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GEORGE LUCAS


The man they call "the beard"


Selected filmography:

THX 1138 (1971)
Star Wars (1977)
The Empire Strikes Back (1980) - producer and story only
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Return of the Jedi (1983) - producer and writer only
Twice Upon a Time (1983) - producer only
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Labyrinth (1986) - producer only
Howard the Duck (1986) - producer only
Willow (1988) - producer and story only
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)


George Walton Lucas Jr., born 1944 in Modesto, California, is probably the most polarizing director of all in this section. While his early triumphs are unquestioned by most, his recent films (and alterations to his existing work) have led to him been the favorite whipping boy for angry geeks on that wretched hive of scum and villainy known as online messageboards.

He is also blamed, rather unfairly, for ushering in the era of mindless popcorn blockbusters. Though some see Lucas as a one-trick pony due to the incredible (and overwhelming) success of the Star Wars films, his other directorial efforts (and most of the films he has produced or written the story for) are well worth seeking out.

Lucas's early life was fairly unremarkable. His main interests growing up were cars and cruising the Modesto streets. It wasn't until an accident shortly before his high school graduation that his life found a direction.

One of Lucas's classmates had been traveling at 80 miles per hour and hit Lucas's car. Miraculously his seatbelt broke and Lucas was thrown from the burning wreck. He suffered broken ribs and bones, and his lungs were crushed. He spent 48 hours in a coma and two weeks in intensive care. Some of his classmates even thought he had died. The face of Hollywood as we know it might have been very different if that had been the case, but after a long convalescence Lucas made a complete recovery.

Lucas turned his attention to photographing cars instead of racing them. He then decided to go to film school, against the wishes of his father who wanted him to take over the family business. A brash Lucas told his father he would be a millionaire by the time he was 30 - one of his many predictions that came true. While it may be hard to imagine now, Lucas started as one of the most avant-garde filmmakers at the University of Southern California (USC). He was interested in making documentaries and other non-narrative films. Many of them concerned either cars or music. One of the short films he made was called The Emperor (no, not that Emperor) about a radio DJ. The highly experimental and non-conformist style of his short films would carry over to his first feature film.

THX 1138 (1971) was based on Lucas's earlier short movie Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB (1967) that told the tale of a man trying to escape from a totalitarian future society. Lucas had used a lot of ingenuity to get the short film made, using a Navy and Marine class he was teaching about film to shoot the project. It attracted a lot of attention when it was screened at film festivals.

One person who was impressed by the short was Steven Spielberg, who of course would later go on to collaborate with Lucas on a few successful movies. The feature version would have the same basic plot with a larger cast of characters and more investigation of the future society.

The film was produced by Lucas's mentor Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola had taken Lucas under his wing when they met on the set of Finian's Rainbow, the only film in production when Lucas was awarded a scholarship at Warner Bros. Coppola was the one who told Lucas he would have to learn to write if he wanted to be a successful director (some would say Lucas is still learning). Lucas wrote the screenplay for THX while working with Coppola on the film, The Rain People.

Coppola and Lucas set up a studio called American Zoetrope that they hoped would be a more creative and non-comformist answer to Hollywood, and THX would be their first film. The film was shot in San Franciso and required that the cast all shave their heads, which must have been quite a shock at the height of the longhaired counter-culture movement.

When Lucas' non-traditional filmed was screened for executives, they hated it so much they demanded the money back that they had advanced to Zoetrope. This reaction did not bode well for the general reception for the film.

The film opens with a clip from a black and white Buck Rogers episode, an early hint of Lucas's obsession with old adventure serials. The use here is more ironic, as the film we are about to see will be as far from an optimistic sci-fi adventure as it's possible to get. The main titles break with tradition by rolling downward, suggesting the subterranean world of the film.

THX 1138 is the designation of the protagonist, who yearns to escape from the world where everything is regulated, including sex.


There's a lizard in the machine. Why? I don't know!

The film has three very clear acts, each of which concerns escape. In the first act, THX falls in love with his mate, LUH and they both begin to feel emotions after not taking their meds. When an eccentric man named SEN tries to get THX to be his new roommate by bending the rules, THX reports him for the violation and SEN is imprisoned.
However, following a near accident at work (there's a creepy moment where a mind lock on THX goes wrong), THX and LUH are also arrested for not taking sedation and illegal sexual activity. The prosecution wants THX destroyed but he is instead imprisoned, leading into the second act.
THX is electro-prodded by police and put in prison where the walls are all a stark white and is briefly reunited with LUH who appears out of the white and announces she is pregnant. They make love before being chased around naked by robot police (the frank nudity is startling for those only familiar with Lucas's more family-friendly work).
THX again encounters SEN, who has crazy ideas of escape. When SEN says to another character that it's "as plain on the nose on your face" and then gets punched in it, it brings new meaning to the term on the nose dialogue. The two of them walk off into the seemingly endless white and eventually emerge into a large rush of people in a memorable shot.

Once THX gets out of the prison and is separated from SEN, the third act centres on him trying to escape from the authorities and reach the surface.

In a poignant scene, THX learns LUH has been destroyed and her name reassigned to a fetus.

Following a long chase (the only real action in the film), THX finally escapes. In an amusing statement on bureaucracy, the pursuit is called off because the authorities have gone over their budget. The last shot of the film is of THX emerging into the outside world and standing in front of a giant red sun (Lucas has said this is his favourite image from all his films).

The characters are clearly defined, if somewhat lacking in depth. THX's name is a reference to sex (his mate even pronounces his name like sex with a lisp) while the name of his romantic interest, LUH, clearly means love. The performances are understated yet effective. Robert Duvall and Maggie McOmie (surprisingly, it was her only major feature film role) effectually convey the repressed emotions of their characters. Donald Pleasance is very good as the character with the most personality, SEN (sin?).

The robotic police look quite menacing, though this is somewhat negated by their clumsiness and silly voices (hints of battle droids?).

The strange little people, known as shell dwellers, could be seen as a precursor to later small people in Lucas' films, such as the Jawas.

The film use the same phrases repeated throughout to suggest the monotony of the future world. "What's wrong?" a concerned voice asks every time someone opens their bathroom cabinet. Another phrase, "Are you now, or have you ever been?" recalls the McCarthy witch hunts of 1950's America. The other automatically repeated phrases are equally soothing but meaningless.

Lucas's first feature owes a lot to his early documentary efforts. He directs everything in a muted style that brings out the oppressiveness of the future world.

The cinematography is impressive; especially when the screen becomes virtually all white as THX is imprisoned. There's also a documentary feel to the camera work that Lucas would return to in his later work.

Japan was scouted for its futuristic look, but ultimately the production decided to stay in California to keep costs down. The location shooting in the unfinished BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) system gives the film a futuristic look that didn't require any big sets to be built. The drab costumes and shaven heads help give the film a timeless quality, as well as recalling holocaust imagery.

There were around five minutes cut from the film by the studio against Lucas' wishes. He later restored them when he had the clout. The event would start Lucas' mistrust of studio politics that would only grow over time. The film feels longer than its short running time, but the slow pace works for the subject matter.

The film is rife with subtext, perhaps more so than any of Lucas' other films. Aside from the obvious theme of freedom of the individual against the state, the film also examines the increasing automation of society and how it dehumanises workers. Workers at the robot factory are congratulated for having fewer deaths than another team, and deadly accidents barely concern anyone. We're never told the reason for this emotionless future society, leaving it up to the viewer to wonder how society got into that state.

The film also has depicts a bizarre form of religion where people go into booths where a Jesus-like image (actually a self portrait of Northern Renaissance artist Albrecht Durer) gives them soothing but empty answers to their problems, before wishing "blessings of the state" on them. This consumer deity also urges people to buy more and be happy.
The bland entertainment THX watches on hologram, ranging from supposedly erotic dances to sitcoms that aren't funny ("That was very funny" he comments woodenly after one joke) seem to be a comment on the dumbing down of popular culture. The small talk between the unseen technicians as THX is tested is very similar to the small talk between the stormtroopers in Star Wars.

For those familiar with Lucas's later work THX will be something of a shock. It is a very cold, cerebral film that tackles adult themes. The visual style owes some of its look to Stanley Kubrick, especially in the stark white backgrounds, but is also very fresh and original (the film hardly looks dated). The film has some humor, mainly in the depiction of the ineffectual robot police (who keep hitting walls) and the ridiculously bureaucratic rules of the future society. It also doesn't waste time explaining how everything in the future works, another element that would carry over to Star Wars.

Despite its disappointing reception, THX is one of the more interesting films Lucas has directed, and its influence on dystopian sci-fi films can be seen to this day. In particular, the chrome look of the police officers might have inspired the more threatening visage of the T-1000 in Terminator 2 (1991).

There are also references to THX in most of Lucas's later film, showing the director clearly still has an affection for it. It remains an interesting portrait of a young artist's work, and perhaps a clue to what kinds of films Lucas will make in the future once he no longer has Star Wars hanging around his neck.

THX was a serious sci-fi film with very little mainstream appeal, and for that reason it was not a hit. In fact, it virtually bankrupted the new Zoetrope studios. Though some critics and moviegoers appreciated it for its artistic qualities, it remains the only financially unsuccessful film of Lucas' directorial career at the box office.

For his next film, Lucas was encouraged by Coppola to make something more entertaining and warmer. The result was American Graffiti (1973). The charming film paid homage to Lucas's teenage love of cruising in hot rods and rock n' roll. Once again the studio executives hated the film and cut the running time down. One executive disliked the film so much (despite positive test screenings) that Coppola even offered to buy the film from the studio, but was turned down.

It was a huge hit, with one of the highest profit to cost ratios in Hollywood history. It also made stars of the large ensemble cast, which included Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard and Harrison Ford. The film virtually invented nostalgia, at least in Hollywood movies. It also started the trend of long end credits. Lucas became a millionaire from the film, and was free to do pretty much whatever he wanted for his next project.

NEXT CHAPTER: STAR WARS

   

 

 

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