Welcome to the future. Numbers rule the world. Individuality is supressed. Freedom is non-existent. Robotic drones herd people around an underground city on behalf of a computerised autocracy that operates society like one huge calculator. And the slaves, when not enduring benign platitudes from the powers-that-be, are judged solely on their ability to generate profit.
Sound familiar? If you’re feeling especially cynical, this pessimistic scenario may come close to describing your feelings about 21st century capitalist society. And it was certainly a vision of the future envisaged by Star Wars creator George Lucas back in 1971, when he released his feature film debut THX 1138. A mix of prison break and dystopian sci-fi, the movie stars Robert Duvall as the eponymous protagonist, joining fellow dehumanised baldies LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) and SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasance) in a bid for freedom from a world obsessed with efficiency and control.
|Robert Duvall and George Lucas |
on the set of THX 1138 (Credit: Lucasfilm)
You can’t blame them either. Their home is a vast subterranean cellar devoid of personality and natural light, where citizens are sedated on prescription drugs to ensure they remain docile, and sex is banned as an act of deviancy. As a piece of futuristic thinking, THX 1138 is a very derivative one though, channelling a few too many Orwellian clichés to ever be truly thought-provoking, and suffering from a flat, underdeveloped storyline.
Yet what it lacks in insight and narrative flair, THX 1138 makes up for in technical excellence and cinematic chutzpah. Lucas’s bold production design, love of visual experimentation and innovative use of sound are striking examples of how you can craft a total cinematic vision from modest resources. Like his characters, you sense the director is striving to break away from conformity in THX 1138, putting his own idiosyncratic stamp on the world in the hope of greater career opportunities.
|Recognise the number plate? The customised coupe driven |
by Paul LeMat in American Graffiti (Credit: Lucasfilm)
Freedom casts an alluring shadow over Lucas’s next film, the critically lauded and hugely profitable American Graffiti. Lucas’s sophomore effort is set in 1962 in the small Californian town of Modesto, where four young men enjoy a last night of teenage meandering before going their separate ways. In similar fashion to THX 1138, Lucas eschews plot in favour of rich period detail and a loose, freewheeling narrative powered by a joyous soundtrack that swaps computerised trickery with infectious jukebox classics.
It was a combination that hit the bullseye. Cheap to make, coining it in at the box office and nominated for a clutch of Oscars, American Graffiti bristles with potential and beautifully captures the boredom, restlessness and anxieties of adolescence. Richard Dreyfuss and Ron Howard have their lives ahead of them but still feel trapped inside, caught between familiarity, stagnation and bewildering opportunity. They’re all on the cusp of something for sure, but they’re not sure what, and you can imagine this is how Lucas must have felt himself, as he began to carve out a reputation as a promising young turk at the forefront of the New Hollywood movement.
Destiny arrived in 1977, when Lucas made a space adventure about a humble young farm boy searching for his place in the world. Star Wars became a cultural phenomenon, changed the movie landscape, created a merchandising empire that dwarfed the movie’s box office takings and made its creator rich beyond the dreams of avarice. As Luke Skywalker matured from novice to Jedi, Lucas came of age spectacularly too: a classic American success story which Modesto’s teens would have killed for, regardless of the fact that he suffered a nervous breakdown and vowed never to direct again.
Turns out he didn’t need to. In the wake of his triumph, George set up Lucasfilm and its special effects subsidiary Industrial Light and Magic, oversaw two megabucks Star Wars sequels, co-created another runaway franchise about a rugged archaeologist called Indiana Jones, and became one of the wealthiest, respected and most independent of all Hollywood titans.
|Legend in the making: Mark Hamill, Lucas |
and Harrison Ford (Credit: TCD/VP/LMKMEDIA)
Sadly, Lucas’s new found power and freedom saw his talents as a filmmaker swallowed whole. In 1999 he returned to direction with The Phantom Menace, the first of three lacklustre Star War prequels that feel as soulless and clinical as the calculated regime in THX 1138. In 2012, he cashed in by selling the whole shebang to Disney to the tune of $4 billion, completing a career arc that began with a film about the evil of numbers and ended with his transformation into, well, a numbers man.
It’s easy to be cynical though. To his detractors, Lucas is an ambitious young cineaste who sold out to the Dark Side of corporate America, and now like Anakin Skywalker, remains forever encased in a mask and identity stifling his true self. His fans would suggest otherwise of course, hailing him as a popular hero in the Luke mould, a maverick entertainer who has fulfilled his destiny by channelling his flair for storytelling, innovation and technology into a beacon of creative inspiration for millions. Thanks to Lucas, The Force will always be with us. Yet the raw, provocative energy of THX 1138 remains buried deep underground, a wealth of untapped, rebellious potential that will never again rise to the surface.
|The Empire Strikes Cash: Lucas celebrating |
his $4 billion deal with Disney (Credit: Disney)
This article originally appeared in the November-December 2015 edition of Electrolyte, the magazine by and for fans of Birmingham's Electric Cinema.