THX 1138. Outstanding science fiction film, and still relevant

In 1970, George Lucas provided evidence of his creativity and imagination…

Rafał Oświeciński

14 November 2023

THX 1138. Outstanding science fiction movie, and still relevant

…, which, combined with his distinctive political manifesto, took a form far from bias and commonality. It would be simplest to say that the creator of Star Wars made a solid sci-fi film, which quickly became the dreamed and applauded debut of a talented student from the California School of Cinematic Arts. However, THX 1138 escapes straightforward evaluation, genre definitions, and moments of admiration because it was conceived as a scorching commentary on the contemporary situation set in the future, making it similar to Orwell’s and Huxley’s dystopian visions. George Lucas somewhat silences all those doubting the ability to create works with more ambitious content and more restrained form. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, George Lucas was once a truly good creator! But step by step.

References to 1984 and Brave New World are obvious. Here we have a vision of a mechanized society, subordinated to the slavish idea of conformity. Rows of human units in uniform, the omnipresence of machines, computers, and orders issued from omnipresent speakers. The protagonist, the titular THX 1138, lives in an ascetically furnished human cage. Like every citizen, he is forced to swallow emotion-suppressing pills (reminding one of the plagiarizing Equilibrium), ensuring unconditional obedience, and slogans like “Consume!”, “Buy!”, “Submit!” have an immediate effect. The response to Orwellian manipulations is rejecting the pills and escaping into a world of truth, authenticity, and emotions. Does this remind you of something? The SF setting cannot hide the ideas lying at the foundation of the hippie rebellion! “THX 1138 is my vision of 1970,” George Lucas said in one interview. “It is a metaphor for the life path we have taken recently.”

thx 1138

Indeed, the critique of contemporary society that condemns individualism is more palpable here than the spectacular science fiction speaking of a distant or near future. The hero’s escape is an opportunity to metaphorically present social relations that, marked by conformity, enslave and destroy. Rebellion is the only remedy for falsehood, also a form of awareness allowing for the authenticity of feelings, even if it is fear or madness, not to mention love and sex, which dangerously flirt with forbidden intimacy. Lucas’s feature debut stands somewhat on the same shelf as Forman’s Hair or Hopper’s Easy Rider, but it is not so blatant in glorifying freedom—it is much more subtle, quieter, almost poetic in its vivid message. The scene of THX 1138 being tortured by robots is a significant example of this—Robert Duvall lies completely defenseless, tormented, controlled by an unknown punisher, devoid of human reactions to stimuli. This brutal act of degradation has a similar expressive power to the bitter end of the journey of two Harley riders, with the difference that Lucas believes in escape, while Hopper does not.

thx 1138 robert duvall

The message is reinforced by the film’s unique and visually daring form. Sublime, ascetic interiors, long shots focused on the faces of the characters, ubiquitous mechanical sounds, constant murmurs, prolonged moments of silence, whispers. The tension and atmosphere of the story are brilliantly built, somewhat in the style of Kubrick’s Odyssey (I hope this is not an overstatement on my part). There are genuinely spectacular scenes in this film, extremely original. Duvall’s prayer, his confession at the portrait of Christ (bold!), middle sequences in the strange prison, the escape from it, the overwhelming crowd of people on the streets… The symbolism of this film is clear but not intrusive, which enhances the impact of THX 1138 on the imagination, intellectually stimulates, does not irritate with literalism, and later Lucasian childishness. Could there be a significant influence here from Francis Ford Coppola, for whom the young Lucas’s film was the first produced by his own American Zoetrope studio?

thx 1138 robert duvall

The debut of the creator of Star Wars will not appeal to everyone because it is a hybrid of film genres, and this always arouses controversy, often misunderstanding, sometimes dislike. Drama, morality play, science fiction, commentary, dystopia? A bit of everything. THX 1138 is true cinematic avant-garde that is not afraid of criticism because its meaning is signed by the creator’s sincerity. Despite many holes, mistakes, and editing chaos, it is one of the most outstanding SF works, still relevant. Maybe even more so today?


Rafał Oświeciński

A celluloid fetishist who doesn't despise any kind of cinema. He doesn't watch everything because it doesn't make sense, he only watches what might make sense.

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