After Hours

Geek Trivia: Episode 0: The Unseen Influence

Besides <i>THX 1138</i>, what other numerically named film reference has George Lucas 'hidden' inside the original <i>Star Wars</i>?

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For Star Wars fans, it all ends soon. Unless you're one of the lucky few who caught the previous screening at the Cannes Film Festival, the May 19 theatrical debut of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is your first chance to see the last big-screen installment of George Lucas' unparalleled science-fiction epic. Naturally, the trivia implications of this event are all but incalculable.

While fans in the know may marvel at the first-ever onscreen duel between two characters wielding the same color lightsaber (Anakin Skywalker vs. Obi-Wan Kenobi) or chuckle at the title's nod to a previous Lucas publicity stunt—Revenge of the Sith is a tip of the cap to Revenge of the Jedi, a faux title to Return of the Jedi, which Lucas leaked to sniff out bootleg merchandisers—the most devoted Star Wars aficionados will be searching for Episode III's contribution to the ultimate Lucas inside joke: 1138.

In 1971, George Lucas directed his first professional film, THX 1138, a dystopian sci-fi tale starring Robert Duvall. Lucas openly expressed his dissatisfaction with how his parent studio (Warner Brothers) stifled the release of THX 1138 and thus smuggled coded references to his freshman directorial effort—namely the number 1138—into most of his Star Wars works.

In the original Star Wars—since renamed Episode IV: A New Hope—that reference came when a disguised Luke Skywalker delivered a bound Chewbacca to the Death Star detention center, explaining it as a "prisoner transfer from cellblock 1138." In The Empire Strikes Back, Rebel General Rieekan orders "Rogues 10 and 11 to Station three-eight." While no obvious reference exists in Return of the Jedi, that hasn't stopped fans from looking.

The trend continued into the prequel trilogy. In Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, a prominently featured shutdown battle droid sports a 1138 designation. In contrast, the Episode II: Attack of the Clones reference ventures into take-our-word-for-it territory, as every digitally rendered clone trooper's helmet bears the designation THX 1138, but it's too small for the naked eye to see onscreen.

Yet, for all the underground fame that THX 1138 has earned thanks to its Star Wars homages, there is another, far more obscure, numerically named film that Lucas has similarly evoked in his sci-fi saga—one that Lucas claims helped him craft a key component of the Star Wars mythos.


Besides his own THX 1138, what other film has George Lucas secretly referenced within the original Star Wars—an obscure piece of cinema that helped shape a key component of the Star Wars mythos?

In 1964, experimental filmmaker Arthur Lipsett produced the "found-footage" short 21-87, a work George Lucas has openly lauded as one of his primary influences—so much so that he's smuggled references to it into at least two of his films.

In Star Wars, Princess Leia's cell aboard the Death Star is number 2187, a fact that Han Solo notes out loud during the rescue sequence. Second, Lucas' original student-film version of THX 1138 took place in the year 2187, and Maggie McOmie's character in the theatrical version dies on the coded date "21/87."

As for the film 21-87, found footage refers to discarded or reused film samples from various other works spliced together into a new sequence, with its own implied story. Director Lipsett married this concept with unusual sound samples and voice-overs, producing an intentionally unsettling and dystopian quasi-narrative. 21-87 heavily influenced THX 1138—both in storyline and style.

Star Wars, however, may owe as much, if not more, to 21-87. One of the sound samples used by Lipsett in 21-87 is a conversation between Warren S. McCulloch, a pioneer of artificial intelligence, and Roman Kroitor, a cinematographer and director who helped develop the IMAX film format.

That conversation included this line: "Many people feel that in the contemplation of nature and in communication with other living things, they become aware of some kind of force, or something, behind this apparent mask which we see in front of us..."

That's Kroitor speaking, but we'd forgive you for thinking it came from Master Yoda. Lucas has admitted that this quote from 21-87 helped shape his ideas about The Force, that mysterious and powerful energy wielded by the Jedi heroes and Sith villains within the Star Wars universe. And you thought it was just simple shorthand for life force.

Thus, for those Star Wars collectors out there, you have another film to add to your all-things-Lucas anthologies. Until you find it, may The Force (and Geek Trivia) be with you!

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the April 27 edition of Geek Trivia, "Pointer of origin." TechRepublic member BR-549 had a grammatical bone to pick with me.

"When the computer mouse first became popular (Windows 286 and Windows 3.0 days), the plural of mouse was debated. It was determined by the powers-that-be at the time that, since this device was not a rodent, its plural is mouses—not mice."

I hate to disagree, dear reader, but Merriam-Webster says otherwise. Until the dictionary changes course, I'm sticking with the official version. In the meantime, keep those quibbles coming.

For more, check out the Geek Trivia Archive.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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