Back in 2012, just before his World War II drama Red Tails premiered, George Lucas, maker of some of the most popular and profitable movies in history, announced that he was retiring from commercial filmmaking. He said that he wanted to spend his retirement making experimental movies like the ones he made while studying film at the University of Southern California in the late 1960s. One of his student films simply depicted clouds moving across the sky. Another is based on a poem by E. E. Cummings. And another, his most famous, is Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB (above), which took first prize in the category of Dramatic Films at the 3rd National Student Film Festival in New York City, in 1968.
Set in a dystopic totalitarian future, the movie is about one guy in a white jumpsuit who struggles to escape from the clutches of the society’s high tech surveillance apparatus. For a student movie made for next to nothing, it is quite good. Sure, there aren’t really any characters and the story is so compressed that it is sometimes hard to tell what is going on, but Lucas did a brilliant job at creating memorable images and evoking a mood of techno-paranoia. And one also can’t help but notice elements in the movie that pop up later in Star Wars – those control panels in the security room look a lot like those in the Death Star. The audio chatter in this movie sounds a lot like the nattering of droids.
Lucas expanded this short to make his first feature, THX-1138. For those only familiar with his space operas, the movie might be a surprise. It is a challenging, visually audacious movie with frank depictions of sex and nudity and with a sharp political subtext. It also features a shorn Robert Duvall and a high-speed escape through the tunnels of San Francisco’s not-quite-completed BART system. When it came out in 1971, it mystified audiences but it impressed the right people. Two years later, Lucas released American Graffiti and then, in 1977, his greatest cinematic triumph.
George Lucas took a hodgepodge of movie elements – samurai swords, WWII dogfights, space aliens – and combined them in a new, original, and spectacularly profitable way to make Star Wars, a movie that feels as epic as a myth told with the propulsive, muscular energy of an Akira Kurosawa film. The movie worked its way into the culture in a way that few works of art ever have. Case in point: last year, President Obama, the most powerful man in the world, was ridiculed for fumbling a Star Wars reference. Perhaps because of Lucas’s vast cultural impact, Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB was selected in 2010 for preservation by the National Film Registry.
You can find more student films by great directors in our collection, 700 Free Movies Online: Great Classics, Indies, Noir, Westerns, etc.
Jonathan Crow is a Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hollywood Reporter, and other publications. You can follow him at @jonccrow.