History, Legacy & Showmanship

Love, 25th Century Style: Remembering “THX 1138” on its 50th Anniversary

March 15, 2021 - 11:00 am   |   by
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“What’s fun about seeing THX 1138 now, after 50 years, is to see how George Lucas took the rather dark themes and dynamic visual storytelling of his first film and found a way to infuse them into the Saturday matinee style films of the Star Wars series. THX is not his best film, but it’s fascinating to see the seeds of his future work within it.” – Gary Leva, director of Fog City Mavericks

The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the golden anniversary of the release of THX 1138, George Lucas’s feature-length adaptation of his award-winning 1967 USC student film Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB.

Released two years before American Graffiti and six years before Star Wars, Lucas’s first motion picture starred Robert Duvall (Apocalypse Now, Tender Mercies) and Donald Pleasence (You Only Live Twice, Halloween) and was about a dystopian future where love and individuality are forbidden.

THX 1138 was executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather, Apocalypse Now) as part of a deal in which Warner Bros. would finance and distribute American Zoetrope productions. [Read on here...]

The science-fiction film’s avant-garde music was composed by Lalo Schifrin (Mission: Impossible), its striking cinematography was by Albert Kihn (Fillmore) & David Myers (Woodstock) and fascinating sound design was by Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now), who co-wrote the screenplay with Lucas. THX also starred Don Pedro Colley, Maggie McOmie and Ian Wolfe.

THX 1138 was released to theaters fifty years ago this month, and for the occasion The Bits features a package of statistics and box-office data that places the movie’s performance in context, along with passages from vintage film reviews, a reference/historical chronology of the movie’s major-market first-run theatrical engagements, and, finally, an interview segment with a group of documentarians, film historians and science-fiction authorities who reflect on Lucas’s visionary first film five decades after its debut.

Director George Lucas and producer Francis Ford Coppola in the set of THX 1138

 

THX NUMBER$

  • 0 = Number of Academy Awards
  • 0 = Number of weeks nation’s top-grossing movie
  • 3 = Number of theaters playing the movie during opening week
  • 4 = Number of weeks of longest-running first-run engagement
  • 5 = Box-office rank among 1971 science-fiction movies
  • 6 = Box-office rank among films directed by Lucas
  • 85 = Rank among top-earning movies in 1971
  • $777,777 = Production cost
  • $955,695 = First-run box-office gross (1971)
  • $2.4 million = Box-office gross (first run + re-releases)
  • $5.2 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
  • $12.5 million = Box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)

THX 1138

 

A SAMPLING OF MOVIE REVIEWER QUOTES

“It’s regrettable to have to report unfavorably on THX 1138, the movie with which American Zoetrope hoped to establish itself as a San Francisco-based production company. The best I can say about the film is that it’s an interesting failure, technically very impressive and often stunning to watch. Otherwise, it’s a bleak, undramatic, incoherent science-fiction piece on a humdrum theme of 1984 dehumanization… It must nonetheless be said that Lucas – who was only 25 when he made the film – shows an extraordinary talent in respect to what he’s accomplished visually. He’s a true film artist with a flawless and quite brilliant sense of imagery. He’s turned out some beautiful sequences (photographed by Dave Meyers in strikingly imaginative color), like those he shot in the unfinished BART tunnels and in such ultra-contemporary structures as the Alcoa Plaza. But he needs to work with someone else’s script, and he hasn’t learned yet how to direct actors… The movie is a brave try. But it simply doesn’t come off and I can only extend my sympathy to everyone involved.” – Stanley Eichelbaum, San Francisco Examiner

“What makes THX 1138 compelling is less its story than the stunning visuals and sound with which George Lucas creates the world below.” – Arthur Knight, Saturday Review

“Three years ago, a University of Southern California student named George Lucas made a memorable 15-minute short called THX 1138 [4]EB. The film was brief, suggestive and plotless, and it stuck in one’s mind. The feature is less successful than the short, precisely because it is no longer brief, suggestive and plotless.” – John Hartl, The Seattle Times

“The best thing of its kind since 2001… An intelligent deftly made visual trip – perhaps a more devastating portent of things to come.” – Life Magazine

“The real excitement of THX 1138 is not really the message but the medium – the use of film not to tell a story so much as to convey an experience… stunning… dazzling… chilling and terribly powerful. Anyone fascinated with the potentials of film must catch THX 1138.” – Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times

“There is more wrong than right with THX 1138, and that is a shame because there are too few science-fiction films being made. Furthermore, the concept, though not new, is intriguing, and some of the performances as well as special effects are quite good. It is in the execution of its concepts that the film falters. It seems undecided whether it is serious, dramatic, camp or outright comic. All four overlap and what emerges is a hodgepodge of emotions and ideas… The film opens with some old film clips of Buster Crabbe as Buck Rogers, the 1930 ’man of the future.’ Maybe the producers of THX 1138 should have watched him more closely.” – Madeleine Ingraham, The Denver Post

“Likely not to be an artistic or commercial success in its own time, the American Zoetrope production just might in time become a classic of stylistic, abstract cinema.” – A.D. Murphy, Variety

“It is not as either chase drama or social drama, that THX 1138 is most interesting. Rather it’s as a stunning montage of light, color and sound effects that create their own emotional impact… Lucas’s achievements in his first feature is all the more extraordinary when you realize that he is [only] 25 years old, and that he shot most of the film in San Francisco, on a budget that probably would not cover the cost of half of one of the space ships in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.” – Vincent Canby, The New York Times

“The film comes over not at all trite but rather as enormously affecting. Lucas obviously believed strongly in this futuristic vision, and the film draws its vitality and unity from his belief, and from the fact that it was not bottled up to meet arbitrary conditions but allowed the free rein necessary to reach completeness.” – Kenneth Turan, The Washington Post

“The principal problem with this film is that it lacks imagination, the essential component of a science fiction film. Some persons might claim that the world of THX 1138 is here right now. A more reasonable opinion would hold that we are facing the problems of that world right now. Time has passed the film by.” – Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune

“The movie’s strength is not in its story but in its unsettling and weirdly effective visual and sound style…THX 1138 suffers somewhat from its simple storyline, but as a work of visual imagination it’s special, and as haunting as parts of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running and The Andromeda Strain.” – Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

“You’ve seen black-and-white movies. Now there’s THX 1138, a skin-and-white movie. Everything in THX 1138 is white except the actors’ shaved heads, and a couple of other things in the nude scenes. People wear white uniforms and live in white rooms with white walls, white floors, white ceilings and white toilets. I’ve always been taught white was a soothing color, but by the end of THX 1138 I had a throbbing headache and I was seeing red.” – Rex Reed, syndicated columnist

THX 1138 gives occasional inklings that George Lucas might some day turn out a good movie. THX, unfortunately, isn’t it.” – William Mootz, The Courier-Journal (Louisville)

“The script is occasionally talky and elusive; but there are saving graces of grim, sardonic humor. At any rate, THX 1138 should be seen primarily as a visual symphony.” – Philip Wuntch, The Dallas Morning News

“Take the basic idea behind Brave New World and 1984 and combine it with the visual effects of 2001 and what do you get? Not too much, it turns out. Director George Lucas takes a fine theme – the dehumanization of man in a computerized society – and gussies it up with a lot of fancy photography but somehow it doesn’t work. THX 1138 starts off slowly, drags in the middle and collapses at the end.” – Jack Wardlow, The States-Item (New Orleans)

THX 1138 doesn’t have the ornery mystery of 2001: A Space Odyssey or the suspense of Colossus or the ribaldry of Barbarella. It has been compared with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984, but I think the filmmakers were trying for some sort of future shock. They’ve given us a certain horrifying sameness, but not enough shock to make us fret about the future.” – Bob Geurink, The Atlanta Constitution

“It should have remained a short. Expanded, it is repetitious, dull, even boring.” – Myles Standish, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“[THX 1138] is a coldly brilliant film, the best piece of futurist fiction I’ve seen since The Forbin Project.” – Kevin Kelly, The Boston Globe

“All praise to George Lucas on the occasion of his triumphant debut.” – Susan Stark, Detroit Free Press

“Usually science-fiction pictures have redeeming graces: the girls are beautiful, the animals are odd, the mechanics are excellent. Or, if they are poor, they often have camp going for them and you can always laugh. But THX 1138 is earnestly soporific. A man finds it almost impossible to keep the old eyeball operational while watching George Lucas’ fears for the future.” – Emerson Batdorff, The Plain Dealer (Cleveland)

“Technically, Lucas’ film is totally fascinating, full of monastic detail and an utterly total sense of atmosphere.” – Jeff Millar, Houston Chronicle

“The New Sci-Fi doesn’t go in for monsters or Martians. It is hot for visuals and sound and sophisticated mix and is almost embarrassed by the vestiges of plot which cling stubbornly to the form.” – William B. Collins, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“The message has gotten in the way of the medium in George Lucas’ sci-fi THX 1138, which is a cinematic warning of the horrors awaiting us in the computerized world ahead. If you are going to make a movie on the subject, and a science fiction one at that, it is not enough to state the problem and to create a visually stylized décor and mise-en-scene. There have been too many efforts in the past, good and bad, and you have got to have something new to say.” – Bernard Drew, Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester)

THX 1138 is a first-rate science-fiction movie, but one of its greatest strengths will keep many people from enjoying it. Indeed, in this sense it is even a courageous project, for audiences enjoy watching characters with whom they can identify and empathize, and the warmer and more human – or sinful and more human – the better the viewing experience. In THX the main point is that one man tries to break out of an almost totally dehumanized society, and there are no warm characters in sight. Many things could have been changed in the story to make it a more conventionally enjoyable entertainment, but writer-director George Lucas has produced a survival story vaguely reminiscent of Jack London’s To Build a Fire in that the background or setting is actually more important than character… . The cinematography is outstanding. Lucas emphasizes shapes and designs without staging formal compositions. He uses much telescopic photography to create an almost documentary-like sense of authenticity. The editing is sharp and neatly paced. Most of all, however, Lucas makes brilliant use of the hallways, computer banks, tunnels, vehicles and gadgets in the film. The movie itself is technologically fascinating.” – Ted Mahar, The Oregonian (Portland)

“[George Lucas is] one of the most promising of a new generation of film makers, revolutionizing the movie industry.” – San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle

THX 1138

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