George Lucas was a 23 year old film student at USC when he made the short ELECTRIC LABYRINTH: THX 1138 4EB. This 15 minute highly stylized film won first prize at the National Student Film Festival, and Lucas was given an apprenticeship at Warner Brothers. With the help of his friend and USC alumni Francis Ford Coppola, Lucas expanded his short into the feature film THX-1138.
In the future, the masses are controlled by drugs that keep them in a state of sedation. No emotions allowed, especially sexual feelings. Everyone conforms to standard, with shaved heads and asexual jumpsuits. THX (Robert Duvall) works in a robot factory making android police, while his roommate LUH-3417 (Maggie McOmie) is a surveillance expert alongside SEN-5241 (Donald Pleasence). LUH begins switching THX’s meds, and the two discover the joy of sex. They’re found out and separated, and SEN tries to move in with THX, who reports him. Both men are sent to rehabilitation, and THX tries to find LUH and escape from his conformist life.
I saw THX-1138 when it first came out (I was a young teen) and found it boring. Upon rewatching, I feel the same way. It just doesn’t grab me emotionally or draw me into its world at all. The film is technically brilliant, with Walter Murch’s sound work playing an important part, and the great Donald Pleasence is engaging as SEN, but as a whole I just don’t enjoy it. Don’t expect to see any Jedi Knights or cute whirring androids here; it’s not that kind of sci-fi. The closest it comes to STAR WARS is the opening sequence featuring clips of the 30s serial BUCK ROGERS, and the scrolling credits. For me, the film needed more Buck Rogers and less pretentious talk.
THX-1138 didn’t do well at the box office, but it did show George Lucas as a filmmaker with a future. It’s too cold to be anything but a curio of Lucas’ early work, but his next film would show a different side of Lucas, one with more heart. Next time I’ll be looking at the smash 1973 hit AMERICAN GRAFFITI.
Meanwhile, for all you Lucasphiles out there, here’s the original 1967 short ELECTRIC LABYRINTH: THX 1138 4EB: