George Lucas is arguably the most successful and most maligned of the film-school brats who challenged Hollywood in the early '70s. He started the indie filmmaking collective American Zoetrope with Francis Ford Coppola, and was friendly with Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, and Steven Spielberg, but because his reputation stays tied to the career-gobbling Star Wars saga, he's widely regarded as a shrewd marketer who devolved from idiosyncratic sophistication to commercial juvenilia. Recently re-released early work by Scorsese and Spielberg remains a vigorous example of how classic movie genres can be invested with personal feeling and style, while Lucas' newly boxed-up Star Wars trilogy dazzles with its era-defining iconography and disappoints with its bland resolution.
Lucas' 1971 feature debut THX 1138 just came out on DVD, though, and it may be the most revelatory of the bunch, given what it says about the director's gifts and obsessions. An abstract science-fiction allegory, THX 1138 stars Robert Duvall as a drug-numbed robot-builder who ditches the dope, learns to love, and tries to escape from an oppressive underground dystopia. Lucas builds on the flickering sterility of Stanley Kubrick's 2001, using modernist office buildings and fluorescent-lit tunnels to create what he calls "a documentary from the future." Lucas' off-kilter framing and superimposition-packed editing possess a modernist kick, and the naturalistic acting, heavy on improvisation, counters the Star Wars films, which were stiff by design. Lucas and co-screenwriter/soundman Walter Murch overrate the profundity of their consumerism-gone-mad storyline, but the satiric stabs and stunning design have a hypnotically unsettling effect.
The special-edition DVD adds digital effects that diminish the ingenuity of the low-budget original, but not too much. The disc also contains an essential commentary by Lucas and Murch (on which Lucas confesses that he considers avant-garde filmmaking, not blockbusters, to be his true calling) and a thorough documentary about the rise and fall of American Zoetrope. In the documentary, Lucas comes off like a heroic idealist, and his friends and colleagues readily point out how THX 1138, American Graffiti, and the first Star Wars all grapple with the same theme of escape.
Lucas' recent Star Wars films seem like a thematic departure, with their emphasis on tight control and narrative arcana, but the extras on the THX 1138 disc reveal how Lucas' lifelong love of cartoons, samurais, and space jockeys trumps his hippie-era idealism. Though his filmmaking objectives have evolved from hailing personal liberty to remaking society in model form, both aims grow out of the same desire to change the world and make it more like an old B-movie. For all the flak he takes from critics and fans, Lucas' lifelong, dogged preoccupation with fast cars, shiny machines, and precise compositions marks him as perhaps the most personal filmmaker of his generation.