I Luvz / Hatez Me Sum George Lucas Movies

There may be no other popular film maker with a more infuriating career than George Lucas.  He has made more bad films that have been major hits than any other producer or director.  At the tail end of his career Cecil B. DeMille turned in two really dreadful films (The Ten Commandments and The Greatest Show On Earth) that hit big at the box office, but he preceded them with a dozen or more top notch entertainments.  Lucas has two great films, three good films, a fistfulla misfires, a couple of mediocre films, and the abomination that is Star Wars I-III.

Why, in the name of all that's sweet and holy, are we paying any attention to him?

Because for all his sins and shortcomings, Lucas was in there trying.  His misfires (Twice Upon A Time, The Radioland Murders, More American Graffiti, etc.) are attempts to do something different from what was popular at the box office and more interesting than most successes of their eras.  Young Indiana Jones tried to expand big budget B-movie thrills into contextual historical drama.  Red Tails failed in vision but not in heart.

And when two of your first three features are American Graffiti and (Real) Star Wars, well, you buy yourself a couple of generations of goodwill at the box office.

Add to that an almost reckless willingness to spend what needed to be spent to push the technical limits of the medium, eventually driving down the cost of the cinematic toolbox to the point where anyone with a laptop is their own movie studio, and Lucas earns genuine, not begrudging, respect.

And the root of that technical drive is perhaps his best film, his finest film, certainly the one purest to his personal vision.

We're talking Electronic Labyrinth: THX1138 4EB.

No, not the feature (another worthy misfire, and a truer vision than most of his Star Wars product) but the original short subject that launched his career.

For those not familiar with the story behind the story, Lucas was a teaching assistant at USC's cinema school.  Told to give a class of military personnel instruction in the basics of film making, Lucas used them as cast and crew for a visionary dystopian short film.

Shooting in real locations, using virtually no special effects, props, or costumes, and relying heavily on editing and sound design to  create a futuristic ambiance, Lucas turned in a highly personal vision unlike almost anything that had been done up to that point.  In particular was the brilliant use of the cold, impersonal warrens of Los Angeles International airport to serve as the world of the future.  Shooting late at night in virtually deserted terminals, Lucas used the solidness of real settings to convey a verisimilitude impossible to recreate with sets or green screens.  The effect, along with a grim faced / short haired cast (this was the mid-60s, remember, when in the real world hair was getting wild and woolly) with impossible to fake precision military bearing, and Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB packed a convincing punch lacking in virtually all other futuristic films.[1]

The short, running at a taut / perfect 15 minutes, did what it was supposed to do: Gain Lucas an entry into the big leagues.

His first feature was an expanded version of Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB.  What worked well at 15 minutes shot on the fly with non-professionals bogged down at feature length with professional actors.

Nonetheless, THX 1138 the feature is a fascinating film and, for genuine hard core sci-fi and cinema fans, an experience well worth repeated viewings.

THX 1138 the future nearly torpedoed Lucas' career ambitions, in particular his dreams of sci-fi grandness.  Luckily, he allowed himself to be sidetracked into making American Graffiti, one of the finest coming of age films ever produced, and parlayed that success into the risky (albeit not terribly expensive) Star Wars, and that was all she wrote.

Star Wars represents Lucas and his crew at their loosest and most inventive point in the series, before the enormity of their success weighed them down, before they could buy their way out of a special effects challenge instead of coming up with a cheap, inexpensive solution to a problem.

The original Star Wars used every trick in the special effects book plus a couple of new ones Lucas and company helped pioneer.  The result is a dazzling display of wonder, but one can't help but feel Lucas' frustration at being forced to rely on cinematic tricks that only gave him a fraction of what he wanted.

He famously said after the 3rd film in the original trilogy that he would wait until technology caught up with his vision before doing Episodes I-III.

That he did, and those films are gorgeous, looking like the covers of a full run of 1940s Astounding Stories come to life.[2]

Lucas has probably done more to help other film makers and creators than any other producer in the 20th century.  He has been generous with time, money, and encouragement, letting fans make their own Star Wars short films so they could participate in the fun.  And know he's taking the bulk of his $4 billion+ payday and putting it to work in educational charities.

Love or hate his movies, ya gotta love the guy behind 'em.




[1]  The nitpicker in me has to point to other films that mined similar veins:  Chris Marker’s La Jetée, Jacques Tati’s Mon Oncle, Elio Petri’s The Tenth Victim, Alan Resnais’ Last Year In Marienbad, and even Edgar G. Ulmer’s Beyond The Time Barrier, are all films that took existing real world settings and through clever staging turned them into something surreal, something wonderful.  But Lucas did it better and with more authenticity.

[2]  Would that he emulated the story sense of Astounding as well.  Aw, well, we can't have everything...

A Plain Text Reading Of Genesis Chapters 1 Through 9

"Haircut" by Ring Lardner (updated)

"Haircut" by Ring Lardner (updated)