Directed by George Lucas
THX 1138 is important as a peace of film archeology. In this early science-fiction story you can see the bones of what would become Star Wars as well as a series of political undertones reflective of the time in which the film was released and which would be seen in so many later movies, including Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985).
The movie gets its name from the protagonist, played by Robert Duvall. THX (pronounced Thex) is just another mostly lobotomized human living in an eerily silent and orderly world full of long hallways, dark control rooms and automated therapy booths. It’s a disorienting landscape not just because of how unsettling it is but also because we are never allowed to spatially connect these locations in our head, making it all feel like a maze.
Part of this, I’m sure, is by design, but it’s also because of the practical requirements of filming such a unique world. One location might be a defunct backroom of a telecommunications company which no longer exists (The Pacific Bell company in San Francisco), and another might be an under construction underground tunnel (in Oakland). In order to create such a world, the production has to travel to find the right locations, making everything just a little disconnected.
Other than a long car chase sequence in the third act, we rarely see outside of the immediate circumstances of THX. The movie is often claustrophobic but occasionally frighteningly expansive. Before I go any further, let me just dump out all the screenshots I took while watching…
Lights and darks, and eyes. There’s also a lot of empty space in various shots, mostly in the middle of the film when THX is imprisoned in a vast, white nothingness.
Throughout the film the eyes emphasize both the ‘big brother’ aspect of the world, in which the characters are constantly under surveillance as well as the search for a soul within THX and his fellow prisoners. In the two shots above (in the second to last row) of the damaged car, you see the headlight go out, and it feels like you’re watching the soul within the car pass away.
To show those close ups of eyes, of course, the camera needs to be close to the subject, thus filling the frame with his or her face. This creates an atmosphere of claustrophobia, and you feel as restricted as they are. In other moments, though, they are very tiny within the frame, just to show you that they are surrounded by nothing. They are trapped, but there’s nothing of substance surrounding them.
George Lucas does an effective job of building out this world before us. We may not know all the logistics of how it works, but we know just enough to make it plausible, and we certainly feel what he wants us to feel. The world and its characters are deeply unsettling, and THX is our protagonist because he’s starting to feel what we as an audience feel when immersed in this dystopia.
THX has a job assembling the stormtrooper-like police robots who keep the humans in order. It’s a mindless job, and the days move slowly. All the while he is watched over by other trapped humans, including his roommate and occasional love interest, LUH. She too has a series of numbers following her name (they all do), but it’s not like I remember what they are. The names are meaningless, and they help devalue the lives of everyone in this world. THX is a step above a zombie, and that’s only because LUH has been switching out or completely throwing out the medications they are required to take.
THX doesn’t know why he feels so bad. Maybe it’s the first time he’s ever had genuine emotions. He goes to an automated therapy booth with pre-programmed responses like “Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more. Buy more now. Buy. And be happy.” When THX says, “I think I’m dying,” the machine responds, “Could you be more… specific?”
THX goes home everyday to watch television composed of moving holograms. This is entertainment meant to keep him numb. LUH tries to distract him, and she asks him not to take his medications (sedatives) because he won’t feel anything for her if he does. It’s a little unclear just how genuine the relationship between THX and LUH is meant to be. They sleep together, and later she learns she’s pregnant (which is illegal in this world), but THX alternates between complete disregard for her and extreme concern. Granted, that might just be the drugs.
THX and LUH only live together because they are assigned to do so, but later she is taken away when another man, SEN, requests THX as a roommate. Why? Well, because THX rated, “very high in sanitation.”
Because he stops taking his medications, THX isn’t able to properly do his job, leading to the system administering a “mind lock,” in which THX’s eyes roll back in his head, and he might as well be dead. This only further exacerbates the problem, and he is arrested. THX and SEN go to prison together, but they just mill around a blank, purgatory-like space. No one is sure where to go, and no one seems particularly eager to escape. They all just hang out, listless. One man rants and raves about the system which controls them, but mostly people fail to listen.
The second half of the movie follows THX’s escape out of this world entirely. He is joined by SEN and later an escaped hologram, one of the holograms THX would watch on television every night. The hologram explains that he wanted to be human without recognizing that it’s hardly a step up.
THX searches for LUH, but he finds that she has been killed (or “consumed”) and that her name has been reassigned to a fetus. He then goes on the run from the fairly inept robot police (a good amount of humor is derived from them doing things like walking into walls, establishing that they are hardly intimidating), and THX becomes a wanted man, though only if the cost of retrieving him falls under a certain financial amount.
Earlier in the film the factory at which THX worked celebrated itself for only suffering the deaths of a few dozen employees while another company suffered many more. Later in the film, following the car chase, a police robot is thrown from its vehicle, and we cut to a shot of a monitor listing the number of police in circulation. It quietly goes down by one.
In the end THX escapes, reaching the surface and revealing that we’ve been underground this entire time. It doesn’t really matter where we were or even where he’s going, just that he got out. There is no ‘final boss’ or big adversary THX must escape or run from. There isn’t even a single controlling force that holds him and the other prefixes down. All that happens in the end is that THX wakes up, greeting either a rising or a setting sun.
Another version of this movie, made by a different director, might give us a clear villain, someone to root against, and someone whose personal greed or other motivations explains the conditions of this entire world. This film doesn’t do that. We don’t know why the world is the way it is or if anyone is even in control. The humans monitor themselves, and the robots keep them in line, but even then we see just how clueless and incompetent the robots are.
There is no oppressive force keeping these characters down. It’s them who are in control but who are so accustomed to the way of life and the authority that they do not dare do anything. All it takes is for one character to stop taking his drugs, and the rest of the story becomes inevitable. His fight and flight is pretty simple, with neither the prison nor its guards presenting much of a threat.
I have to assume that this commentary parallels the frustrations of America (particularly young America) in the late sixties and seventies. Other movies made around this time might better capture that political atmosphere, but they often focused on those in authority, showing them as corrupt or oppressive. Many political thrillers (like Three Days of the Condor) popped up, giving us characters for whom the villain was our own government. All the President’s Men is a direct depiction of one of the most important events in the decade, and other films like Apocalypse Now would depict a certain madness that accompanied the public’s perception of the war in Vietnam. You have antiheroes or flat out maniacs like the ones in The French Connection and Taxi Driver, and you have the corrupting effects of power in The Godfather, made by Lucas’ close friend Francis Ford Coppola.
There are countless other films from the decade you could discuss in this vein, but THX 1138 seems to differentiate itself from them because it doesn’t give us any kind of corrupt, greedy or generally menacing evil. There is nothing keeping us down, just cold, hard apathy. The characters (and we) don’t matter. The evil isn’t daunting, it’s just uncaring. Hell, let me link to this speech by Don Draper…
Up Next: Solaris (1972), Cool Runnings (1993), Marathon Man (1976)