Electronic Labyrinth THX1138 4EB: experimental sci-fi short already layered with allegory and critique

George Lucas, “Electronic Labyrinth THX1138 4EB” (1967)

Precursor to “THX1138”, this short film was made by Lucas while he was a student at the University of Southern California with the assistance of the US Navy. The plot of this film is simple but lays the groundwork for the later full-length feature: THX1138 EB has escaped from his residence in a vast unknown city and is running through its corridors and tunnels. Computers and TV screens track his every move and try either to pursue him or dissuade him from leaving the city but despite the barriers (including a disabling high-pitched siren) set up against him he reaches the door at the very edge of the city. Immediately disembodied machine voices advise him of the danger of leaving the city, warning that only death awaits. The man makes his decision and the last that we hear of him is the city government’s condolence message to THX1138’s room-mate advising him/her that THX1138 has destroyed himself.

One feature of the film is that it is entirely without dialogue save for the room-mate’s advice to the authorities that THX1138 has escaped at the start of the film and the government’s message at the end which provide enough context for the sequence of actions that make up the bare plot. The threadbare narrative pushes the burden of fleshing out the film’s contextual environment onto the sequences of visual images that emphasise the surveillance and tracking aspects of technology. Through the rapid editing and blow-for-blow linear sequences of camera screens, panels of knobs and flashing light signals, banks of computers and tapes, we see a society highly dependent on technology-based systems to govern its affairs and human relationships. This includes keeping tabs on everyone’s activities down to small details. The combination of images and sound – often rapid with quick cuts, the voice-overs coming from various unknown and unknowable sources, all images static in themselves and relying only on their linear arrangement and sequencing to present the story – may be overwhelming and alienating for many viewers in their relentless maximalist advance and repetition. This demonstrates the extreme dependence the society in the film has on technology. The running man, relying on his own physical body, has rebelled against his techno-dependence and is escaping into a world less reliant on machines. This world of nature is what the nanny techno-society, living underground, fears and prevents its inhabitants from experiencing.

Even in this little film there is another layer of allegory over the most obvious conclusion to be drawn from the film: the man’s constant running represents curiosity and the human desire for adventure and exploration which eventually draws individuals away from the communities in which they are born and to find their own niches in the world yonder. This is a theme that repeats in George Lucas’s later “Star Wars” films.

The labyrinth comparison is apt: the labyrinth is not only the passages and other links THX1138 must navigate, it is also the cameras and other surveillance equipment, the announcements and messages, and the punishments he must either evade or endure on his way to the surface of the Earth.

Even as a 15-minute short, made on the proverbial shoe-string budget (and a very frayed shoe-string at that), this film is well-made and directed: its experimental aspects supply all the story and context that are needed, and dialogue is reduced only to what’s essential to start and finish off the narrative. THX1138 is reduced to a generic action figure but this flat characterisation, necessary because the actors in the film were US Navy personnel, can be taken to represent the average human being, downtrodden and apathetic perhaps but in whom also potential for rebellion and renewal reside.

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