The Heart, Extinguished.

THX 1138 (1971)

THX-1138 | art by Tony Stella
Illustration by Tony Stella

A decade before his mentor Francis Ford Coppola’s garish love story, One from the Heart, would help slam the final nail in the New Hollywood’s coffin, George Lucas made his own bleeding tribute to that most vital organ. But his is not the traditional tale of a doomed romance. In THX 1138, Lucas’ love is one for an artist’s work, rather than his muse. His heartbreak is that of a compromised creation, rather than a Shakespearean tragedy. After all, his protagonist escapes imprisonment and avoids the fate of a tragic hero. 

But even as the fictional world of Lucas’ painfully personal debut acts as an ode to a man who dares to defy corporate strictures, THX 1138’s very existence is also a dire warning to his future self about the futility of defying such an all-consuming conglomerate. 

THX 1138 is the type of dystopian sci-fi you might think originated in novel form: an oppressive, tech-happy society drugs its citizenry to suppress genuine emotion until one man cuts through the fog. In fact, it evolved from a short film that Lucas made while at the University of Southern California, Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB. The “EB” stood for “Earth born,” according to initial collaborator and USC classmate Matthew Robbins; it was dropped from the title in Lucas’ full-length feature. This is a small but telling change, a shift from a cosmically weird short to a more grounded feature—any hint of the extraterrestrial in THX 1138 would drag focus from the beating heart at its core. The relationship between THX and LUH—the only spark of life in the antiseptic world Lucas builds from scratch—is both a touching tribute to the power of feeling and a stand-in for the silk-like connection between Lucas and his art.

But the most suggestive alteration from Lucas’ 914-second short to his 88-minute feature is a more seemingly benign change: budgets. In expanding his award-winning student film, Lucas added entire set pieces, sub-plots, and supporting characters. But it’s the introduction of fiscal responsibility—a tweak that could easily go unnoticed—that betrays the direction of his heart as an artist. As one escaping character utters late in the film: “sometimes…a little adjustment can make all the difference.”

I say again: budgets. Lucas’ short is focused entirely on the chase scene that takes up the subsequent feature’s final third—and in recreating that climactic sequence, Lucas instills his corporate antagonists with a headache-inducing concern over the cost of their search.

“Budget control, we’d like a cost analysis on the THX 1138 account, include all interest and inflation expenditures.”

“Remember, thrifty thinkers are always under budget!”

“Economics make it necessary to terminate any operation which exceeds 5% of its primary budget.”

“This is budget control, the expenditure ceiling…”

“This is budget control…”

“The expenditure ceiling…”

“…6% over budget…”

Budget is not mentioned a single time for the duration of Lucas’ student film. Yet it becomes so pervasive in the ensuing feature that it borders on parodic. Against all genre-convention odds, the race against the clock to catch THX before exceeding the allowed costs becomes the driving dramatic force in the final 20 minutes of THX 1138. So what might have driven that shift? Well, the studio, for one. Lucas traded the freedom of a school project for the shackles of Warner Bros. The studio famously insisted on cutting several minutes from the film, forcing the debut director and his cosigner, Coppola, to turn over the negative to Warner’s in-house editor. And with the support of the big-shots came the pressure to cut costs.

In THX, victory for the protagonist is very simple: freedom. If he’s able to evade capture until his wardens hit their budget cap, he’s granted freedom. Freedom to create from his soul, rather than for mass consumption. Freedom to make one from the heart.

“For more enjoyment and greater efficiency, consumption is being standardized.”

I take back something I said earlier. There is a tragic Shakespearean figure at the gooey center of Lucas’ early work—it’s George Lucas himself. THX 1138 is intensely idiosyncratic, and as Lucas waded into the machine that had manufactured the motion pictures for half a century, he molded his debut feature into a protest against the flattening effect that machine can have on art.

“Thou art a subject of the divine, created in the image of man, by the masses, for the masses,” intones the mechanic deity that rules unseen over the underground society of THX. When THX himself—pronounced “thex” by LUH, the one person who dares see him as an imperfectly inefficient human rather than a ticking clock of productivity—plugs into his work station, his overlords occasionally activate a “mind-lock,” allowing them to control his movement without interference from his pesky free will. Lucas’ chaotic soundscape makes it difficult to discern if this is a mind-lock or a “mind-block,” but no matter, his point is clear: they don’t want us to think for ourselves. They don’t want you to think for yourselves.

Lucas fights the system even as he accepts its necessity. And his message about the impact of mindless corporate control over art becomes even clearer when THX’s “art” approaches self-destruction, nearly ruining itself and those around it before he’s released from his mind-lock to exercise a more personal touch. In another shift from the short, Lucas more specifically visualizes his world’s ruling class, replacing mostly disembodied voices with a group of bland-looking, superficially harmless suits staring at a bank of TV screens. It calls to mind a suite of production executives—the insidious power and control that rests in the hands of the seemingly unremarkable.

Lucas’ use of Hans Memling’s painting “Christ Giving His Blessing” as the manifestation of the State is a telling sign of the connection between THX’s journey, Lucas’ experiences, and the idolatry and oppression of the studio system. When THX slips into the booth for his daily video diary—modeled conspicuously after a Catholic confessional—his savior gives the same rote response no matter his concerns. “Yes, fine. Yes, I understand…Buy more, buy more now, buy, and be happy.” And, later: “Take 4 red capsules. Help is on the way.”

Buying will not make you happy; it will fill you with emptiness. Help is not on the way; help was never on the way. Mind-numbing—or mind-locking, perhaps—distractions are on the way. Meticulously designed to create the illusion of freedom, the falsity of choice, the appearance of innovation and creativity and personality and all those little fragments that come with a pulsing heart at the center of art. THX 1138 throbs with these chunks of Lucas that broke off and embedded themselves into its fabric.

It’s no small irony, then, that just five years later, Lucas’ third feature would go on to spawn the most lucrative franchise in film history, and one that would ultimately be purchased and revived by a multinational conglomerate trafficking in the standardization of consumption (for more enjoyment and greater efficiency, of course). Make no mistake: Star Wars is weird as shit. And the three prequels—the only other three directed by Lucas himself—are skillfully designed to piss off more people than they please, surely a sign of the maestro’s creative imprimatur if there ever was one. But the dynasty’s subsequent sale to Disney—and its revival in the form of a visually lifeless, narratively repetitive, focus-group-tested third trilogy—is the tragic ending that Lucas’ fictional avatar, THX, managed to avoid 50 years ago.

Lucas kept fighting the system with the only thing he had: his heart and his art. And like the most sophisticated of technological overlords, that system learned the same lesson that Lucas did 50 years earlier between his short film and feature debut: it’s all about the budgets. It learned that with enough money, it could just buy his art, put a new coat of paint on it, and market it as the next evolution of George Lucas’ heart. 

THX 1138 ends with its central creator of humanity, LUH, murdered, her unborn child captured and canned—a clear metaphor for a confined work of art birthed from acts of love. Forty-eight years later, Disney won’t even let the Star Wars franchise kill off Chewbacca; The Rise of Skywalker presents his death only to backtrack in the name of fan-service. This Lazarian act does more to kill the creative spirit than every attempt at oppression in THX 1138.

“If you go back on sedation, you won’t feel the same way about me,” LUH pleads with THX in 1138. We’re all on sedation now, led by the corporate overlords that own every piece of George Lucas’ empire. The question is: can we go back? Do we dare even try to escape the comfortable numbness? 

At a technical level, THX’s brilliance lies in its conceit. But for me, its magic is somewhere different. I return over and over for the chunks Lucas left behind. The film stretches heedlessly at the seams of its Orwellian framework, dripping with the desperation of virginity—feelings that have never been felt, thoughts that have never been thought.

THX masturbates to a rhythmic, staccato hailstorm of images, lithe bodies, pulsing, dancing, just moving in ways he’s never seen or experienced. In depicting this, Lucas uses Black bodies in an otherwise mostly-white movie in a seeming attempt to heighten the novelty for a man who’s seeing, hearing, and feeling things for the first time. It misses its mark, trafficking briefly in harmful exoticism and fetishization stereotypes. It’s also an unfiltered expression of the way Lucas processes his world. It’s an artist’s imperfect art.

Later on, it’s Lucas’ bravado second act in the liminal white space between prison and liberation that stuck to my skull in the weeks and months after I left the theater. Even more than change, freedom can be disorienting. For THX, escape from confinement manifests initially as an escape from comfort—perestroika is a daunting task. But THX’s decision to flee eschews a more traditional climax for his character. He leaves LUH, and later their unborn child who has inherited her moniker, behind, trapped in the confines of his former life. THX seeks physical emancipation at the expense of the woman who first unshackled his mind. It’s a dramatically discomfiting abandonment, but a wholly understandable one from a man who is living the most fundamental sensory moments of the human experience for the first time in his middle age.

These are the peccadillos of Lucas’ debut feature. These are what stick with me. And they’re what are so often driven from studio filmmaking 50 years later.

“We need a new unity. But not a unity that discourages dissent. We need dissent. We need a creative dissent.”

THX cannot foster enough dissent to break the stranglehold that his society’s cult-like manifesto-as-living approach has over its residents. He bolts. And as THX runs away from this everlasting sameness, George Lucas is about to sprint head-first into it, his own creativity to be used as a cudgel to bludgeon those who have their own ideations of individualism in cinema. 

So how do we find that creative dissent amidst such a smothering unity? Where would Lucas look for it? Or perhaps more apt: where would THX find it?

“One idea could get us out of here…we’ll know it when we see it.”

This is an off-hand line that receives no further follow-up in the plot of THX. But it’s a powerful, shared emotion. 

The concept of an insta-cure is a romantic notion that held sway in 1971. But 2021 isn’t 1971. Monocultural impact has been co-opted by studios. Lucas’ generation had Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate and Easy Rider—movies that changed movies, and ones where you could see the change while it was still happening. You could feel it. One idea could lift the New Hollywood from backyard filmmaking at American International Pictures and BBS Productions to the high throne at Paramount Pictures. We don’t live in that world anymore. Wunderkinds have gone from actors-turned-executives to tech-whiz-kids-turned-streaming-geniuses. At the studio level, the innovation has largely moved from the art to the commerce.

Beautiful, complicated, difficult, moving, personal art still exists in the cinema. It’s thriving in many places. But it’s gasping for air in the American studio apparatus—a system that has morphed into something akin to the budget-crunching investigators in George Lucas’ THX 1138. Assisted by Lucas’ own creation, unity discourages dissent, content replaces art, and consumption is being standardized. THX 1138 is George Lucas’ most personal film. It’s a prophetic, tragic debut.