THX 1138: The First Draft of Star Wars

by Keith Palmer

The title of George Lucas's first feature film may now most bring to mind a crescendo of sound as a lead-in to movies in selected theatres or on home video. Beyond that, some may recognize small references to it in his other films. (One of the first, "Prisoner transfer from Cell Block one-one-three-eight," was in fact adlibbed by Mark Hamill to Lucas's initial disapproval, but included in the end. (Rinzler 188)) Others may have heard how the initial incomprehension of Warner Brothers executives towards the finished THX 1138 and their attempts to recut the film, combined with the comparable reaction of Universal to American Graffiti, motivated Lucas to seek an emphasis on creative control while developing Star Wars, something that helped a movie become a film saga. Even there, though, THX 1138 may still seem just an early and peculiar low-budget experiment, something the more straightforward success of Star Wars led him away from no matter how many times he may comment how, with that success to finance him, he'll return to making "nonlinear films" one of these days. (Arnold 208) Beyond the possible distancing effect of its unusual surface qualities and more mature rating, though, the themes and ideas of THX 1138 can be found, and there resonances between it and Star Wars begin to form one illuminating part of a consistent whole.

The Serial Connection

One of the earliest influences on Star Wars is often identified as the science fiction serials of the 1930s, but THX 1138 opens with an actual excerpt from one of them, part of a trailer for the second chapter of "Buck Rogers." Whether as a period experiment to promote the serial or a change made for THX 1138 itself, the movie's first words are "Buck Rogers in the twentieth century!" George Lucas himself has commented that "THX really is Buck Rogers in the twentieth century, rather than Buck Rogers in the future." (Rinzler 2) While the trailer could be interpreted as a sort of ironic commentary on "that Buck Rogers stuff" as representing an optimistic and uncomplicated vision of "the wonderful world of the future," "A world that sees a lot of our scientific and mechanical dreams come true," compared to what THX 1138 presents, Lucas has also said in the movie's DVD commentary that one specific part of the trailer helps give one definition of heroism: "You know, there's nothing supernatural or mystic about Buck. He's just an ordinary, normal human being who keeps his wits about him." This, Lucas suggests, is also something the movie's main character accomplishes. While this might first seem to make THX himself more like characters such as Han Solo or Padme Amidala than the Jedi, acts such as Obi-Wan Kenobi finding "the high ground" in Revenge of the Sith can be seen as succeeding not through superior superhuman powers but just through understanding the situation.

Lucas says in the commentary that THX 1138 is itself a film in three acts, each telling the same basic story in a different way. In the first, THX 1138 emerges from state-sponsored sedation to fall in love with his roommate LUH 3417, in the second, the most abstract, THX is captured and imprisoned in a wallless void until he decides to move into the unknown, and in the third, a more traditional action piece, he makes his escape.

A Distant Time and Place

The opening credits of THX 1138 scroll in an unusual direction, sliding down from the top to the bottom of the screen; in the movie's DVD commentary, cowriter and sound designer Walter Murch says this suggests just where the movie's action takes place. The first images that follow seem disconnected. There are closeups of numbers on a counter and line printer output. Video images from inside medicine cabinets show people with shaved heads opening the cabinets and responding to unseen voices asking them, "What's wrong?" Tall figures in black leather clothing and white helmets with chrome faces lift up a bloodied person as the unspecific yet resonant questions, "Are you now? Or have you ever been?" are asked or lead a small child, head also shaved, into what resembles an elevator lobby. THX is identified while shown assembling robots with remote-controlled manipulators, and people watch other people from within a control room filled with video screens, cueing prerecorded responses about taking "red capsules" or about consumption being standardized as a report comes in, "We've run across some illegal sexual activity." Then, an accidental explosion in a factory similar to THX's destroys "another 63 personnel giving them a total of 242 lost to our 195."

As the film continues, these images gain greater meaning even as more enigmatic moments are presented in between the actions of the main characters with a steady accompaniment of cryptic, half-heard statements as if over loudspeakers, somewhat reminiscent of the background announcements on the Death Star in Star Wars. As Murch suggests in the commentary, the intention is to make THX 1138 seem like a foreign film "from the country of the future," "rather than about the future." Lucas was inspired by the unspoken assumptions in the Japanese films he had seen as a film student, and at one point had considered shooting the film in Japan, a country that seemed to include cultural elements of consumerism and social conformism, before realizing that was more or less impossible for a budget of under a million dollars, even in 1969. The movie was filmed instead at existing locations in and around San Francisco. As Murch says, this did help create a first "used future," later to become famous in Star Wars, in which things have an implied history and not everything is of the same very recent age. Beyond that, Lucas has mentioned in the DVD commentary for Star Wars: A New Hope that that movie was once thought to move very fast because, as in THX 1138, audiences were presented without explanation new environments familiar enough to the characters in them. Now that people are familiar with "the Star Wars universe," the story itself seems to move at a more leisurely pace.

Forbidden Love

It becomes apparent that THX has a problem. He is cautioned at work, and finds no solace in buying "dendrites," bright-coloured blocks taken home and then immediately placed in a "consumer" to be whisked away and, as Murch suggests, recycled to be bought again. Home holograms, very similar in appearance to the bluish images of Star Wars but offering erotic channels for both sexes (with mechanical aid), violence channels featuring robot officers endlessly beating people, and meaningless discussions provide only temporary distraction. The state's official religion of confessing to "OMM" in a telephone booth-like "unichapel" doesn't help either; as THX grows more agitated about his roommate LUH, insisting "What am I to her or she to me? Nothing," "We share nothing... but space," and at last "I think I'm dying," OMM asks "Could you be more... specific?" and offers stock blessings. At last, THX collapses opening his medicine cabinet and LUH comes to his aid. In his overview of Lucas's work, Jim Smith suggests a parallel between how "LUH's initial maternal response" "transfers into erotic attachment" (Smith 24) and Padme's developing attachment to Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, but it can be interpreted that in this case LUH has taken an active role in THX's breakdown, adjusting his sedation. One pill she adds to his doses is red and yellow, perhaps an echo of a forbidden apple. Lucas says in the commentary that LUH has been experimenting with not taking drugs, and some of what she says to him suggests how she has already changed: "I was so afraid. So alone. I wanted to touch you... so many times." That contact between them is at first tentative and awkward, Lucas suggesting the scene is cut in a jumpy, disorienting way to give a sense of a person suddenly trying to deal with new emotions, and THX does ask "I was happy. Why get me involved?", but the two in the end become lovers.

As with Anakin and Padme, though, this is not an unalloyed blessing. LUH fears that "They've been watching us," and despite THX's attempts at reassurance, it is suggested in the film that a third character with a job of watching others, SEN 5241, may know something. In search of a new roommate, SEN attempts to work within the system to transfer THX to his quarters. (In the commentary, Murch says that SEN may have homosexual tendencies deliberately kept ambiguous as an undercurrent or crush; Lucas says that the undertones were meant to be asexual.) Worried about continuing his own job without sedation even as LUH suggests that they could leave "and live in the superstructure," THX submits a report on SEN and, while assembling a robot, is identified as "suffering severe sedation depletion." Placed in "mindlock" as his coworkers flee the factory, THX is released just in time to prevent a catastrophic accident as his controllers declare they hold "no responsibility for error in mindlock." Lucas suggests in the commentary that the society THX is part of is bureaucratic and not quite able to deal with problems using its own rules; this can be seen as a first echo of the Empire of Star Wars, heavily armed but often outwitted by the Rebellion. In the case of THX 1138, though, ultimately nobody is in charge.

Conceptual Breakthrough

Put on trial, THX is placed in the "white limbo," a region without visible walls. He is run in circles by officer robots armed with electronic staffs and subjected to mysterious medical exams, suggested by Lucas in the commentary to be his society trying to determine why he would choose to live with unpleasant emotions, choose to injure himself. In the course of these experiments, he is reunited with LUH, who says that she's going to have a child and, in a small note echoing Leia and Padme, asks "Hold me."

Even this, though, is just another part of the experiment as suggested by Lucas, and officers appear to drag them apart again even as they say "We won't harm you. We only want to help you." Now, THX begins trying to fight back, but is knocked out by an electronic staff and carried away to be placed among other prisoners. One of them is SEN, who bears no outward grudge. In this part of the "white limbo," the prisoners pass the time by a variety of means, including making speeches. (Lucas says in the commentary that SEN's speeches, in which he declares that "One idea could get us out of here!" and "We need dissent, but we need a creative dissent," are based on Richard Nixon's.) THX only waits as all this happens and an officer brings in a diminutive "shell dweller," a first example ahead of Jawas and Ewoks of using size to distinguish beings from different places. Then, at last, he begins walking away from the others. This is one of the most significant parts of the movie according to Lucas, THX realizing that he's "living in a cage ... with the door open" (Smith 28), and that at the end of discussion you have to act. As with the officers, and the society itself, people are kept confined by their own inability to recognize alternatives. This can be seen as prefiguring the Force itself in Star Wars, for which belief in one's own potential is essential.

The Wise Man by the Roadside

After a moment's confusion and disbelief, SEN does manage to follow THX into the void with an armful of food and a last speech about going out "to form an accurate and functional escape." His incessant worried comments as they lose sight of the others, asking if THX is "going after LUH" and wondering whether the air is getting thinner or the pressure is getting greater, as THX continues to say nothing in response may, just perhaps, be seen as a first echo of C-3P0 and R2-D2's different strategies after landing on Tatooine.

Then, they meet a third person in the limbo, who proposes that "maybe you were travelling in circles" and points the way out. Walking into darkness at last, the three find an ordinary door and plunge through into a tremendous crush of noise and people, in which SEN becomes separated from the others. As a budget is set for the recapture of the fugitives, the new person explains to THX that he's a hologram from "the fantasy bureau... You know, electrically-generated realities and all that." "Stuck in the same circuit for too long," he "wanted to be part of the real world" and "left." The hologram, as suggested by Lucas in the commentary, is a first example of an archetype drawn from his early studies of anthropology (he first read Joseph Campbell's works in his second year of college, right before deciding to become a filmmaker), the magical character found along the side of the road. At times somewhat obtuse, the hologram is nevertheless able to perceive things the other characters can't.

Speed as Escape

SEN descends alone to the lowest levels of his world, and faced with the unknown in the form of a muddy construction site and strange crawling creatures underfoot he loses his nerve, "refuses the call," and heads back up again. Finding his way into a sort of television studio with a giant image of OMM, he tries to explain that "A little adjustment... can make all the difference," only to be found by a robed figure and informed "This is no place for prayer." At last, he just waits until taken into custody and led away.

In the meantime, THX and the hologram have shut themselves up in a small control room with officers on the outside burning their way through the lock, a situation reminiscent of R2-D2 and C-3P0 on the Death Star. Querying the system, THX discovers a report that LUH has been "consumed" and her name has been reassigned to a fetus in a bottle. He rejects the suggestion of the hologram that "that's your roommate"; the hologram is philosophical about the matter, guessing that beings like him aren't supposed to "understand any of that stuff." The officers, continuing to insist that "We are here to help you," push in the door and fall to the floor in the process, and THX and the hologram are able to vault over them and continue their escape. As with the Empire's stormtroopers, the officers are ominous in appearance but at times figures of fun.

THX and the hologram find their way to parked "jet cars." While THX is able to start his at once, the hologram, created by technology and yet its antithesis, has difficulty. With THX waiting in what Lucas suggests in the commentary is concern and officers approaching, the hologram starts his car at last and drives straight into a parking garage pillar; he may disappear from his wrecked car after that. THX heads off into endless tunnels, pursued by officers on motorcycles. (One of the adlibbed background comments at this point is "I think I ran over a Wookiee back there on the expressway.") Lucas comments that this chase is a sort of cinematic experiment in itself, with the chased and the pursuers never in the same shot until the very end and little to impede either. Technology itself is something of the opponent, though, and THX stalls out as his car overheats as Anakin Skywalker would later do in The Phantom Menace, then recovers to crash through barriers and drive over boundary markers in an echo of the podrace from that movie. This scatters enough debris on the roadway to make one of the motorcycles wipe out; at the end of the chase, after THX has crashed into scaffolding at the end of a tunnel still under construction, the other officer wipes out there.

Fighting off an attack from more bestial "shell dwellers," THX at last begins climbing up an enormous ladder, officers still following him. However, his "account is 6 percent over budget," and the bureaucratic society terminates the case and discontinues the operation. With one last declaration that "You have nowhere to go" and "You cannot survive outside the city shell," the officers back away from THX; he continues up the ladder and emerges into a world defined only by a setting sun filling much of the frame. A bird is visible flying past this sunset; in the commentary, Murch says that he and Lucas considered reshooting that sequence when they first discovered it, but decided that it offers at least a measure of hope for THX. As in Star Wars: A New Hope and Revenge of the Sith, a sunset may be taken to be a sign of hope.


While making The Empire Strikes Back, George Lucas said "I looked at THX and said if I wanted to change the world, it was no use saying how awful our society is or how stupid." (Arnold 189) During the making of Return of the Jedi, he said "It was then I realized that in THX I was trying to get people to believe in an idea--and move them with an idea. It was a very pessimistic film, saying how awful things were", and "I began to think that in order to do anything in film that will have social repercussions--you have to make an optimistic movie that gives people hope." (Peecher 236) Twenty-five years after that first comment, in the DVD commentary for THX 1138, Lucas says that he's never made a film he doesn't like to watch and that his heart is still with films like it, and on the DVD package he calls the movie "still one of my proudest moments." All of these comments are valid in their own way: the Star Wars movies present a larger world with more scope for heroism than simple escape, but THX 1138 presents its own reality in a comparable way and shows a similar theme of moving into a larger world. (With American Graffiti also presenting a similar theme, Lucas's first three feature films have been suggested to form a "first trilogy." (Rinzler 304)) THX 1138 has its own unusual appeal, but it can also provide a new perspective on a different, more familiar world.

Works Cited

Arnold, Alan. Once Upon A Galaxy: A Journal of The Making of The Empire Strikes Back. New York: Del Rey Ballantine Books, 1980.

Lucas, George (dir.) Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. 20th Century Fox, 1977, 2004.

Lucas, George (dir.) THX 1138. Warner Brothers, 1970, 2004.

Peecher, John Philip (ed.) The Making of Return of the Jedi. New York: Del Rey Ballantine Books, 1983.

Rinzler, J. W. The Making of Star Wars. New York: Del Rey Ballantine Books, 2007.

Smith, Jim. George Lucas. London: Virgin Books, 2003.

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