THX 1138 (1971) | Sci-Fi Saturdays

by Jovial Jay

The influence of THX 1138 goes beyond easter eggs in Star Wars films and the naming of a sound system.

THX 1138 was George Lucas’s first foray into the science fiction arena, and his first mainstream film, released two years before American Graffiti. It presents a cold and dystopian look at the bleak future where love is outlawed and mankind is ruled by robots..

First Impressions

The trailer presents a dystopian look at the 21st Century where love is the ultimate perversion and people are now known by code numbers, such as the hero of the story THX 1138. The calm and omnipresent voice over reminds the viewer that everything is under control, and that there have been no pursuits or escapes, though that’s exactly what it looks like based on the imagery. There are police officers with silver faces, and all the humans have their heads shaved, and wear white jumpsuits. A cold looking future to be sure. Just what sort of world does THX 1138 have in store?

Presented below is the trailer for the film.

Sci-Fi Saturdays

THX 1138

THX 1138 title card (Director’s Cut).

The Fiction of The Film

THX 1138 takes place in a futuristic world where all people wear white jumpsuits, have their heads shaved, and are patrolled by shiny chrome robotic police officers. The protagonist THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) is a worker in a factory that produces these robots. His days consist of going to work, stopping at the “prayer booth,” and going home to his spartan residence to watch holographic pornography and “news.” One night his roommate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) switches out his sedation pill.

The next day he feels off. He comes home and passes out, LUH rubs his hand across her face. She sits with him until he awakens. While off his sedation meds he has become sexual aroused by LUH and the two make love. She is concerned that people are watching–surveillance is always around them, including inside the medicine cabinet–but he says they are safe.

SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasance), who monitors surveillance cameras does see them and blackmails LUH to get THX as his new roommate (his old one was “destroyed”). THX tells SEN to leave him alone, but SEN continues to pressure him, including lying to get THX selected as his roommate. THX reports SEN for a shift-change violation. At work THX nearly causes an accident at the manufacturing plant when he drops a radioactive rod, due to being off his meds. THX is arrested for drug evasion, as well as malicious sexual perversion, and put in a prison along with SEN.

THX 1138

THX 1138 is at his post.

The stark white seemingly endless prison finds guards (both unseen humans and robotic officers) attempting to modify THX’s behavior using physical, electronic, and psychological means. LUH is allowed to see THX and tells him she is pregnant. They make love again, before she is escorted away. An older prisoner, PTO (Ian Wolfe), tries to calm the radical talk from SEN. THX decides to leave and he and SEN begin walking into the whiteness.

After some unspecified period of time the encounter SRT (Don Pedro Colley) who introduces himself as a hologram (it’s unclear if he is a holographic actor or actually believes himself to be a hologram). He leads them out through a hidden door into a busy passageway of people. SEN becomes separated and ends up in a train station where he is re-arrested. SRT tells THX that LUH has been killed and that her designation has been given to a new fetus instead. THX is saddened.

THX and SRT steal police cars to escape. SRT crashes his immediately, but THX gets away, evading two officers on motorcycles. He crashes his cruiser in an abandoned tunnel and makes a run for it. He manages to evade several shelldwellers, small simian/human hybrids that live in the superstructure of the city. THX climbs a giant ladder upwards out of the city. The police officers tell him he’ll never survive outside, but are soon told to terminate the pursuit as they have gone “over budget.” THX emerges through a hole onto the surface of the planet, a giant orange sun setting behind him, finally free of the sterile, controlling society.

Work hard. Increase production. Prevent accidents. And…be happy.” – Voice over Loudspeaker

THX 1138

SEN 5241 watches the loves of other people on his monitor.

History in the Making

As a brief note of introduction, there are several versions of this film in existence (see below), and for the purposes of this review, the 2004 director’s cut was the one most readily available to be viewed. In comparison between the 1971 version, the 2004 edition better envision’s Lucas’ vision for the film, without changing the nature of the film dramatically.

THX 1138 was George Lucas’s first directorial experience after his tenure at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema Television. It was an updated and expanded version of one of his student films, a short called Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB. The student film was a creative exercise in setting, pacing, cinematography, and tone which the feature film captures and expands on. Of course, this would set Lucas off on a course to direct Star Wars, the most groundbreaking sci-fi film of all time within just 6 years, which followed his ode to the 1950s in American Graffiti.

In the early 1970s, America was still in the throes of the Vietnam war, and the political careers of many were leading towards the Watergate debacle. Civil unrest, as thousands protested in the streets. was common and the good-feelings from the 60s had finally evaporated. Many films, specifically sci-fi films, illustrated a more dystopian and wretched world than had been depicted previously. The stark society shown in THX 1138 works as an extension of the previous film Sci-Fi Saturdays reviewed, Colossus: The Forbin Project. Imagine if a computer had taken over the world? Would the future be a place where drug-induced humans, who were not allowed to procreate or even love, build future versions of robotic jailers? But more about this in a bit.

THX 1138

The starkness of the locations and lack of color in the costumes highlights the characters and the performances of the actors.

The films biggest achievement is its use of editing, both in sound and picture, to create a mood. The 85 minute film was shot on existing and “futuristic” locations that provided bland and stark color palettes. The “concrete block” style of architecture, and the lack of extraneous props in the residences (such as paintings, or personal items) set a tone of institutionalization. Lucas’ editing technique was to match up conflicting imagery, such as cutting from THX and LUH making love and being worried that they are being watched, to a group of citizens looking into the camera, which creates a jarring or unsettling feeling in the viewer. Standard editing techniques like the shot/reaction-shot method in which a shot of the character looking is followed by what they see is used interspersed with the constant close-ups of video monitors. The use of banks of video monitors shows that the public was being observed at all times, including in their private lives. Oftentimes these images were matched with extraneous voices, either controllers or possibly a loudspeaker making an announcement, which provides an eerie vision of a dystopian future.

THX 1138

The omnipresent banks of video monitors are an ever present element in the film.


The future as seen from the 1970s is a bleak one indeed based on some of the sci-fi films in the early half of the decade (and ones that will be reviewed here). Besides Colossus, and THX, The Omega Man, A Clockwork Orange, ZPG and Soylent Green all provide dark and melancholy depictions of the direction in which the world was headed. While many dystopian films are often filmed in a dark and clouded style, THX 1138 instead was a bright, overly lit film. This brightness in no way minimized the mood of oppression and surveillance that the film put forth. In fact, it creates little spaces (or darkness) for the populace to hide and feel safe.

Besides making a conscious decision to create a black and white world on a color film stock, Lucas also peppered the future with video monitors and surveillance devices, presaging the coming of a surveillance state. If the lighting left nowhere for the public to hide, the omnipresent video cameras–watched constantly by other members of society–left no actual place to hide. The observance of a person’s medication use, or the monitoring of their actual bodily functions (the control groups know all about THX’s breathing, heart rate, and sedation levels) seems to reek of the Big Brother state as depicted in George Orwell’s “1984”, possibly the grandfather of all dystopian fiction. Those themes are also echoed by the constant reminders to “be happy,” or “buy more now” that pepper the film with their monotonous robotic voices.

In fact these announcements, and the zombie-like state of the populace appear to depict Lucas’ opinion of the American consumer. In a world where love is outlawed, people find solace in their work, they’re consumption of pills, and their holographic televisions. The TV shows depicted include nude dancing females and males, a “talking head” news style program that informs the viewer of offenses committed by others, and a feed of an officer beating a man. Sex, violence, and surveillance all wrapped up in an anxiety laced package to subdue the populace. “Work hard and be happy.” It’s no wonder that they need to consume sedation medication.

THX 1138

An example of the holographic technology of the universe. Something Lucas would perfect further in his “Star Wars” films.

Societal Commentary

THX 1138 creates a stark and depressing future to highlight the themes of humanity and freedom, themes that Lucas would go on to expand upon in his Star Wars saga of films. THX and LUH are roommates, but not “mates” as sexual intercourse is termed a sexual perversion and a transgression. The sedation pills prevent ones libido from kicking in, so once off them THX (who LUH pronounces as “Thex” at one point–sounding like “sex”, rather than the letters T-H-X) becomes sexually aroused.

In this world, the ones in charge (The state? A computer? Unseen masters?) keep the populace like cattle, chemically castrated, and working to produce more machines by which to control the society. They produce new members, not by normal means of procreation (sex) but through possible cloning and in vitro fertilization, raising fetuses in jars. It’s also assumed that the populace is kept at a constant size by recycling the designations of its members. When LUH, whose designation sounds like “love,” is “consumed” (killed?) her numbers are provided to a new fetus, to live again as the same designation. Might this idea provide that a new THX 1138 exists after the old one escapes?

Of course the biggest devolution of humanity is the use of designations for people, rather than names. The protagonist is not Robert. He’s a three alphanumeric characters and 4 numbers, much like a telephone number. A simple, yet dehumanizing way to present the people as things and not persons. The only other beings that are seen are the diminutive shelldwellers. Feral and simian looking in the wild, but more dwarf-like when presented in the society. They live “outside” society, in the superstructure of the city, and are viewed entirely as numbers. The one that is captured and put in prison with THX is identified as Nondescript 6431399. Truly unhuman.

It’s only at the end of the film, when THX escapes the underground prison that has been his life, that he is shown to be truly free. Free of the drugs, free of oppression, and free of the monochromatic existence of “the masses.” His breath of fresh air symbolize the individuals quest to find purpose and freedom from the confines of “the system.” The system which decides it is inefficient to pursue him since they were spending too much money. Yet another element in the film that shows an individual’s worth is measured and calculated, and when risk outweighs reward, they are discarded, whether in death (as may be usual as with LUH or SEN’s original roommate) or they escape, as THX does.

THX 1138

LUH 3417 sets the plot in motion by choosing to love another.

The Science in The Fiction

THX 1138 presents a world that is an extrapolation of late 20th Century technology. Mankind is controlled by and uses computers on a daily basis. Children are taught by an infusion of intravenous drugs and then grow up to operate complex and precise mechanical machines in order to build even greater robotic android-like machines that are used in a never ending circle of surveillance and control.

There are still vehicles in this future, cars, motorcycles, and subways, which don’t seem too much different from modern day conveyances. The use of subways as a means to convey the masses to and from the factories is understandable, but the cars and motorcycles–individual units of freedom for single occupants–are seen as methods of transport for the police only. The android police army works as peacekeepers, jailers, and enforcers of the status quo. Occasionally these officers malfunction. One scene shows a silver-faced officer turning and repeatedly bumping into a wall. Even the technology in this future wants to break from routine.

The holographic entertainment systems also appear to be an extension of 20th Century television programming, something that the filmmakers equate to a drug as well. The 2004 edition of the film, with its computer generated updates, also includes a masturbation device with the projections to make explicit what THX is accomplishing in his daily entertainment feed. A reflection of the world in which we live, and also a fearful portent that there’s always further to fall.

THX 1138

Futuristic motorcycles race through abandoned tunnels in pursuit of THX.

The Final Frontier

As mentioned initially, THX 1138 has several different versions. The original 1971 release is not even the original version. The studio excised 5 minutes of footage prior to release, against Lucas’ wishes. Upon the success of Star Wars in 1977, this film was re-released with the 5 minutes restored and that was how the VHS and Laserdisc versions existed for almost 25 years. Then in 2004, buoyed by the 1997 releases of his Special Editions to the Star Wars trilogy, and the success of the digital effects in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Lucas released a director’ cut of the film which clarified his vision of the future. Many establishing shots were expanded in scope, with digital backgrounds and extras added. There were also minor editing changes (shot order, sound effects) to certain scenes in order to better convey plot or tone. Finally the whole film was color corrected and a digital master was created to preserve the film for future generations. A full and detailed analysis of the changes can be seen at this link.

Without the success of Star Wars, this film may have only been remembered only as a footnote in the career of Francis Ford Coppola, as “that sci-fi film” produced by the director of The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. As it stands, the footnote is now that Coppola produced George Lucas’s sci-fi epic! Of the actors, only a few are instantly recognizable. Robert Duvall was known for his roles in To Kill A Mockingbird, True Grit, and MASH before staring as THX. He of course would go on to strong acclaim in Coppola’s Godfather saga and Apocalypse Now, as well as many other films. Donald Pleasance was a character actor known for his role as the forger in The Great Escape and Ernst Blofeld in the James Bond film You Only Live Twice, as well as the previously reviewed sci-fi film Fantastic Voyage, and would become known for his work in the Halloween film franchise. Don Pedro Colley had a bit part in the 1970 film Beneath the Planet of the Apes, while Ian Wolfe was a versatile character actor maybe best known for his roles in the original Star Trek series. The film even features a small cameo by Sid Haig (one of the prisoners in THX’s cell) best known as Captain Spaulding in Rob Zombie’s horror films.

The name THX 1138 has also pervaded American culture in easter eggs and references to the film. Most notably, the Lucas founded sound design company THX Ltd, took its name from the film. Many film goers will be familiar with the THX “deep note” sound intro from many a summer blockbuster. Lucas would also stick the numbers 1138 into his films as an easter egg an homage to his first film. Many other directors, who are fans of the film as well, have taken to doing the same thing.

George Lucas’ THX 1138 still stands as a challenging film that predicts a scary and dystopian future. It also stands as a darker entry in his pantheon of films; his only R-rated film. It demonstrates a strong thematic understanding of how film is uniquely qualified to depict complex emotions and create a world that cannot be unseen. THX 1138 is a more adult styled film, even by other sci-fi films of the time, that stands as a strong entry in the early 70s depiction of dystopian fiction.

Coming Next

The Andromeda Strain

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