The Lost Lucas: A Look Back on THX 1138

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 07/20/2018

We’re pleased to introduce our intern Josiah Berger, who will be writing a bi-weekly series on our blog. In the coming weeks, Josiah will be examining classic science fiction films in relationship to our current moment. 

In 1971, audiences had never experienced a work of cinema quite like THX 1138. It was the directorial debut of a 27-year-old George Lucas, based on a short film he had made during his time at USC.  The film deals with a complex society that is never fully revealed, one that operates both with a strict fascist leadership and no visible leader.

Conformity and lack of personal freedom are the two main requisites for life within this culture. The citizens are all identical, not only in their matching shaved heads and white jumpsuits, but in the dispassionate way they speak and behave.Their day-to-day lives are never disrupted once they hear the news of someone’s death; their responses to such news leads to one to believe they don’t entirely understand the concept of death itself.

The ways in which the Government can enforce these conditions are through strict medication and constant surveillance of its citizens. THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) must come to terms with his new emotions after his partner LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) switches medication with him. He was previously distant with her, and only conducting sexual relationships with a masturbatory machine in his living room. The new medication, however, morphs THX into someone he had never been before–a more emotional person, one whose sexual desires are not born out of animalistic urges but out of emotional need. Even in the initial absence of his feelings that are brought about with his original medication, there is an emptiness THX feels that he is unable to describe. He regularly finds himself sitting inside a confessional booth and describing the problems of his life to a continually-running tape recorder, which in turn supplies words of encouragement to help him live his life.

LUH and THX begin a sexual relationship, which leaves them being reprimanded by the Government. Despite the society’s anti-sexual rules, reproduction between members of the species is allowed within a legal structure, thus representing our society’s equivalent system of marriage. Despite the strict rules of abstinence, the Government also provides access for its citizens to virtual reality pornography. Here we see Lucas predicting well ahead of his time the hybrid of human sexuality and digital technology.

LUH and THX are separated by the Government, and THX begins the search for her. While THX never finds LUH after she goes missing, he does discover a way out of the society, and with that comes the discovery that the entire civilization had been living underground.

One of the film’s first apparent themes is the discussion of what constitutes a fulfilling life. THX is promised a fulfillment through his time in the construction assembly line, and yet there is never a moment in the film when he feels truly content. Even in his physical relationship with LUH, there is constantly a part of him which worries of the future—what will happen when he goes off the medication she gave him. Here we show Lucas comparing this society’s false promises of happiness with the “American Dream” and the unfounded hope possessed of citizens within a fascist society.

Lucas condemns the society’s authoritarian mixture of church and state. The society’s version of a priest’s confessional is styled to appear as a telephone booth, further emphasizing the capitalist mixture of spirituality and fundraising.

THX’s job involves the assembly-line production of the very robotic police force that keeps the human captives. Here we see Lucas’s condemnation of American consumerism, and how the very products we make are the ones we fall in service to. The over-reliance on technology, as also evidenced in the confessional booths’ pre-recorded messages of encouragement, is something that constantly brings THX distress.

The parallels Lucas is drawing between this corrupt society and America’s response to the youth counterculture movement becomes apparent. In giving the society no visible leader, Lucas is shifting the blame onto an entire system of oppression: the right-wing culture that enforces abstinence and sobriety, yet fails to see the irony in breaking their own rules.  In a world where Star Wars epitomizes the commercialization of a film franchise, it can be fascinating to look at Lucas’s original socio-political statements.

Lucas never answers the level of manipulation the characters are under. Who benefits from the relationship of LUH and THX, if anyone? Both their lives are destroyed through their ensuing relationship, neither of them able to spend their lives with the one they love. In addition, through LUH and THX’s actions the Government loses a certain level of control it maintains over its citizens. Even in his escape from this society, THX is never given a moment where his internal distress is relieved, or when his newly acquired emotions can bring him happiness.

One thing Lucas discusses is the discriminatory treatment of women in society, and the parallels in our own society. LUH is punished more swiftly and severely for the same act of sexuality that THX is involved in. While it is never definitively resolved, her punishment most likely ends with her execution by the hands of the state, while THX is sentenced to imprisonment within an eternally void space. There is a scene in this a prison which involves a woman being sexually assaulted offscreen by an unnamed man. While her screams are easily audible, the other men ignore her while they continue their attempts at intellectual discussion.

THX is presented as the most complicated protagonist to-date in Lucas’s films. For the first half of the film, the character’s motivation or goal is not readily apparent. He moves through work and home life with little explanation of how he feels about any of it (if indeed he has feelings during this time). With Robert Duvall’s subtle performance, the audience never entirely gets a glimpse behind his tortured eyes. Though we are told of the anguish he feels, we know nothing of his backstory, and little more of where his life is going. In his performance Robert Duvall never gives a complete picture; there’s always part of the character that is kept hidden.

The first half of the film is stolen with the heartbreaking performance of Maggie McOmie as LUH. She is always in various stages of emotional turmoil, even at the peak of her intimacy with THX. LUH’s desire for THX is both physical and maternal: even in moments of sexual intimacy her mind is consumed with planning his eventual safety and wellbeing. There is never a moment where McOmie plays LUH as relaxed or carefree, and perhaps the character of LUH knew more of the dangers of the world than anyone else in that world. Her absence from the second half of the film puts the audience in the same emotional position that THX finds himself in: confused with a sense of longing.

The film is a restructuring of the hero’s journey, which Lucas famously gave a more conventional spin to in Star Wars. Lucas decides to open this film with a clip of old Buck Rogers serialized show. In doing this, Lucas draws an immediate comparison between what science fiction was and how his film deviates from that. In addition, he shows how he believes THX is at his core the hero of the story, one who wants to do right not only for himself, but for those in his life who he’s grown to love, particularly LUH.

It is THX’s personal will to live which allows him to escape the spaceless void that serves as their prison. If only they were to walk long enough in the right direction, any of the other fellow prisoners could also have escape. Here we see that the effects of THX’s new medication not only affected his sexual drive, but his overall capacity to achieve.

In typical Lucas fashion, the only readily available version of THX 1138 is the 2004 Director’s Cut, in which various shots of 2000s CGI have been spliced with the original footage. In doing this, he will doubtlessly upset many cinema purists, but perhaps even in this act we get the sight of a more honest Lucas—everything his fans adore of him juxtaposed with all their frustrations.

In making such a debut Lucas set the groundwork for a fulfilling career in front of him—that of an experimental filmmaker who didn’t conform to studios’ expectations of a conventional narrative. He promised audiences a future of original stories, compelling imagery that need not be explained, and including multi-levelled performances of actors. Still, much of this can seem baffling to the modern viewer. Given what we know the outcome of Lucas’s career to be, we are left wondering what changed in his artistic vision. When did mainstream narrative filmmaking dissuade him from the genre of arthouse? When did computer generated imagery become more appealing than using minimalist sets and wardrobe? When did he abandon anti-consumerism messages in favor of using his films as a vehicle for product placement?

What I perhaps enjoy most of watching this film is the opportunity it gives to see an artist at the very beginning of his career, when he was still discovering his voice and the ideas he meant to convey. In a way, this film could only have been made by 27 year-old Lucas, with the feelings of outrage he had against society and the injustices of a capitalist society all retained from his years in college. He was still an outlier to the Hollywood culture he was entering, and he wasn’t afraid to offend someone with his analysis of the culture’s sins. One wonders how THX would respond to the Lucas culture of today.

Josiah Berger studied Film Arts at the University of New Orleans. He now works as a freelance writer, putting together articles and short stories. His fiction has been published in the US and the UK.

THX-1138 image courtesy of Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

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