THX-1138: A Future Without Hope

by J.D. Roth

I’ve always had a taste for dystopias.


I find tales of bleak alternate realities and possible futures fascinating. Some people find them depressing, but I find them inherently filled with hope. I like to believe that I would be that lonesome sole, able to shake off the shackles of the oppressors.

Here are just a few of my favorite dystopic stories: We, Anthem, The Dispossessed, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Planet of the Apes (the book is superior to either film adaptation), The Handmaid’s Tale, The Children of Men, On the Beach, The Wild Shore, The Quiet Earth, Mad Max, The Island. (Note: I realize I’m using the term dystopia broadly here to include post-apocalyptic scenarios. These two sub-genres share features I find appealing.)


It’s time to add a new title to this list: George Lucas’ first film, THX 1138, from 1971. It’s brilliant.

I’ll admit at the outset that this film is not for everyone. In fact, it’s probably not for many people. It’s strange. Much of it is observational rather than plot-driven. But wow is it intriguing.

THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) lives in a vast underground city. The residents of this city — who may or may not be clones — are bald, sedated, and dull. THX works in a cyborg factory, installing radioactive brains. When he returns to his apartment, he watches holographic pornvids and, covertly, falls in love with his roommate, LUH 3417. (As with many dystopias, sex is a crime in this world.)

When LUH becomes pregnant, the pair is imprisoned in a vast white emptiness with other deviants. (This section reminds me of a Star Trek episode, the name of which escapes me.) This part of the film feels very experimental, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. With bald people. LUH is killed. THX escapes with the help of two other prisoners.


The final part of the film is an extended chase sequence though the underground city. While not particularly exciting (The French Connection, released a few months later, featured a better chase), it’s visually striking. THX eventually escapes when the budget for his recapture is excited. He climbs from a hatchway to the world above. (A scene which, I now recognize, has been used many times in subsequent films.)

I liked THX 1138. The story is difficult to follow at first, but gradually becomes more clear. Because it’s an observational film (kind of like Altman’s stuff), most people would not enjoy it. But the cinematography is beautiful, and the movie is filled with ideas. I also like that much of the Star Wars aesthetic can be found here, six years earlier.


And now George Lucas brings us crap like Attack of the Clones.

(For a full review, check out Alexandra DuPont’s take. She likes it too.)

Updated: 19 March 2007

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