If there’s one sci-fi film that comes to mind at the mention of George Lucas, it’s Star Wars. And yet, six years before his grand space opera undeniably changed the course of the genre, Lucas gave us THX-1138, a lower key and much more cerebral piece of science fiction. Despite both commercial and critical failure upon release, Lucas’ debut feature presents a unique and unsettling dystopian vision that’s worth revisiting today.
In the twenty-fifth century of THX-1138, any sense of individuality has been stripped from the human race. With shaved heads and crisp white uniforms, everyone is an identical cog in the system, and people are identified by codes that resemble licence plates more than names. Mandatory drugs pacify the populace, taking away emotions and leaving nothing but unquestioning drones. When one such worker, the eponymous THX-1138 (Robert Duvall), stops taking his pills, he begins to rebel, engaging in forbidden sexual activity and attempting to escape the factory-like subterranean city.
A typical dystopia might be dark and grungy – think the neon-drenched slums of Blade Runner or the post-apocalyptic wasteland of Mad Max – but the future depicted here is the exact opposite. It’s spotless to the point of sterility, the walls almost blindingly white and the minimalist apartments lacking any furnishings to characterise their inhabitants. The epitome of this aesthetic comes when a convicted THX is imprisoned in an endless white limbo. The absence of walls or bars is no signifier of freedom, as we’re reminded by the mysterious appearance of robotic guards. After all, how can you escape when there is no cell to escape from?
Taking cues from Orwell, cameras are everywhere in this computerised surveillance society; no act goes unseen and no conversation goes unheard. THX visits a robotic confession booth in which a picture of Jesus relays pre-recorded pacifying messages, but the shot’s focus on Christ’s eye lets us know that even this supposedly confidential moment is being observed.
What’s most terrifying about this world is the lack of value placed on human life. THX and his colleagues are told that an accident in a neighbouring factory “destroyed another 63 personnel, giving them a total of 242 lost to our 195. Keep up the good work!” And, at the end of the film, when THX is on the verge of escaping the city, the authorities decide to give up pursuing him, not because of any big heroics on his part but because the chase has gone over its allocated budget. In the grand scheme of things, his loss simply doesn’t matter, and, even if one cog has escaped to see a beautiful sunset up above, the great machine down below will keep on operating.