Emerging from USC film school at the height of the political and social turmoil of the 1960s, Lucas teamed up with buddy Francis Ford Coppola’s nascent American Zoetrope project to make his first feature film, which was to be an extension of his 1967 short “Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB.” Lucas’ goals were far less pointed than the short or the feature version of “THX 1138” would seem: “I wanted to do something extremely visual that had no dialogue and no character and that sort of thing,” Lucas explained in the 2004 documentary, “A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope.” “I wanted to do something that was abstract.”
Even though Lucas’ goal with “THX 1138” was not to make an overt statement, the present era he and co-writer Walter Murch made the film in was so saturated with political and sociological thought that it couldn’t help but invade the movie. To wit: the film follows a man, THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) who is a drone-like employee helping to build robotic police officers on a daily basis. In the movie’s uniform, antiseptic future (primarily shot in numerous real-life locations in San Francisco), sex and love are prohibited, and sure enough, THX falls for another dehumanized worker, LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie). When their liaison is discovered, the oppressive, conformist society seeks to torture and/or eliminate the pair as undesirables, causing THX to escape this world which is revealed to be totally underground.
In the same way Lucas’ original 1977 “Star Wars” contains latent political commentary (the presence of stormtroopers, etc.), “THX 1138” is a chillingly effective look at how humanity allows oppression to happen to itself: the society is ultimately seen to be fully automated, all responsibility is wilfully given over by humans to a series of programs and machines.