It might seem like an odd thing to say about one of the world’s wealthiest men, but George Lucas has gotten the shaft. Not to whine, but we always talk about him as a cult leader, a businessman, or an Emperor Palpatine impersonator; never as an actual film artist. Part of that’s understandable, as Lucas has spent more of his career producing other people’s work or licensing his own than he has actually making movies. But the lack of serious critical conversation about his filmography bums me out. It’s difficult to reckon Lucas’ roots as an abstract, non-narrative filmmaker with his transformation into an intellectual property impresario, but I’m fascinated by it. Star Wars not only shaped my world as a child, but it held my hand as I took the first steps into the larger world of cinema. Through reading about the production of Star Wars, I discovered not only Lucas’ New Hollywood peers, but giants like Godard and Kurosawa. Star Wars exists so deep inside the collective cultural consciousness that it’s hard to talk about from a legitimate critical perspective, but maybe Lucas’ experimental beginnings hold the key. We might learn something about both the man and his myth if we dig into his earlier work and investigate his collaborations.
When contrasted with his most famous creation, THX 1138, a lengthening of Lucas’ student short Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB into his feature debut, the two films couldn’t appear more different. Prolific sci-fi author Samuel Delaney states it well in his review of the original Star Wars:
THX looked like it was sired by Godard’s Contempt out of the space station sequence in Kubrick’s 2001, i.e. white, white-on-white, and then more white. What is the visual texture of Star Wars?
Two moons shimmer in the heat above the horizons, and the desert evening fades to purple rather than blue; into the starry night, huge and/or hopelessly complex artifacts flicker, flash, spin, turn, or merely progress with ponderous motion; indoors is all machinery, some old, some new; white plastic storm troops and dull grey generals meet and march; circus-putty aliens drink in a bar where what appears to be an automatic still gleams in the background with tarnished copper tubing; some of the spaceships are new and shiny, some are old and battered (you get pretty good at telling the difference between the two.)
THX 1138 is a thriller about forbidden love inside a totalitarian superstructure, while Star Wars is a space saga that drives kids crazy. The two films might differ in tone, but Lucas’ interests in both are much the same: objects and surfaces dominate his work more than emotion. Lucas has always found more in machines than men; he colors his worlds with compelling characters, but their existence isn’t the primary motivation for his camera. The background matters as much as the foreground; he creates a narrative deep focus that makes zeroing in on the wear of a spaceship or Unnamed Sullust No. 3 as easy as paying attention to Luke Skywalker or Princess Leia. THX 1138 has a similar quality- we hear the voices of random surveillance operators or patrolbots as much, if not more, than THX’s. Part of that has to do with Lucas’ history as a gear geek. His teenage passion for cars can be directly seen in 1973’s American Graffiti, as well as shorter, non-narrative pieces he produced as a student at USC. That same visual love for vehicles appears in THX 1138 and Star Wars. In THX, the bodies of cars are sleek and unfeeling; surfaces in the Star Wars films, as pointed out by Delaney, are either worn with time or slick with chrome. No matter the texture, Lucas creates objects longing for touch and worlds begging to get lost in.
Unfortunately, Lucas’ interest in technology has often left him at a loss when it comes to words and well-drawn characters. This could explain why, throughout his career, he has increasingly preferred to deal with digital environments over actors. As someone who loves the prequels, I don’t think his difficulties with the human touch detract from his work- Star Wars is really only about wars in the stars, after all- and in fact, I’d say it’s to his benefit. R2-D2 & Chewbacca, the main characters I find most compelling in the series, never speak a word of English-language dialogue, which places the brunt of their characterization on their physical interactions with the environment, audience imagination, and Ben Burtt’s impeccable sound design. This, in turn, lets Lucas’ technical imagination and collaborative nature do the talking.
In THX 1138, Lucas leaves a lot of the worldbuilding up to Walter Murch, whose skill for sound design also helped shape American Graffiti and Coppola’s The Conversation. Murch jumps back and forth between distorted frequencies and the eerie but hilarious waiting room music that floods the all-white labyrinth. The friction of this editing style creates a dissonance mirrored in Lucas’ editing. He chooses to frame his characters at either the direct center or extreme edge of the frame; these two opposites create a sense of unease that Lucas magnifies by cutting between their highest polarities. Additionally, his use of color creates a world of white that runs together and unhinges the audience. This editing style could not be more different than Star Wars’, which orients the image around fluidity and continuity. It’s a marvel that something like the Death Star trench run (a modern-day Odessa Steps), with its many participants, makes sense. Lucas ratchets up the intensity by inserting shots inside the cockpits, a reference to World War II films that also serves a more practical function. These shots give clarity to a tense and frenetic exchange, plus they compensate for the limit on establishing and wide shots created by the scene’s special effects. These two editing styles may differ, but they come from the same place: Lucas’ understanding of montage, aided by his love for the technical side of things.
THX 1138 and Star Wars might seem like two diametrically opposed visions of the future (or past), but their engagement with detail, sound design, and editing prove that Lucas isn’t just a businessman. He’s a conductor, bringing together the sound design of Ben Burtt and Walter Murch, the music of John Williams, the concept art of Ralph McQuarrie, the editing of himself and his wife, the special effects of many, and a myriad of cultural influences into new sci-fi symphonies, the Kanye West of his day. He’s the greatest argument against the auteur theory America ever produced. He’s a toymaker that won’t stop tinkering away. A clockmaker finessing a series of intricate gears until they’re just right. An artist.