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Film / THX 1138

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"The Future is here."

THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) would be a happy worker drone, if the pills he takes would let him feel anything. He "lives" in a windowless industrial/commercial/dormitory along with other shaved-head people in a numb, chemically induced haze until the day his roommate, LUH (Maggie McOmie), sabotages his daily dose of pills in order to make him feel. They both fall madly in love, but their bliss is short-lived since the numbing pills gave THX a vaunted steady hand in his industrial job. The government requires people to take these drugs each day and people who stop are sought by police and punished for "drug avoidance".

Sadly, they are caught by police. Once arrested, THX is sent to a strange White Void Room to receive "treatment" for his deviance. He recruits fellow inmates SRT (Don Pedro Colley) and SEN (Donald Pleasence) in an attempt to escape and rescue LUH. However, the escape won't be easy, and in their strange world, nothing is guaranteed.

This 1971 dystopian science fiction film was George Lucas' feature directorial debut, and started his rapid ascent in Hollywood. You may be more familiar with this film from the sound system company Lucas named in its honor, or from the fact that the number 1138 shows up everywhere in Star Wars and related products in reference to it. It is also a remake of his 1967 USC student film project, "Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB".

This film contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Actor Allusion: This is the third time Donald Pleasence had starred in an Orwellian dystopia-themed worknote .
  • Adaptation Expansion: The original 1967 film is only 15 minutes long, and consists in its entirety of 1138 running through corridors as the controllers try and fail to stop him.
  • Affably Evil: The mechanical police apparently are programmed to be remarkably polite at all times. Even when arresting people and jabbing them with electric prods, they're always calmly insisting they're just there to help. In one scene, one of them even lets a group of curious kids handle his baton while warning them to be careful with it because it's heavy.
  • Ambiguous Situation: SRT says that he's a "hologram," but it's never clear what that means. He's the only character who expresses real emotions through the entire movie, but he doesn't seem to feel any pain when his ear is tagged, and he apparently doesn't know how to drive or is unable to hold onto the steering wheel. Is he an artificial intelligence manifesting as a projected image that can manipulate objects? Is he just a performer for holograms like the ones THX watches? Does he think that he's a hologram?
  • Apathetic Citizens: Helped by the fact that they're all drugged out of their minds.
  • Ascetic Aesthetic: There's almost no color in the future. Almost everyone wears a blank white outfit and shaves their heads. Android cops have silver faces and black leather uniforms. The envirnment is almost exclusively stark white or grey. A few people in a crowd scene have monochrome colored outfits, which is never explained.
  • Big Brother Is Employing You: The residents work for the government.
  • Big Brother Is Watching: The residents' lives are constantly monitored through CCTV cameras.
  • Bittersweet Ending: THX makes it out of the confines of his totalitarian society. However, his lover LUH is dead and his friend SRT didn't make it, so he's alone in a world he knows nothing about, and he has no idea how to survive. The presence of a bird flying by does reveal that survival is possible above ground, so perhaps there's hope.
  • Blank White Void: The place where "defectives" are taken for "treatment" of some unspecified kind.
  • Bureaucratically Arranged Marriage: The closest thing people come to a relationship is with their assigned roommate, whom they meaningfully just call their "mate." Gender is not considered in these arrangements because they are entirely platonic, while love and sex are outlawed. The catalyzing incident in the film is THX falling in love with his mate because she swapped out his meds.
  • Capitalism Is Bad: One of the themes of the movie is a shot at modern consumerism and the idea of things existing only to be bought and thrown out. For example, we see THX himself buying a red polyhedron at a store that sells nothing but different-colored polyhedrons. He takes it home and promptly throws it down the garbage disposal, which is what you're apparently supposed to do with them as they appear to be otherwise useless.
  • Car Chase: THX gets into a lengthy one with the androids, who ride motorcycles. SRT quickly crashes his own car into a column.
  • Confessional: The robotic confession booth, also known as a unichapel, is played on a tape. When SEN later sees the same picture in a room, he starts confessing to it as if it were in a booth.
  • Cool Car: The Lola T-70 Mk3 race cars used as police cruisers.
  • Covers Always Lie: On the poster, someone's ear (obviously not Robert Duvall's) is tagged with the name "THX 1138." In the film, workers wear name badges rather than ear tags to identify themselves. THX gets his ear tagged because he's pretending to be a random corpse in a morgue to evade his pursuers, so his tag wouldn't have his name on it.
  • Cue the Sun: THX emerges into the outside world silhouetted by the setting sun.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Upon her death, LUH's designation is transferred to her fetus.
  • Dystopia: The film takes place in an antiseptic future that seems to have combined the most self-destructive tendencies of both socialism and capitalism. Religion is illegal except for worship of the Almighty State, and the residents are all constantly monitored and work for the government, in one capacity or another, and are expected to inform on their neighbors for crimes such as computer hacking or refusing to take their medication. At the same time, though, they are encouraged to work long hours, make money, and buy as much material property as they can.
  • Dystopia Is Hard: Throughout the movie, there are hints that THX's world is only kept in motion by sheer inertia.
    • Breakdowns are common. One of the first scenes show people trying to board a broken elevator, and massive deadly accidents are a regular event at the factories we see.
    • The robot policeman look intimidating, but they are seen to be malfunctioning and get knocked over easily by THX when he makes his escape.
    • The economy is also barely there. "Products" are simple tetrahedons that are utterly disposable.
    • When THX does break out, the State doesn't pursue him to the ends of the Earth. Rather, once the effort of pursuing him exceeds a certain budget limit, the police robots just give up and let him go.
  • Ear Ache: THX attempts to pretend to be a corpse in a morgue to evade detection. Unfortunately, a technician clips a tag to his ear, causing him to shout in pain and have to run.
  • Epiphanic Prison: There are no guards, nor is there any lock on the one door THX and his allies find. The prison depends entirely on the prisoners being too crazy or too afraid to leave.
  • The Evils of Free Will: The state wants to keep its workers docile and focused with mandatory drugs. THX's work performance suffers when he goes off of them.
  • Fake Shemp: Co-writer Walter Murch appears as the silhouette of THX in the final shot above ground. He wore a bald cap and filmed the scene on the California Central Coast.
  • Fascist, but Inefficient: There are numerous signs that the totalitarian society is either breaking down or was never efficient in the first place. Robot guards malfunction. Accidents are commonplace. There are lizards in the machinery. Enforcement is actually pretty lax.
  • First Time in the Sun: A somewhat dark version in the ending.
  • Foreshadowing: LUH saying "Never mind." was recorded and replayed over and over again. As if trying to pick up any emotion she experienced.
  • George Lucas Altered Version: Released in the wake of the original Star Wars trilogy being remastered with added CGI. Some of the alterations are understandable: making some rooms bigger, adding more people, or generally giving the story a larger sense of scale. Others scenes are augmented with far less defensible uses of CGI, such as the car chase, which now looks like it came from an actual animated movie, or most of the strange men on the outskirts of civilization being changed to primates. The addition of a seconds-brief changing room scene for the mechanical droid cops actually imbues them with humanity, instead of leaving them as sterile, hard authority figures.
  • Government Drug Enforcement: Usage of emotion-suppressing drugs are mandatory for the residents.
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy:
    • The robotic police are not crazy, they just break down too easily.
    • The humans in charge of overall security end their chase of THX when it becomes too costly.
  • Hologram:
    • SRT, maybe. Considering he was in the White Void Room, he may just think he is.
    • The TV shows THX watches are projected holographicaly in the room.
  • Killed Offscreen: Happens to LUH via "consumption". Averted in the novelization where we see her being beaten to a pulp.
  • Love Triangle: A very peculiar one. THX and LUH share a secret and forbidden love, but SEN wants to be "mates" with THX, so he hacks the system to get rid of her and assigns himself to THX. However, SEN's interest seems to be purely platonic and based in the values of the loveless society. His pitch to THX is that they will be very efficient and productive as roommates.
  • Meaningful Name:
    • LUH's name is pronounced like a word rather than an initialism and sounds like the first sound in "love." She teaches THX to love.
    • OMM, the sage deity of the society, has a name pronounced like "om," the first word in the traditional chant of Buddhist meditation. Lucas would later use another word in the chant, Padme, for the Star Wars character.
    • A popular fan theory is that the prisoners' names refer to famous philosophers: SRT: Socrates or Sartre. PTO: Plato. SEN: Seneca. NCH: Nietzsche. DWY: Dewey.
  • Modern Minstrelsy: Subtly invoked by the fact that the only black people we see in the film are in holograms, and most of the holograms we see feature black people. Whether SRT, a black man, is a living hologram or just a hologram performer is ambiguous. The black people THX watches in holograms are either pornographic or performing a comedy act reminiscent of a minstrel show.
  • Mood Whiplash: The movie begins with a clip from a Buck Rogers film serial as the announcer express the wonders of the future, in contrast to the dystopian future of THX 1138.
  • Not So Remote: Criminals are sent to a prison that seems to be in the middle of nowhere. In actuality, narcotics in the convicts' rations limit their vision so that everything in the distance appears as empty whiteness. THX escapes this Cardboard Prison simply by walking far enough into the emptiness that he encounters a wall, which he follows to an exit.
  • Novelisation: A novelization based on the film was written by Ben Bova and published in 1971. It follows the plot of the movie closely, with four notable additions:
    • An additional character, Control, is the accountant-like ultimate administrator of the city. Several passages depict the events from his point of view.
    • After having sex with LUH 3417, THX 1138 consults a psychologist and admits everything. This psychologist transfers the confession to Control, leading to the overriding mindlock and arrest in the factory.
    • LUH 3417's trial and death are depicted first-hand from her point of view, and from that of Control.
    • Instead of climbing outside to witness a sunset, THX 1138 climbs up and spends the night in the superstructure, and exits in the morning to find other humans living outside.
  • Number of the Beast: LUH is consumed and reassigned as fetus 66691.
  • Order Is Not Good: In order to maintain order, the local government uses sedative psychotropics on people's food and robots that provide Police Brutality while speaking calmly.
  • Orgasmatron: The Director's Cut adds some sort of pumping mechanism that is aimed at THX's crotch while he watches pornographic holograms. Love and sex are outlawed in this society, so this is apparently how citizens expel their sexual urges. Out of all the new elements in the film, it could well be the only one to contribute to the R rating of the Director's Cut.
  • The Outside World: Shown at the end.
  • Platonic Cave: The cave is the entire underground city, and the final scene where THX climbs the ladder and escapes into the sun is a clear reference to the "rough ascent" and transcendence as described in the allegory.
  • Playing Possum: THX and SRT try to pass themselves off as corpses. When a woman comes around and starts tagging their ears, SRT doesn't move a muscle, but THX yelps in pain and runs away, blowing their cover.
  • Pinball Gag: "TILT//" is seen right after the wipe-out of a mounted police officer that was pursuing THX.
  • Public Domain Soundtrack: The final scene and end credits are accompanied by "Kommt, ihr Töchter, helft mir klagen", the opening chorus from Johann Sebastian Bach's St Matthew Passion.
  • Punch-Clock Villains: Everyone in society is drugged out and just doing their jobs. There's no malevolent leadership shown to be pulling the strings. When technicians are torturing THX with tests, we hear two voices going about it, and it sounds like banal on-the-job training. It becomes literal in the final scenes when the government decides to call off THX's manhunt because it went overbudget.
  • Same Content, Different Rating: Standards had changed between The '70s and George Lucas's director's cut, and so the film went from PG to R for the latter despite the amount of new inappropriate content being miniscule at worst.
  • Stock Shout-Out: This film is the source of the "number 1138" Easter Egg seen in later George Lucas productions.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome:
    • Whatever made the surface uninhabitable a long time ago that served as the setup for the underground city where almost the entirety of the film is set, its effects will have worn off by the time the film takes place, at least to the degree that humans and birds can survive above ground again, as one lone fugitive who escapes the city through a budgetary overexpenditure discovers.
    • For that matter, when the account for his pursuit goes over budget, his pursuers allow him the choice of either coming back willingly or continuing what is believed at the time to be his self-destruction. THX has no idea what awaits him at the surface, but he knows what awaits him if he gives up now, and besides, if death should await him at both ends, better for him to die a free man than quite possibly suffer LUH's fate. Guess which path he chooses.
  • Thoughtcrime: What the confessional booths weed out.
  • Vocal Dissonance: The big, scary looking robot policemen wearing leather and helmets have kindly, old man voices.
  • We Have Reserves: People are treated simply as tools to power the economy. An early scene has an announcer congratulate THX's factory for having slightly fewer deaths in the past month than a rival factory. The android cops are also seen this way. When a pursuing android crashes its motorcycle, we cut to a digital read-out showing the total number of police in service, and it ticks down one.
  • White Void Room:
    • The main example of this trope in the film comes from the prison, which has the appearance of a white void that seems to stretch on endlessly, but is actually much smaller than it appears.
    • Other locations tend to be either stark white, dull grey or some combination of the two.
  • X Days Since: The sign in THX's workplace noting the time since the last accident.
  • You Are Number 6: Everyone has a license plate name.
  • Zeerust: Strangely, the year 2187 has tech that looks a lot like the late 1960s or early 1970s.