“Let us be thankful we have an occupation to fill. Work hard; increase production, prevent accidents, and be happy.”
So, THX 1138 is the directional feature film debut of one GEORGE LUCAS and was The Watchers film in January! It’s pretty strange to see it – for me, the first time – because it’s so basic in comparison to the world we later know him to have created in Star Wars but you can see seeds of Star Wars in THX 1138. There’s a totalitarianism vibe that is hard to dissociate from the Order. But anyway, I’ll talk about the plot of the film first and then I’ll go on to how I kind of felt about it.
So in this dystopian future, sexual intercourse and reproduction are prohibited. People are forced to have these mind-altering drugs in order to function every day and when we watch the film, we’re seeing it from the perspective of the top down. So we’re watching over the people who run this dystopian future system. We don’t really see ‘the masses’ except mostly through CCTV. THX 1138 is actually the name of the protagonist in the film. His flatmate is a woman and she’s sort of meant to be his ‘mate’, paired with him by the state (I doubt he had a say in this) but there’s a distance between them. Everything about their home and their way of living is very sanctioned and perfectly white from the clothes that they wear to the house they live in. Emotions and sex and family are all very taboo and everyone lives in uniformity.The system uses mindless police androids to control the masses. THX 1138 and his co-workers function to create these androids to police over people, and if anyone gets out of line, they are penalised in some sort of way or they might be killed. THX 1138 seems to be a very diligent worker and devout to the order of things but lately has been going through feelings of anxiety so goes to confession where a monk-like figure tells him the doctrine which is to be a good worker and be productive and it will ALL BE OK which is very capitalist, isn’t it? He’s told he’s a true believer, and the monk blesses him telling him ”work hard, increase production, prevent accidents, and be happy”. But spoiler. No one’s happy. There’s this mindlessness that seems to have taken hold, probably due to the drugs everyone is being given. Like even masturbating is a very sanctioned boring form of masturbation and we see the protagonist masturbating with a robotic arm so he’s not even allowed to touch himself in this future There’s a moment in there where he is watching porn and there’s a naked Black woman which gave off Blaxploitation vibes to me. I don’t know why it was necessary for the figure of his desire to be a Black woman, but this is a common trope in film that paints Black women as hyper sexualised, which I found very uncomfortable. Anyways… So it turns out that THX’s roommate has been slowly cutting out and hiding his daily pills and soon we realise that his anxiety is a symptom of him coming off of the drugs, because he’s becoming suddenly more self-aware and it’s like he is coming out of a fog and starts to feel again and remember normal human emotions like the aforementioned anxiety and also sexual desire. She confesses what she had done to him to free him, and they end up having sex. He tries to go to work after that and he’s not able to function in the way he needs to for the hazardous monotonous job he does in the factory. He ends up making a mistake and, what looks like, a nuclear rod burns its way through the building and the powers that be realise he has been illegally not taking his drugs. He gets sent to prison where we see the woman very briefly and then she is never seen again. The prison seems to have no exit but someone called SEN and a hologram unit called SRT (who was actually my favourite character in this film) team up and manage to escape. They become separated and both SEN and SRT are apprehended or die in the process, but THX makes it to the surface and the last scene is him making it out of the chamber and looking at the setting sun.
So firstly, I think the ending is a really beautiful moment because you don’t know why they’ve been living this way. There’s very little dialogue to actually tell you why they live in this weird underground dystopian future. Usually with films like this there’s a specific reason and it’s spelled out very clearly. I mean, maybe I missed it, but it’s usually something like people have to live underground because there’s nuclear waste, or the humans have destroyed the earth or the powers that be wanted to create a cleaner, less disease ridden society which necessitates living this sort of way. Or, I don’t know, humans have become so diabolical that people were stepped in and created these systems that will take away these horrible natural urges that humans have to be terrible which the monkdom in this and the sanctioning normal sexual urges in this sort of suggests might be the case but we don’t really know… So when he climbs out, it feels like he is really going into the unknown. Like he probably doesn’t know if the atmosphere is now about to sustain life but it’s either escape to freedom (which may involve dying but at least it would be his choice) or surrender only to die. I really like that ending. It ended up being so hopeful. I always have a lot of questions though with endings like this, like how is he gonna survive out there? My brain is the type that I play out reality after the last scene and that protagonist lives on. I’d like to think he survived and found others just like him.
Oh, one thing to note is that there is a shorter version of this film, because George made the original short as a uni student and it’s well loved also. So if you like this longer version, then go see the shorter one or vice versa because yeah, they’re both enjoyable and endearing in their own ways. Some people really love the short version more than the longer version. I had no opinion whether one was better than the other. I liked them both for different reasons.
I enjoyed the bit in the film where you see the cost of the android police pursuing THX and it keeps going up and up and up until the expense of the capture exceeds their allocated budget and they’re told to just leave THX alone. Ah capitalism.
Supposedly the feature was a commercial flop which made back $945,000 in rentals for Warner Bros, but left the studio in the red… For a first feature film to flop like that, it could have been the end of George’s career and he might never have made Star Wars so I’m glad that he was able to continue in the industry despite that. Looking at some of the commentary, Robert Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times said that “this film suffers somewhat from its simple storyline but as a work of visual imagination is special and as haunting as parts of 2001 Space Odyssey, Silent Running and the Andromeda String”. And then Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune said “the principal problem with this film is that it lacks imagination… the essential component of a science fiction film. Some persons might claim the world of THX 1138 is here right now. A more reasonable opinion would hold that we are facing the problems of that world right now. Time has passed the film by”. I would disagree with the latter. I think that it’s a mistake to think that science fiction aims to create fantastical new problems that we might have in future. It’s always a mirror of the time we live in right now. Look at films like Soylent Green from the same era, which looked at inequality, food scarcity, sexism… all problems they were facing in the 70s but the film mirrored that in a guise of the future. THX 1138 is no different. Certainly the themes it is based on may not be novel… Police brutality. Man versus machine. Capitalism. Furthering unscrupulous aims. Inequality. They’re problems that existed when the film was made in the 70s just like they exist now. Just because you’re saying something similar to other voices it doesn’t strip it of its worth.
I thought that I might hate this film actually, because I tend to dislike a lot of 70s films particularly because they tend to portray women in a certain light, as commodities or pieces of flesh only. So, I was surprised that the protagonist woman in this film somehow managed to undo her training on her own and then also plan to undo that for THX 1138 in order to save him. It makes her a mastermind! Usually, films in the 70s treat women like a damsel. It seems like a lot of films in that decade put women ‘in their places’ and I don’t really understand why totally. Maybe because those films made more money? Because films with strong women was an out there concept for the 70s? I don’t really know. It always surprises me but of course I’m seeing the film with a modern lens and it doesn’t work… Anyway, I was really surprised that this woman ended up being a bit of a saviour. That made the film quite special to me. That said, she did end up just being a vehicle for the dude to escape and then we never see her again.. and there’s also that cringey Blaxploitation bit… All I can say is the film is very much ‘of its time’..
So overall, it’s a simple concept but enjoyable. I can see why it has a cult following now. It has good bones and felt like a little star wars seed with the whole totalitarianism thing. Nice to see how far George has come.