franchise changed Hollywood forever and made him a permanent household name — even if many fans still debate his basic abilities as a filmmaker.
Despite Lucas’ ongoing renown and global popularity, the list of movies he directed himself is surprisingly limited. He only has a director credit on four of the Star Wars movies (the original Star Wars and the prequels), and beyond that, his filmography includes just two additional feature films.
One of them is American Graffiti, his observant and still warmly regarded portrait of a group of graduating Californian teenagers in the early 1960s. The other film, however, not only happens to be Lucas’ first feature effort but also his most underrated.
That film is the sci-fi dystopian drama THX 1138, and it’s available to stream now on HBO Max. Here’s why you need to check it out.
THX 1138 holds a strange place in Lucas’ filmography. The 1971 sci-fi thriller, which Lucas directed and co-wrote with Walter Murch, takes place in a dystopian future where people are controlled through mandatory consumption of drugs and the constant presence of android police. The populace is suppressed, sex and reproduction are banned, compliance is expected to be unconditional, and peoples’ names are made up of a random combination of letters and numbers.
In other words, it’s a far cry from the fairy tale, western, and samurai-influenced world that Lucas created in Star Wars. In THX 1138, there are no princesses, lightsabers, or a mystical force that binds everything together. There is only numbness, obedience, and paranoia.
The film follows its title character (played with incredible precision by Robert Duvall) as he finds himself falling in love with a woman and seeking to free himself of the oppression that has come to define his life. To say whether or not he manages to find that freedom at the end of the film, would be to say too much. It’s better to see what happens for yourself.
While this dystopia may be darker and less vibrant than Lucas’ galaxy far, far away, the same cannot be said for his direction. THX 1138 sees Lucas at his most stylistic and artistic. It’s directed with a coldness that further sells the sci-fi nightmare it's depicting, and Lucas employs some of the most unique editing techniques of his career to tell its central story.
Lucas cuts rapidly between surveillance footage, extreme close-ups of datasheets rolling by, and even the sound waves of voice patterns, directly adapting the tricks of 1960s experimental cinema he and his peers came up watching. This helps communicate the film’s concerns about humanity, technology, and surveillance without having to resort to expositional dialogue.
THX 1138 is also full of memorable images and compositions, and the overwhelming use of white throughout gives it an eerie and sickening aesthetic. If nothing else, the film is a reminder of just how capable Lucas has always been at creating unique and instantly iconic visual imagery.
THX 1138 was not a success when it premiered in 1971. The initial critical response was mixed and its box office performance was underwhelming. But praise for the film has grown quite a bit in the 50 years since its original release and it seems to earn more and more admirers as the years go on. That’s a good thing too, considering just how distinctive and compelling of a science-fiction film THX 1138 really is.
THX 1138 is available to stream now on HBO Max.