THX 1138, George Lucas’ first feature – adapted from Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB, a film he’d made as a student at USC – is a fairly avant-garde and very unsettling dystopian fantasy. George Lucas' magnum opus, the original Star Wars trilogy, practically gave birth to the economic juggernaut now known as the movie “franchise,” which makes it all the more surprising that his first foray into commercial film-making was so vociferously anti-commercial. Francis Ford Coppola – head of then fledgling American Zoetrope, which produced THX – had secured funding for the film from Warner Brothers. But when executives at Warner were shown Lucas’ final cut, they were horrified. Despite the fact that Lucas had completed THX on schedule and under budget, the content of the film and its subsequent failure at the box office prompted Warner to cut ties with Coppola and American Zoetrope all together.
What made Warner so uncomfortable? THX 1138 depicts a future society in which the population is controlled by compulsory sedation and a totalitarian political/religious ideology. They endure forced labor, either monitoring their cohort or manufacturing the robots that serve as instruments of their oppression. They also endure mandatory consumption, in which the products they are made to purchase have no use beyond that of the “consumer,” which is not the person who buys the product but a home appliance that exists to unceremoniously dispose of whatever’s been purchased. The population lives in a vast underground bunker, denied contact with the sun, fresh air, and the rest of the natural world that lies above. Cleanliness is treated with ritual importance, sex is restricted, and everyone – men, women, and children – keeps a shaved head and wears a spotless white unisex jumpsuit. Robots, clad in black leather, with white helmets and gold, featureless faceplates, police the population, whom they control through fear, intimidation, and violence.
If that sounds thoroughly unpleasant, it's because it is. Even if THX 1138 weren’t so critical of consumerist society, it’s likely Warner Brothers execs would still have hated the film simply because of how unpleasant it is to watch. And it’s not just the subject that’s unsettling, it’s also how that subject is depicted.
Surveillance figures heavily in the film’s narrative, and so a good amount of the imagery is presented as surveillance footage, grainy dichromatic shots of mundane goings on and minor transgressions. The camera is static throughout the film, often utilizing extreme angles to distort perspective and further unsettle the viewer. The actors, especially Robert Duvall as THX, are frequently forced to the edges of the frame or boxed in by elements of the composition. And they are sometimes dwarfed by the environment itself, which has a dull, even sickly look to it due to an almost exclusive use of artificial light. The drab and oppressive features of that environment are highlighted also in the art direction – muted white and off-white abounds, and the architecture tends towards modernism and brutalism, all concrete, metal, and glass.
The soundtrack too contributes to the intolerable mood. Lalo Schifrin’s score is forbidding and foreboding in minor keys, at times adding an oppressive undertone through its use of quasi-religious choral settings and spare instrumentals. Legendary editor and sound designer Walter Murch (credited here for “sound montage,” in addition to his having co-written the screenplay with Lucas) contributes to the menace through electronic noises and the constant din of public address systems and control room transmissions, which occur quite literally as voices in the heads of virtually everyone onscreen, giving constant guidance and/or correction.
Dialogue and story (and to some degree character) are not this film’s strengths, but they make significant contributions to the whole. And they are more substantial than they might at first seem. The society here depicted is more than a little reminiscent of a “totalist” environment, in which mind control is used to perpetuate the status quo. A few scenes depict ritual confession – in this case the subject is expected to reveal his or her mind to an automated confessor. And though the response to this act of self-incrimination is canned, you can be sure there is someone on the other end, listening and taking note. One phrase, intoned a few times throughout the film – “Are you now, or have you been?” – is an obvious reference to McCarthyism and the atmosphere of political repression and suspicion of others it implies. There are many other examples of totalist rhetoric throughout.
As is the case in another famous work of dystopian fiction, in this society sexual pleasure is an act of rebellion, in particular when it involves intimacy or affection between two people. (One of the few helpful alterations of Lucas’ director’s cut* is the masturbation apparatus that’s been digitally added to one of the domestic scenes with THX and LUH. It clarifies the idea that sex is permitted only when automated by the state and devoid of intimacy or emotion.) It is not just sexual pleasure but pleasure of all sorts that threaten the stability of the state. Work is not a source of pride or personal fulfillment but a joyless enterprise that requires sedation, both because it is so dull (in the case of manufacturing, THX) and because it depends on emotional disassociation (in the case of monitoring, LUH).
All of this becomes especially curious when you consider the very likely proposition that Lucas intended his film as a critique of Hollywood and the studio system. In no detail is this more curious than in its depiction of entertainment, which we see primarily in one scene in which THX and LUH watch a modern, holographic iteration of the old-fashioned idiot box. Entertainment is almost exclusively limited to sex and violence, and in explicit forms – after THX concludes his session of automated masturbation, accompanied by the sexual (and more than vaguely racist) dancing of a dark-skinned hologram, he elects to watch a police robot beat with nonchalant savagery one of his fellow citizens, punctuated by the dull percussive thwacks of nightstick on flesh.
Race figures heavily in these entertainments, as all the participants (except the police robot and his charge) belong to the same, shall we say, demographic. This gives entertainment a sense of its being high-tech minstrelsy, in which one group of people participates in society by perpetuating their own degradation in the public consciousness. This is underscored by SRT, and Don Pedro Colley’s depiction of him. SRT, like THX and SEN, is trying to escape his captivity. He explains to THX the curious social position of “holograms”: “I’m a hologram; I’m not real. You know, the Fantasy Bureau, electrically generated realities, and all that...I always wanted to be part of the real world.” So “holograms,” who appear in society only as virtual entertainment, are not “part of the real world.” But SRT is very real. At least as much as THX. So, "hologram" is really something of a racial epithet. For SRT to say he is "not real," is for him to say he is not human.
Still, there is no clearer indictment of THX 1138's totalist environment than in SEN 5241, played disconcertingly by Donald Pleasence. Pleasence has the glassy-eyed and superficial disposition of a cult member. His positivity is a lie; indeed, he is able to lie to others because he has grown so accustomed to lying to himself. Having been informed on by THX, SEN makes a show of free thought in the company of his fellow criminals but is yet convinced that only ideology can combat ideology. He may aspire to revolution but is at best a deviant, as he defines himself solely in relationship (in opposition) to the state, to its false god (OMM), and to their prevailing ideology.
In exile SEN and his fellows demonstrate exactly the type of people who exist at the fringes of a totalist society – those who suffer from personality disorder and psychosis. Their predicament is very cleverly communicated onscreen: In a vast, borderless white room, in which nothing is grounded by perspective and its power to define, SEN and THX and the other exiles are set adrift, without an ideology to orient themselves. But whereas SEN’s attempts at rebellion and escape are superficial and dishonest failures, THX allows himself to become completely unmoored of ideological concerns. Obeying the demands of a kinetic, instinctual hunger for freedom, he escapes – following a chase scene that foretells many a pod race – by climbing up and out to the free light and air, as if he'd been a captive of Plato’s allegorical cave.
(*The version of THX 1138 now most widely available is a director’s cut, released in 2004. Similar to the various re-released versions of the original Star Wars trilogy, this version of THX features a few dubious digital enhancements. Though the majority of the changes subtly expand the scope of the original work, often by extending the background of individual shots, there are a few that disrupt the film by imposing a sort of anachronous style to something so specific (quaintly dated), like tampering with a time capsule. An exhaustive shot-by-shot comparison of the director’s cut and the version previously available for home viewing can be found here. A similar comparison, in video but not as thorough, can be found here. The original student film, Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB, is also out there.)