As you read this article, Star Wars: The Force Awakens continues its world domination - leveling the competition, breaking records left and right, and dominating the global box office. The franchise has come a long way from when George Lucas originally thought of the idea for Star Wars and fought to get the first film made.

When the film finally came out in 1977 and took the world by storm, what followed were two often celebrated sequels in the early '80s, an often lambasted prequel trilogy in the late '90s and early 2000s (that yours truly actually enjoys for the most part), Lucas selling his company Lucasfilm - and Star Wars with it - to Disney in 2012, to the planned new generation of sequels that have started with The Force Awakens and that are being made without Lucas' involvement. Not to mention the spin-off movies, the TV shows, the games, the endless sea of merchandise, and one holiday special of which the less is talked about the better. But while George Lucas' name has more or less become synonymous with the franchise he created, Star Wars wasn't the first time the director had explored the world of science fiction. Granted Star Wars' status as sci-fi is debatable as it's more a fantasy adventure set in space than actual hard, grounded science fiction. But what could be called just that is George Lucas' directorial debut.

Before Star Wars in 1977, and before the film that preceeded it - American Graffiti in 1973 - Lucas made his feature-length directorial debut in 1971 with the film THX 1138. The film is a sci-fi story based on Lucas' award-winning fifteen-minute short Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB which he made while still in film school and released in 1967. The short is light on plot but heavy in atmosphere and visuals, creating an impression of the world the short takes place in inside the viewer's mind and then leaves the rest up for interpretation. Lucas would elaborate and expand on this short in his full-length film and clarify a lot of things that might leave a viewer confused while watching his film school short, but even in said full-length film Lucas' emphasis on visual storytelling and world-building over plot and exposition remained. Well, for the first two thirds of the film at least.

The short centers around a man known only as THX 1138 4EB who attempts to escape the society in which he lives. The short is comprised of THX running through white halls and a dark parking garage like structure as others monitor his movements through screens. The short never quite specifies whether he is escaping an isolated facility that exists somewhere in our modern day world and where he might've been kidnapped, or whether he is escaping a dystopian society that is now the norm. The feature film would make clear that the place in question is indeed a dystopian society - an underground world where people wear matching white suits, their heads are shaved, and they are kept docile and complacent through mandatory state-regulated drug use. The short differs from this in people having hair, and THX having his number 1138 labeled on his forehead which is not the case in the feature-length film. That and of course story elements like drug use, religion, and labour not being explored in the short.

Both the short and the feature film it spawned rely more on visual storytelling than plot and exposition to get its message across. But while both rely heavily on style and atmosphere, they do so to achieve different aims. The feature film is focused on world-building - bringing the viewer up to speed on the routines of its dystopian society by putting you in the middle of it with minimal exposition so once the plot starts rolling along you'll know what the world the characters inhabit is like and why they do the things they do. The short however is a lot more vague about its world, focusing much more on creating a feeling and then focusing on the escape from that feeling. It's an escape from a threat that you're not quite sure what it is, but that you feel in your gut is not safe and that you need to get away from. With a minimal amount of actual events in it, the short feels longer than its short runtime would have you believe - as if time has somehow slowed down. It plays almost like nightmare - a fifteen-minute run from an undefined bogeyman.

Does Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB make for an entertaining watch then? Not really. As someone who would call himself a fan of the feature film THX 1138 despite its flaws, I would still argue that the short film is definitely style over substance. But what I can't take away from it is how terrific an example it is of the art of filmmaking. It's a terrific example of how little you can get away with telling your viewer and still having them understand what they're being shown when you know to show them the right pieces of the puzzle. And even if I don't find the short haunting, I still understand the techniques being used in it to try and elicit that kind of response in certain viewers. The vagueness of the threat and the focus on atmosphere over narrative might not result in an upsetting viewing experience for me, but when it does for someone else, I will understand why.