“You are a true believer, blessings of the State, blessings of the masses. Work hard, increase production, prevent accidents, and be happy!” — automated life coach booth in THX 1138
DIRECTED BY: George Lucas
FEATURING: Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Maggie McOmie, Sid Haig
PLOT: A citizen of a future dystopia rebels against his society and must flee the consequences, hobbled by the people he genuinely cares about.
COMMENTS: The first thing we must do is firmly separate the subject of THX 1138‘s creator from the discussion of THX 1138. That alone makes this a challenging movie to view objectively. We’re here today to decide whether THX 1138 is a weird movie. Would the discussion be the same if its famous director wasn’t also the guy who made Star Wars?
George Lucas sows creative seeds here which will later bear fruit in Star Wars. The legions of android cops who chase the title character and company around brings to mind future Stormtroopers; their shiny metallic faces would later update into the countenance of C-3PO. The society is that of a hivemind of stoic drones, like many worlds in the Star Wars universe. Lucas, the world’s champion in the Second-Guessing-Yourself Olympics, would re-release new cuts of THX 1138; new versions opened with a brief trailer for the classic serial Buck Rogers series, which Lucas indicated was a huge influence on Star Wars (as if we couldn’t guess).
When it comes to THX 1138, Buck Rogers is far from its main influence. THX 1138 is about a futuristic dystopian society where one citizen rebels and tries to either escape the system or bring it all crashing down. Other movies in this genre using this exact same story template include (*deep breath!*): Metropolis, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, Alphaville, Fantastic Planet, Brazil, Akira, Zardoz, The Apple, Snowpiercer, High-Rise, The Platform, and Greatland, just to mention a few already reviewed here. Now consider the literature: “1984,” “Brave New World,” and the never-adapted, shamefully underrated Ira Levin novel “This Perfect Day.” These literary works share a ton of DNA with THX 1138.
The dystopian genre produces both some of mainstream cinema’s most beloved masterpieces and some titles from the crème de la crème of the List. But it’s been done. Every kind of batty off-the-wall dystopia idea has been done ten times.
So THX 1138 fails at originality. However, it is strong in execution. Like all the great sci-fi classics from the mid-20th century, it has a distinct look and feel all its own. The movie’s entire society is housed underground, so it has a claustrophobic mentality from start to finish. Even though it’s a color film, the palette is, pathologically, a glaring white with gray and black accents. Everyone is shaved skinhead-bald, regardless of gender, which together with the pure white pajamas they wear makes them all appear like laboratory rats frantically scurrying through a bleached maze. Instead of the typical face of Big Brother we normally see in this kind of film, the citizens are managed by robot voices and lit-up images of Jesus, and bossed around by metal-masked androids. Points for style! THX 1138 is sounding more like an apocrypha candidate now.
Now come a few original twists on the tired formula. Lucas hits a rare tone that he has never managed to find again. If THX 1138 did not take itself so deadly serious, it would most closely resemble Brazil, believe it or not! This is one of those dystopias with no apparent bad guy; society just got this way because people are idiots (waves hand vaguely at the year 2021). Everyone’s presumably underground because they fled whatever nukes or viruses ravaged the world; this is the lowest-bidder kind of society we might build in that scenario. Accidents happen, things break, pests infest the wiring, recorded robots apologize for the inconvenience, and android cops attempt to bust your ass if you step out of line—but are clumsy at it. Imagine if K-Mart hired the nation of Turkmenistan, borrowed its army, took over the world, and then made everybody live in sterilized abandoned shopping malls. Alex and his Droogs would have this place sorted in five minutes.
The one frustrating downside to THX 1138 is that the apathetic nature of this dull dystopia steals a lot of tension from the story. It’s not like the citizens suffer terribly in graphic ways. Aside from one meddling citizen bent on switching roommates, there is no villain. With the possible exception of the surveillance detail, there is no higher caste enjoying greater freedoms than the common proles. When androids chase you, they simply give up if the cost of apprehending you exceeds the dollar amount placed on a life—which isn’t very high, considering they can produce new human clones as easily as you microwave a burrito. You might be puking sick at the mentor booth, but its only response is to urge you to buy more stuff. Bruce Willis put up with worse in The Fifth Element. I know the whole point with this story is that everybody is forced to stay tranquilized so nobody gives a hoot, but that just doesn’t make for a memorable story full of thrilling scenes. The stakes aren’t high; if you are sent to prison, you may simply walk out.
Nevertheless, THX -1138 stands out from other dystopian movies by having some heart. Our protagonist is motivated, at first, by a lapse in medication courtesy of his socially-forced “wife,” who wanted to feel forbidden love in this medically-numbed world. He tries to go along with it, but his suffering performance at work triggers a system intervention that reveals the affair and leads to punishment for the pair. Our hero then spends most of the movie trying to reunite with his paramour, or escape, picking up the occasional friend along the way. The people around him give him something to care about. So many other dystopian thrillers make the hero a rock-hard action vigilante whose only motive is justice, but our guy just wants his ideal life. He seems that he would be perfectly happy with that compromise, if they would let him have it.
Outside of that, THX 1138 runs out of steam with a long way to go before it reaches “weird” status. Too bad that dystopian thrillers are such a competitive genre, and that this movie borrows from so many of them, even given its unique twists. Nevertheless, THX 1138 is very well-made with solid performances and commitment to presenting us with a unified vision. The cast, led by Robert Duvall, is worth watching. The technology may be laughably outdated, such as one scene which shows reel-to-reel tape playing a voice recording, but that’s a symptom of 1970s sci-fi no matter what, and it lends some charm to the production. The design of the flick is well-thought-out, even if it misses the mark of the golden age of heavy-thinking hippie sci-fi like Silent Running or Soylent Green because it runs out of things to say. Ironically, it’s also one of the most realistic dystopias ever filmed; it’s an unintentional political satire if you squint at it right. It deserves to be seen and recognized more, but that’s tough to do when the movie itself makes so little effort to get our attention.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“The movie’s strength is not in its story but in its unsettling and weirdly effective visual and sound style.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times (contemporaneous)
LINKS OF INTEREST:
THX 1138 Original Cut.mkv – An original theatrical cut of the film housed at the Internet Archive
THX–1138: A lost film – MIT paper written when this was a “lost film”
4 thoughts on “CAPSULE: THX 1138 (1971)”
Another movie I saw as kid on a cold, winter day that weirded me out. Later on I read the novelization by acclaimed Sci fi author Ben Bova and it’s really good. I had forgotten George Lucas switched gears and did American Grafitti after this one.
THX 1138 is an expansion of a short student film Lucas made in 1967
The 2004 release Lucas did a number of changes (colouring, editing, tone, digital renderings), many argue not for the better similar to the infamous Star Wars changes.
This following link goes into a lot of detail of what changed –
As far as I can determine this is the first mention of the red (pill) capsule. Seems like the purpose of red pill in thx1138 is the opposite of the red pill in the matrix movie. Never heard of anyone discussing the differences between the two.
The “red pill” symbolism is actually more common than some would expect. An operative tries to convince Arnold to take one in “Total Recall” to end the dream simulation he’s supposed to be in. The Ira Levin novel “This Perfect Day” has another drug-focused dystopia where the protagonist has a red pill urged on him as a way to hack the medical control system and thus become awakened from the medicated stupor of his life.
So what does all of these mean? It’s an easy metaphor to use, not so distant from an Alice in Wonderland motif of self-labeled edibles and beverages.