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.
- 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)
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 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
THE ORIGINAL THEATRICAL ENGAGEMENTS
To provide the reader a sense of THX 1138’s rollout and the distribution model utilized, what follows are the film’s first-run openings in the largest North American markets.
Note the following is not a complete citation of every theater in which THX played during its original release. Instead, emphasis has been placed on the major media markets and metropolitan areas and the initial months of the release.
Among some exceptions to the major-market focus is Modesto, California – George Lucas’s hometown – which has been included in the booking chronology.
As far as expansion waves and second-run bookings are concerned, none have been cited in this work with the exception of the San Francisco Bay Area. Extra emphasis on San Francisco is due because (1) it was the only market to expand during the initial month of the movie’s release, (2) the filmmakers were based there, and (3) the movie was filmed in the region.
THX 1138 was presented in 35mm scope (blown up from Techniscope) with monaural audio.
Opening Date YYYY-MM-DD … City – Cinema (duration in weeks) [co-feature]
- 1971-03-11 … Los Angeles – Hollywood Loews (4)
- 1971-03-11 … New York – Cine (3)
- 1971-03-11 … New York – State Twin (3)
- 1971-03-18 … San Francisco – Warfield (2) [w/ W]
- 1971-03-18 … San Francisco (South San Francisco) – Spruce Drive-In (1) [w/ GGBG]
- 1971-03-19 … Portland – Foster Drive-In (2) [w/ IM]
- 1971-03-19 … Portland – Off Broadway (3) [w/ SRWM]
- 1971-03-24 … Fresno – Starlite Drive-In (1) [w/ LF]
- 1971-03-24 … Fresno – Towne (1) [w/ IM]
- 1971-03-24 … Las Vegas – El Portal (1) [w/ MZT]
- 1971-03-24 … Monterey – State (1) [w/ TMTYLMJM]
- 1971-03-24 … Reno – Crest (2) [w/ GGBG]
- 1971-03-24 … Sacramento – Alhambra (1) [w/ B]
- 1971-03-24 … Sacramento – Skyview Drive-In (2) [w/ F]
- 1971-03-24 … Sacramento (Carmichael) – Westerner Drive-In (1) [w/ B]
- 1971-03-24 … San Francisco (Berkeley) – UC (2) [w/ HLH]
- 1971-03-24 … San Francisco (Burlingame) – Burlingame Drive-In (1) [w/ GGBG]
- 1971-03-24 … San Francisco (Concord) – Fox Concord (2) [w/ SRWM]
- 1971-03-24 … San Francisco (Concord) – Solano Drive-In (1) [w/ GGBG]
- 1971-03-24 … San Francisco (Danville) – Village (1) [w/ IM]
- 1971-03-24 … San Francisco (Hayward) – Hayward (1) [w/ AH]
- 1971-03-24 … San Francisco (Hayward) – Hayward Auto Movie (1) [w/ AH]
- 1971-03-24 … San Francisco (Livermore) – Vine (1) [w/ B]
- 1971-03-24 … San Francisco (Napa) – Uptown (1) [w/ F]
- 1971-03-24 … San Francisco (Richmond) – Hilltop Drive-In (1) [w/ GGBG]
- 1971-03-24 … San Francisco (San Bruno) – Fox Skyline (1) [w/ GGBG]
- 1971-03-24 … San Francisco (San Carlos) – Laurel (1) [w/ IM]
- 1971-03-24 … San Francisco (San Leandro) – Stadium Auto Movie (1) [w/ A]
- 1971-03-24 … San Francisco (Santa Rosa) – California (1) [w/ R]
- 1971-03-24 … San Francisco (Sausalito) – Marin (1)
- 1971-03-24 … San Francisco (Vallejo) – Crescent Auto Movie (1) [w/ B]
- 1971-03-24 … San Jose – Frontier Auto Movie (1) [w/ TT]
- 1971-03-24 … San Jose (Campbell) – Plaza Twin (1) [w/ CC]
- 1971-03-24 … San Jose (Mountain View) – Moffett Drive-In (1) [w/ GGBG]
- 1971-03-24 … San Jose (Sunnyvale) – Hacienda (1) [w/ B]
- 1971-03-24 … Santa Cruz – Del Mar (1) [w/ TMTYLMJM]
- 1971-03-26 … Boston – Cheri Triplex (3)
- 1971-03-26 … Cincinnati – Studio Twin (2)
- 1971-03-31 … Dallas – Astro Drive-In (1) [w/ LS & BB]
- 1971-03-31 … Dallas – Capri (1)
- 1971-03-31 … Dallas – Gemini Drive-In (1) [w/ LS & BB]
- 1971-03-31 … Dallas – Preston Royal (1)
- 1971-03-31 … Dallas (Garland) – Belt Line-67 Drive-In (1) [w/ LS & BB]
- 1971-03-31 … Dallas (Grand Prairie) – Century Drive-In (1) [w/ LS & BB]
- 1971-03-31 … Dallas (Plano) – Plano Drive-In (1) [w/ LS & BB]
- 1971-03-31 … Honolulu – Hawaii (1) [w/ WDRE]
- 1971-03-31 … Honolulu (Aiea) – Kam Drive-In (1) [w/ WDRE]
- 1971-03-31 … Kansas City – 63rd Street Drive-In (1) [w/ IM & NBG]
- 1971-03-31 … Kansas City – Metro Plaza 4-plex (1)
- 1971-03-31 … Kansas City – Towne 4-plex (1)
- 1971-03-31 … Kansas City (Independence) – Twin Drive-In (1) [w/ IM & NBG]
- 1971-03-31 … Kansas City (Kansas City, KS) – State Drive-In (1) [w/ IM & NBG]
- 1971-03-31 … Kansas City (Lenexa, KS) – Fox 50 Drive-In (1) [w/ H & T]
- 1971-03-31 … Kansas City (Riverside) – North Drive-In (1) [w/ IM & NBG]
- 1971-03-31 … San Francisco – Metro (2) [w/ MC]
- 1971-03-31 … San Francisco (Orinda) – Orinda (1) [w/ IM]
- 1971-04-02 … Oklahoma City – Criterion (3)
- 1971-04-07 … Denver – Crest (2) [w/ JFSS]
- 1971-04-07 … Denver (Arvada) – Arvada Plaza (2) [w/ JFSS]
- 1971-04-07 … Denver (Thornton) – North Star Drive-In (2) [w/ JFSS]
- 1971-04-07 … Tucson – Fox (1) [w/ W]
- 1971-04-07 … San Diego – Rancho Drive-In (1) [w/ ISZ]
- 1971-04-07 … San Diego – Spreckels (2) [w/ CFP]
- 1971-04-07 … San Francisco (San Rafael) – Montecito (2) [w/ F]
- 1971-04-08 … Louisville – Oxmoor Twin (2)
- 1971-04-09 … Toronto – Uptown 5-plex (3)
- 1971-04-14 … El Paso – Capri (1)
- 1971-04-14 … El Paso – Cinema Park Drive-In (1) [w/ P]
- 1971-04-14 … San Francisco – Richelieu (1) [w/ MC]
- 1971-04-14 … Seattle – 7th Avenue (3) [w/ ST]
- 1971-04-14 … Spokane – State (1) [w/ IM]
- 1971-04-14 … Washington – Dupont (4)
- 1971-04-16 … Atlanta – Twelve Oaks (2)
- 1971-04-16 … Buffalo (Blasdell) – Star Drive-In (1) [w/ A]
- 1971-04-16 … Buffalo (Kenmore) – Colvin (1)
- 1971-04-16 … Minneapolis – Mann (1)
- 1971-04-16 … Nashville – Tennessee (1)
- 1971-04-16 … New Orleans – Saenger (1)
- 1971-04-21 … Lansing – Spartan Twin (1)
- 1971-04-21 … Providence – Paris Twin (1)
- 1971-04-21 … Providence (Smithfield) – Apple Valley Mall Triplex (1)
- 1971-04-21 … Rochester – Riviera (1)
- 1971-04-21 … Syracuse – Loew’s (1) [w/ H]
- 1971-04-21 … Syracuse (Nedrow) – Salina Drive-In (1) [w/ CHL & LC]
- 1971-04-22 … Charlotte – Village (1)
1971-04-22 … San Antonio – Laurel (3)
- 1971-04-23 … Calgary – Westbrook Twin (2)
- 1971-04-23 … Edmonton – Capilano (1)
- 1971-04-23 … Edmonton – Strand (1)
- 1971-04-23 … Pittsburgh – Fulton (1)
- 1971-04-23 … Winnipeg – Towne (1)
- 1971-04-28 … Baltimore – Charles (3)
- 1971-04-28 … Columbus – Palace (1)
- 1971-04-28 … Detroit – Norwest (2) [w/ CFP]
- 1971-04-28 … Detroit – Palms (1) [w/ WB]
- 1971-04-28 … Detroit (Garden City) – La Parisien (2) [w/ B during week 2]
- 1971-04-28 … Detroit (Grosse Pointe Woods) – Woods Twin (2) [w/ OGT]
- 1971-04-28 … Hartford (East Hartford) – Cinema 1 (1)
- 1971-04-28 … Hartford (East Windsor) – East Windsor Drive-In (1) [w/ BCH]
- 1971-04-28 … Hartford (Newington) – Pike Drive-In (1) [w/ H]
- 1971-04-28 … Hartford (Plainville) – Plainville Drive-In (1) [w/ VG]
- 1971-04-28 … Hartford (West Hartford) – Elm (1)
- 1971-04-28 … Indianapolis – Glendale 4-plex (1)
- 1971-04-28 … Norfolk – Norva (1)
- 1971-04-28 … Philadelphia – Fox (2) [w/ Wat]
- 1971-04-28 … Wichita – Mall (1)
- 1971-04-30 … Austin – Paramount (2)
- 1971-04-30 … Houston – Windsor (4)
- 1971-04-30 … Raleigh – Cardinal (1)
- 1971-05-05 … Cleveland – Cloverleaf Drive-In (weekend only) [w/ C]
- 1971-05-05 … Cleveland – Commodore (1) [w/ C]
- 1971-05-05 … Cleveland – Embassy (1) [w/ CHL]
- 1971-05-05 … Cleveland – Miles Drive-In (1) [w/ C]
- 1971-05-05 … Cleveland – Variety (1) [w/ C]
- 1971-05-05 … Cleveland (Berea) – Berea (1)
- 1971-05-05 … Cleveland (Mentor) – Mentor Drive-In (1) [w/ WDRE]
- 1971-05-05 … Corpus Christi – Centre (1)
- 1971-05-05 … Madison – Capitol (1)
- 1971-05-05 … Phoenix – Bethany (1) [w/ WDRE]
- 1971-05-05 … Phoenix (Glendale) – Thunderbird Drive-In (1) [w/ WDRE]
- 1971-05-07 … Charleston – Gloria (1)
- 1971-05-07 … Fort Worth – Palace (1)
- 1971-05-07 … Fort Worth (Arlington) – Arlington (1)
- 1971-05-07 … Fort Worth (Hurst) – Belaire (1)
- 1971-05-07 … Vancouver – Studio (1)
- 1971-05-12 … Des Moines – Galaxy (2)
- 1971-05-12 … Lubbock – Fox Twin (1)
- 1971-05-12 … New Haven (Orange) – Showcase Triplex (2)
- 1971-05-12 … Richmond – Broadway Drive-In (1) [w/ GB]
- 1971-05-12 … Richmond – Glen Drive-In (1) [w/ GB]
- 1971-05-12 … Richmond – Southside Plaza Drive-In (1) [w/ GB]
- 1971-05-12 … St. Louis (University City) – Fine Arts (1)
- 1971-05-13 … Lincoln – Varsity (1)
- 1971-05-14 … Chicago – Nortown (1) [w/ WUD]
- 1971-05-14 … Chicago (Addison) – Skyhi Drive-In (1) [w/ WB]
- 1971-05-14 … Chicago (Cicero) – Bel-Air Drive-In (1) [w/ WB]
- 1971-05-14 … Chicago (Evanston) – Coronet (1)
- 1971-05-14 … Chicago (Evergreen Park) – Evergreen Twin (1)
- 1971-05-14 … Chicago (Hammond, IN) – 41 Drive-In (1) [w/ VP & CHL]
- 1971-05-14 … Chicago (La Grange) – La Grange (1) [w/ CT]
- 1971-05-14 … Chicago (Morton Grove) – Morton Grove (1) [w/ CHL]
- 1971-05-14 … Chicago (Norridge) – Norridge Twin (1)
- 1971-05-14 … Chicago (Palatine) – 53 Drive-In (1) [w/ VP & AU]
- 1971-05-14 … Chicago (Skokie) – Old Orchard (1)
- 1971-05-14 … Chicago (Wheeling) – Twin Drive-In (1) [w/ WB]
- 1971-05-14 … Jacksonville – Center (1)
- 1971-05-14 … Omaha – Dundee (2)
- 1971-05-14 … Ottawa – Towne (1)
- 1971-05-19 … Akron – Chapel Hill Twin (1)
- 1971-05-19 … Albany (East Greenbush) – Auto-Vision Drive-In (1) [w/ GB]
- 1971-05-19 … Albany (Guilderland) – Carman Drive-In (1) [w/ GB]
- 1971-05-19 … Albany (Latham) – Latham Drive-In (1) [w/ GB]
- 1971-05-21 … Jackson – Lamar (1)
- 1971-05-26 … Dayton – Northwest Plaza (1)
- 1971-05-26 … Knoxville – Fox (1)
- 1971-05-26 … Memphis – Fare 4-plex (1)
- 1971-05-28 … Miami (Coral Gables) – Gables (1)
- 1971-05-28 … Miami (Fort Lauderdale) – Coral Ridge (1)
- 1971-05-28 … Miami (Hollywood) – Florida Twin (1)
- 1971-05-28 … Miami (Miami Springs) – Circle (1)
- 1971-05-28 … Miami (North Miami Beach) – Sunny Isles Twin (1)
- 1971-05-28 … Mobile – Loop (1)
- 1971-06-02 … Davenport – Orpheum (1)
- 1971-06-02 … Davenport (Silvis, IL) – Semri Drive-In (1) [w/ BCH & W]
- 1971-06-02 … Grand Rapids – Alpine Twin (1)
- 1971-06-02 … Modesto – Covell (1)
- 1971-06-04 … St. Petersburg – Loew’s (1)
- 1971-06-04 … Salt Lake City – Capitol (1)
- 1971-06-04 … Salt Lake City (Midvale) – Ute Drive-In (1) [w/ WDRE]
- 1971-06-09 … Boise – Midway Drive-In (1) [w/ F]
- 1971-06-09 … Milwaukee – Palace (1) [w/ C]
- 1971-06-09 … Milwaukee (Menomonee Falls) – Starlite Drive-In (1) [w/ C]
- 1971-06-09 … Milwaukee (Muskego) – Giant 24 Drive-In (1) [w/ C]
- 1971-07-02 … Montreal – Capitol (1)
- 1971-08-04 … Little Rock – John Miller Twin (1)
- 1971-09-08 … Albuquerque – Fox Winrock (1)
- 1971-10-24 … Colorado Springs – Aircadia Drive-In (1) [w/ F]
- 1971-12-01 … Orlando (Casselberry) – Seminole (1)
- A = The Arrangement
- AH = Ace High
- AU = Attack of the Unknown
- B = Barbarella
- BB = The Big Bounce
- BCH = The Ballad of Cable Hogue
- C = Chisum
- CC = Cannon for Cordoba
- CFP = Colossus: The Forbin Project
- CHL = Cool Hand Luke
- CT = Cold Turkey
- F = Flap
- GB = The Green Berets
- GGBG = The Good Guys and the Bad Guys
- H = Harper
- HLH = The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
- IM = The Illustrated Man
- ISZ = Ice Station Zebra
- JFSS = Journey to the far Side of the Sun
- LC = The Lost Continent
- LF = Lost Flight
- LS = Love Story
- MC = The Magic Christian
- MZT = Moon Zero Two
- NBG = No Blade of Grass
- OGT = The Only Game in Town
- P = Petulia
- R = The Revolutionary
- ST = Sudden Terror
- SRWM = Start the Revolution Without Me
- T = Trog
- TMTYLMJM = Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon
- TT = The Time Travelers
- VG = The Valley of Gwangi
- VP = Vanishing Point
- W = WUSA
- Wat = Waterloo (opening-day only)
- WB = The Wild Bunch
- WDRE = When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth
- WUD = Wait Until Dark
Chris Barsanti is the author of several books including The Sci-Fi Movie Guide: The Universe of Film from Alien to Zardoz (Visible Ink, 2014).
Gary Leva is a documentary filmmaker with dozens of credits including A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope and Artifact from the Future: The Making of THX 1138 (both included as Value Added Material on the THX 1138 DVD and BD releases) and Fog City Mavericks (2007).
Craig Miller was the original Director of Fan Relations at Lucasfilm and is the author of Star Wars Memories (Fulgens Press, 2019).
The interviews were conducted separately and edited into a “roundtable” format.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think THX 1138 ought to be remembered on its 50th anniversary?
Chris Barsanti: As not just one of the modern era’s masterpieces of science fiction but as a twentieth century masterpiece, full stop.
Gary Leva: Well, I guess a big, red-carpet theatrical event is out of the question at the moment, so let’s remember it as the debut film of one of the seminal artists of the medium. It gave audiences a taste of George’s talents that would be revealed more fully in his future films. The cinematic virtuosity of the filmmaking is nothing short of astonishing for a first film.
Craig Miller: THX was remarkable. A small film – made for a surprisingly small budget, even for that time (around three-quarters of a million dollars) – it had the look of a major film. It created an entire world and made you think.
Coate: When did you first see THX 1138?
Barsanti: It was on a crummy VHS transfer sometime in college. I remember feeling as though a door had been opened in my brain. Like many of my generation, I had a fixed idea of George Lucas. It was based on the incredible impact he had on so many kids like myself when Star Wars came along in 1977 and changed forever how we saw the movies and our sense of what the art form could do. Now, a lot of that was due to his skill at reengineering this mix of mythology, cruddy B-movie tropes, and old serials into what we know now as the blockbuster. But when I saw THX 1138, it added an entirely new layer to how I saw Lucas as an artist. It was like finding out that before he shot Jaws, Steven Spielberg had made Un Chien Andalou.
Leva: I believe I first saw it at UCLA when I was in film school. I found it dazzling visually, but it also didn’t seem like something that was impossible to achieve as a young filmmaker. We would watch films like The Deer Hunter or Lawrence of Arabia and those seemed so beyond anything we as young film students could hope to achieve. But THX 1138 had an experimental quality to it that made it feel like something we could aspire to.
Miller: I saw the film in Hollywood its opening week. I went with my girlfriend of the time, her sister, and a guy she was seeing. I was blown away. I thought it was terrific. I’m a film fan and a science fiction fan and this was something you didn’t see back then: actual science fiction that isn’t just a standard adventure story that happens to take place in the future. This was a dystopian world that required you to think about what you were seeing. And it wasn’t spoon-fed to you. You were dropped into a world and had to run with it.
Coate: In what way is THX 1138 a significant motion picture?
Barsanti: It presages the wave of dystopian futurist cinema that dominated the decade’s science fiction output until Lucas again took it in an entirely different direction with Star Wars. THX 1138 lays out many of the tropes that would be used by many cheap imitators throughout the 1970s to signal the future: bleak architecture, uniform clothing, oppressive sameness, a kind of industrial totalitarianism that translated just how little control people at the time felt they had over the direction of their lives or in fact of the human race.
Leva: Beyond its significance as George’s first film, I think you can see its influence in quite a few science-fiction films and television series in more recent years. More than once I’ve seen a depiction of a dystopian universe and been immediately reminded of THX… the mood, the sterility of the world, even the use of sound. Walter Murch’s innovations in the soundtrack of THX may be as significant as any other aspect of the film.
It’s also significant as a harbinger of what’s to come in George’s future films. It’s the story of a man trying to escape a repressive regime bent on controlling the populace. It’s freedom versus tyranny. These themes will be revisited and more fully fleshed out in a much more accessible way in the Star Wars series.
Miller: It was one of the few indie movies of the period that wasn’t a straightforward contemporary story. Unlike so many films of the period, which all seemed to end “and then they all got run over by a truck,” it actually had a positive – if open-ended – ending. It launched – and almost killed – George Lucas’s career and almost killed Francis Copplola’s.
Coate: Can you discuss the lead casting choices and their performances?
Barsanti: It is not a criticism of the film to say that in many ways the acting is beside the point. In this case it is mostly true. Robert Duvall is empathy-inspiring in the lead and Donald Pleasence is otherworldly creepy in that way which he mastered and used in so many lesser movies. But what if Lucas had cast some other member of his and Francis Ford Coppola’s stock company, like Harrison Ford or Gene Hackman, in the Duvall role? They would have worked just fine. No matter its allusions to literary sources (it always reminds me of E.M. Forster’s story The Machine Stops), the movie is closer to purely visual Stan Brakhage-style minimal cinema than narrative storytelling.
Leva: The performances are all superb, down to the smallest roles. And I think that’s often a barometer of a young filmmaker’s potential. The performances in this film and in the one to follow it, American Graffiti, are all flawless. George is primarily a visual storyteller, but he found the time in these films to nurture outstanding performances.
Miller: I think the performances were, pretty much overall, extremely good. Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence seemed perfectly cast for their characters. Maggie McOmie brought a reality to her character. They’re all good actors and seemed natural; you didn’t see them “acting.”
Coate: In what way was George Lucas suited to direct THX 1138 and where do you think the film ranks among his body of work?
Barsanti: One of Lucas’s many gifts as a filmmaker is his ability to create worlds that feel real no matter how fantastical their attributes. That became much less true in his later CGI-overkill movies in the second Star Wars trilogy. But in this phase of his career, he was far more of an analog artist. This underground world, with its fascist torture TV and drugged minions slogging through their sleepwalking lives, is like nothing viewers have experienced and yet they understand it and feel it instantly. It is the only movie he made except for Star Wars that matters.
Leva: I think THX 1138 has to be viewed as the end of the first arc of George’s career. This film is the culmination of his film school projects and his desire to use film to tell stories visually, with as little dialogue as possible. His love for avant garde cinema and experimental artists like Bruce Conner culminates in THX 1138. The commercial failure of the film, and its role in the demise of the company that produced it, American Zoetrope, was a terrible blow for George. He made a conscious decision after that experience to turn his attention to more popular forms of filmmaking. And what’s fun about seeing THX 1138 now, after 50 years, is to see how George 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.
Miller: George isn’t really a “people” person so a film that has at its core the idea that there are too many people and a desire to get away from them seems perfect. It’s also about forces acting on a society that I think he felt were at work on our society. As to how it ranks... taking the films he directed (as opposed to produced) I think it’s in the top three. Star Wars. American Graffiti. THX. As much as I love THX, it’s not a “feel good” film and I don’t think I could watch it as often as the other two. That said, I’ve actually seen it more often than American Graffiti. I think THX is definitely better than the Star Wars prequels.
Coate: How does the feature film compare to Lucas’ film school short on which the feature was based?
Leva: I haven’t watched the student film in several years, but my memory is that the feature is very similar in tone and overall story. But of course, the student film is confined to a much smaller, more claustrophobic world, which is why George wanted to expand it into a feature.
Miller: You can certainly see THX 1138 4EB (the title as made; Electronic Labyrinth was a new title for the short hung on it at Warner Bros.’ request when they funded making the feature) in THX 1138. It’s clearly the seed and many of the ideas are in there. But it’s got even less story than the feature and less drama. It’s almost all emotion and feeling. It is, of course, more crudely made because of the difference between the facilities available for a student film and a studio-backed feature.
Coate: Can you share any thoughts on Lucas’s 2004 revised cut?
Barsanti: The tweaks that Lucas added for the new edit were less distracting than those that he somewhat strangely inserted into the first Star Wars trilogy. But given that they were primarily (based on my memory at least) effects shots at the end showing a little more detail about the tunnels THX is fleeing through, the change is not particularly noticeable.
Leva: I was lucky enough to be working with George during the time he was revising THX 1138, as I was simultaneously producing my documentaries, commentaries and special features about the movie for Warner Bros. I spent quite a bit of time at The Ranch interviewing George and showing him cuts of my documentaries, so I remember quite clearly the process he was going through. His key desire was to open up the world of THX just enough to give it more scope. I remember him telling me that it doesn’t take much to do that – just a few shots here and there. In a way, I think he was doing the same thing he has done with the Star Wars films over the years – revising them to bring them closer to the film he wanted to make in the first place, but because of budget or technical limitations, could not.
Miller: I’m of mixed feeling about the “Director’s Cut” version of THX. Some things were improvements. Some of the images were sharpened up. Some additional shots of things like the robot construction help sell the idea. A few reaction shots were moved around and that, too, helps the storytelling. The few places where he “built out” the sets, making the locations seem bigger, I think actually hurt the film. The original film had a very claustrophobic feel that helped to heighten the dystopic feel of the situation. But, overall, I don’t think the changes were too significant to how the film is perceived. Though the cleaner, sharper video is always nice.
Coate: Where do you think THX 1138 ranks among the science-fiction genre?
Barsanti: For me it is one of the most significant science-fiction movies of all time. Its minimalism, claustrophobia, the rhythms of its druggy editing scheme, and that stunning final shot which doesn’t try and say anything more than it needs to, would still be fresh in my mind even if I had not seen it for decades. Also fresh in my mind? The unfortunate memory of the gay panic subplot in which SEN’s (Pleasence) desire for another man is portrayed as somehow the final straw that causes THX to flee this unnatural subterranean world.
Leva: It’s hard to call the film seminal in the way 2001: A Space Odyssey was because it was not popular at the time it opened in theaters. Before the restored DVD release in 2004, few people other than hard-core sci-fi fans or George Lucas fans were familiar with the movie.
On the other hand, filmmakers have always held THX in high regard. When we interviewed directors for our documentaries, everyone from Steven Spielberg to Martin Scorsese remembered being dazzled by the film when it came out. So I think you have to rank it up there with the great films of the genre. For myself, the film’s visual storytelling, its editing and its soundscape are all so extraordinary that I think few sci-fi films have ever matched it.
Miller: Hard to make such a broad statement. I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Some people dislike dystopic films, especially ones that don’t have big, sweeping endings where the dystopia is fully overcome. And, of course, it’s hard to come up with every good movie, even every good science-fiction movie off the top of my head. But I certainly think it rates quite high. Top 25 of all-time territory. There are lots of great SF films. Star Wars. The Empire Strikes Back. Forbidden Planet. Alien. Aliens. Blade Runner. But THX 1138 is, at least for me, in the top ranks.
Coate: Gary, do you think THX 1138 has been adequately represented on home video over the years? Would you like to see THX released on 4K UHD along with your supplemental material from the DVD and BD releases ported over and/or would you like to produce new/additional supplemental material?
Leva: Yes, let’s please produce more documentaries about THX 1138! I was very happy with the 2004 George Lucas Director’s Cut DVD release. It was a seminal experience for me and the documentaries we produced for that disc, though early in my career, remain some of my favorites. A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope is still the documentary I show to film students when I’m asked to speak. It’s so much fun to see 20-year-olds watch Lucas and Coppola crash and burn early in their careers. It opens their eyes to the fact that these guys were not just crowned as icons fresh out of film school. They had to struggle and fail just like everyone else.
Of course, it would be extraordinary to take a fresh look at THX 1138in the political and societal context of the past few years. Themes of self-expression, repression, conformity and tyranny are as fresh today as ever. Let’s do it!
Coate: How would you describe THX 1138 to someone who has never seen it and/or someone who has expressed a dislike for science fiction?
Barsanti: There are no lasers, no aliens, and no space battles. Also, everybody is bald and takes drugs that suppress all their human urges. There might have been a nuclear war above ground, but we’ll never know because nobody talks. It’s like if Big Brother in 1984 had realized it could narcotize its citizens into subservience and not have to resort to propaganda and torture to keep them in line.
Leva: It’s a film about risking your life to escape repression. Though the genre is science fiction, the human story, the love story, is the beating heart of the movie.
Miller: I’d tell them it’s in the category of 1984 and Brave New World. If that’s too much science fiction for them, then they likely won’t like this. But it’s about a future society where the Powers That Be control people through drugs and religion and then, one day, one person stops taking his drugs and realizes he wants something more.
Coate: What is the legacy of THX 1138?
Barsanti: The knowledge that a filmmaker like George Lucas can start out as an avant-garde maverick making his weird experimental critique of the coldness of the modern world in the BART tunnels with a bunch of shaved-head extras, then turn around six years later to make a space opera extravaganza that changed moviemaking forever. Anything is possible.
Leva: You can see THX’s legacy in the acting career of Robert Duvall, the careers of two men who changed cinema forever – George Lucas and Walter Murch – and the science fiction films that have been made over the past 50 years that have been inspired by it.
Coate: Thank you – Chris, Gary and Craig – for sharing your thoughts about George Lucas’s THX 1138 on the occasion of its 50th anniversary.
Selected images copyright/courtesy American Zoetrope, Lucasfilm Ltd., Warner Bros., Yoram Astrakhan, San Francisco Examiner
The primary references for this project were regional newspaper coverage and trade reports published in Boxoffice, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, and interviews conducted by the author.
All figures and data pertain to North America (i.e. United States and Canada) except where stated otherwise.
Chris Barsanti, Don Beelik, Raymond Benson, Sheldon Hall, Mark Lensenmayer, Gary Leva, Craig Miller, W.R. Miller, Tim O’Neill; and a very special thank-you to the following librarians: Laura Baas, State Library of Florida; James Brasfield, Jacksonville Public Library; Shane Curtin, San Jose Public Library; Diane, Virginia Beach Public Library; Isabella F., State Library of Florida; Tim Gloege, Grand Rapids Public Library; Scott Healy, Memphis Public Library; Jason, Birmingham Public Library; Lanham, Providence Public Library; Anne Marie, Boise Public Library; Stephen Rice, Connecticut State Library; Sue, Buffalo & Erie County Public Library; Kate Towers, Stanislaus County Library
- Albert Kihn (Director of Photography), 1932-1974
- Morris D. Erby (“Hologram Newscaster”), 1926-1978
- Ian Wolfe (“PTO”), 1896-1992
- Donald Pleasence (“SEN”), 1919-1995
- Scott Beach (“Announcer”), 1931-1996
- Bruce Mackey (“Announcer”), 19??-1997
- Carey Loftin (Stunt Coordinator), 1914-1997
- Larry Sturhahn (Producer), 1928-1997
- Michael D. Haller (Art Director), 19??-1998
- John Pearce (“DWY”), 1927-2000
- George Burrafato (Production Assistant), 1919-2001
- James Wheaton (“OMM”), 1924-2002
- David Myers (Director of Photography), 1914-2004
- Johnny Weissmuller Jr. (”Chrome Robot”), 1940-2006
- Irene Forrest (“IMM”), 1944-2010
- Neva Beach (“Announcer”), 1937-2010
- Bernie Abramson (Still Photographer), 1923-2010
- Al Locatelli (Production Manager), 1939-2011
- Robert Feero (“Chrome Robot”), 1945-2011
- Raymond J. Walsh (“TRG”), 1933-2014
- Henry Jacobs (“Mark 8 Student”), 1924-2015
- Haskell Wexler (Special Thanks), 1922-2015
- Ann Brebner (Casting), 1923-2017
- Gary Austin (“Man in Yellow”), 1941-2017
- Don Pedro Colley (“SRT”), 1938-2017
- David Ogden Steers (“Announcer”), 1942-2018
- Ted Moehnke (Property Master), 1937-2019
- Sid Haig (“NCH”), 1939-2019
- Marshall Efron (“TWA”), 1938-2019
- Ned Kopp (Assistant Camera), 1935-2020
- Michael Coate