Cult Cinema: THX 1138

Years before George Lucas became a household name with his Star Wars franchise and Francis Ford Coppola unleashed his Godfather saga, the two collaborated on the science fiction film called 'THX 1138'.

"So what you're saying is that
Lucas is gonna totally suck
in a few years?"
It's an American Zoetrope company production of Lucas' first theatrical feature, and although it was dispensed with at the time by Warner Brothers, the film found cult revival showings over the years after the success of Star Wars and cineastes began probing the lost films of American Zoetrope. It also provided an early acting role for Robert Duvall as the film's hero, THX 1138.

Based on a short student film directed by Lucas, “THX 1138 4EB,” the film is a sterilized science fiction nightmare about a city-scape buried deep underground where people are assigned serial numbers for names. Everyone is bald and dressed in white, drugs keep people docile, sex is illegal (people are born in glass jars via an assembly line), and there seems to be no escape. Android police officers skulk the terrain daily as cameras mounted everywhere watch your every move, and prison cells appear to be massive white voids with no end in sight.

Enter THX 1138, a city worker who builds police robots for a living, which is a dangerous job with routine factory explosions claiming the lives of employees on a daily basis.  His roommate, LUH 3417, is a woman who develops feelings for THX. Soon, due to a difficult and dangerous lifestyle change, THX reciprocates LUH's feelings. Before you know it, THX and LUH are in a world of trouble due to activities considered beyond inappropriate by the powers that be.
The oppressive totalitarian 1984 society envisioned by George Orwell is a common theme in science fiction. THX 1138 takes a slightly different approach to dystopia: This low-budget effort showcased a “Brave New World” never seen before on film. The landscape is as clean as the spaceship Discovery in Kubrick's “2001: A Space Odyssey.” It's a world of white walls and shopping malls, with endless elevator music playing while people buy plastic objects, simply to flush them down the drain when they return home. Television stations are designed to satiate every human desire, from sexual urges to violent entertainment.

Religion and church-going have been reduced to phone booth confessions that citizens make to a tape recorded loop. Everyone speaks in a stultified high, leaving them barely able to construct a coherent thought. THX and LUH noticeably stand out, having real and engaging conversations.

Both the the sound design and soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin (later famous for 'Dirty Harry' and 'Enter the Dragon') paint a chorus of creepy electronic sounds and unsettling ambient tones, evoking a sense of unfocused dread with a tinge of doom. Incidentally, the sounds of a scene of THX watching a TV show of police brutality would be sampled at the beginning of the Nine Inch Nails album 'The Downward Spiral'.

"...and nothing compares 2 U...."
For anyone expecting another yarn in the vein of Star Wars, this is a block of sharp edged ice in comparison, unfriendly and unyielding to audience expectations. The film is virtually humorless, and in its own way, it was the most uncompromising hunk of hard boiled science fiction until Ridley Scott's eventual “Blade Runner.” In an experiential sense, we follow THX through the maddening, intentionally lifeless dialogue his fellow members of society have grown accustomed to.

Though Lucas would inevitably retool the film with additional CGI effects shots and subtle rearrangements of certain scenes, THX 1138 remains as unwavering and unsettling a science fiction thriller as it did when it first premiered in 1971. Unlike the changes that had Greedo firing first in 'Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope', the impact of his consumerism as totalitarianism fable isn't lessened by the changes. Only when Lucas and director Irvin Kershner embarked on 'The Empire Stikes Back' did Lucas again come anywhere near making science fiction storytelling this desperate, despairing, and hopeless. 

-Andrew Kotwicki