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THX 1138 was made by director George Lucas in 1970, starring Robert Duvall, Maggie McOmie, and Donald Pleasence. It tells the story of one man's struggle against dehumanisation in an underground city in the future. Please be aware that this entry contains possible 'spoilers'.
THX 1138 was Lucas' first feature film, based on an earlier short film he made as a student at USC1, called THX 1138:4EB. He had been studying at the USC film school for many years, and already had a reputation as one of the leading filmmakers of his class. During this time he became friends with many film professionals, including Francis Ford Coppola.
In 1969, Coppola set up a new film studio called American Zoetrope, which was designed to break away from the stagnant studio system, and provide a forum for young, experimental filmmakers. First on the list was George Lucas. Coppola negotiated with Warner Bros to invest $3.5 million in several scripts to be produced by American Zoetrope. The first film to be produced would be the feature-length version of THX 1138:4EB.
The earlier film told the same basic story, but with very little dialogue or exposition, and with almost no character development. Lucas, and writers Walter Murch and Ben Bova, expanded the story and characters of the original film into a script more suitable for a feature length film. The movie was filmed on location in the newly constructed tunnels for the Bay Area Rapid Transit subway (the BART system), in the San Francisco area, which were not yet in use, and in a nearby shopping mall.
THX 1138 takes place in an underground city in the unspecified future. The protagonist is THX 1138, played by Robert Duvall. Sex is forbidden, and the residents are kept subdued with mandatory drugs. They are monitored constantly, and worship the picture of a man called OOM.
The basic scenario is reminiscent of George Orwell's novel 1984. Religion has been mechanised. One of their patriotic duties is to purchase useless geometric solids for the purpose of disposing of them; hence the citizens have been reduced to consumers. Their entertainment is holographic television, with comedy shows about running over pedestrians and police brutality. Each element of the environment has been constructed to take away the humanity of its inhabitants.
The residents of the city are also patrolled by mechanical policemen; THX's job is to construct these policemen. THX's roommate is a woman, LUH 3417, who falls in love with him. She has stopped taking her required drugs, in violation of the law, and secretly replaces THX's drugs with placebos. Free from the drugs, THX falls in love with LUH and they have unauthorised sex, also in violation of the law.
Without the drugs to stabilise his nerves, THX fails at his delicate work and attracts the attention of the authorities. Meanwhile, one of LUH's supervisors, SEN 4251 (played by Donald Pleasence) develops a crush on THX, and connives to become his roommate. He requests to see LUH after hours, against procedure. LUH and THX become suspicious and report him. SEN's quarters are searched and he is imprisoned.
THX is later arrested and imprisoned in an endless white room. LUH is deposited there, and she informs him that she is pregnant, and they again have sex. LUH is then removed by the robot policemen, and THX is moved to another part of the white room with other inmates, including SEN.
Several of the inmates have been there for many years, and they debate endlessly about how to escape. After several days there, THX regains his strength and finally just walks away from the others. SEN nervously follows. Eventually they meet another man who claims to be a hologram. While it is never fully explained, it seems that he escaped the world of hologram television simply by stepping out into the real world.
THX, SEN, and the hologram find a door and step out of the white room into the city. In an elongated chase scene, THX, SEN, and the hologram evade the police. They lose SEN, who is captured. THX and the hologram then come to a control room where they ask the computer to find LUH. They discover that she has been killed and recycled into a foetus.
THX and the hologram each steal a car, and escape from the police, who follow on motorcycles. The hologram crashes his car, and it's unclear if he has actually died. THX continues to the outskirts of the city until the car breaks down. He continues on foot, climbing up a long ladder through the outer shell of the city. At this point, the police give up the chase because the operation has run out of funding. THX escapes, emerging from the underground city into the rising sun.
While THX 1138 is Lucas' least commercial film, and arguably much less entertaining than any of his later films, it still explores the core themes which dominate his work. His pictures often deal with a character who must make a pivotal choice, and take action, to change his life, or the society around him. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker chooses to leave Tatooine. In American Graffiti, Curt Henderson chooses to leave Modesto, California. In THX 1138, THX chooses to leave the cocoon of the city.
While the older philosopher prisoners debate about the nature of the white room, THX simply leaves. While his journey is not without peril, in fact he loses all of his companions, including LUH and their unborn child, in the world of George Lucas he must ultimately succeed. The passion and commitment of simple humanity is superior to the mechanical bureaucracy of the city, or the Empire. THX can persevere in his quest because he believes in his cause; the policemen cannot succeed in capturing him because they are only machines, and their main concern is bringing the project in under budget.
After George Lucas completed editing on THX 1138, the film was screened by the executives at Warner Bros. They considered the film a disaster and completely un-commercial. Although it was an American Zoetrope production, the film was owned by Warner Bros. They immediately took the film from Coppola and Lucas, and cancelled the agreement to produce any other films by American Zoetrope. The film was re-edited and released with little fanfare. It had healthy sales at first, but these quickly dropped off. It was panned by critics, and ultimately lost money.
The effect on American Zoetrope was devastating. They had been spending a fortune on facilities with only one film to show for it, and no profits. Lucas removed his personal interest from the company, and Coppola agreed to direct The Godfather to save Zoetrope from going under.
Lucas himself paid to have THX 1138 entered at Cannes, where it was screened twice, both times to sold out houses. While it didn't win any awards, the film's success at Cannes bolstered Lucas' spirits, and led to a deal with United Artists to make American Graffiti, which Lucas was determined to make more commercial than THX 1138.
While THX 1138 is not one of Lucas' most popular film, and the style and tone make it difficult and tedious for some viewers, it is a significant marker in his career. Aside from being his first foray into feature films, it is also the first clear example of his major themes and stories. While the financial failure of the film would push him to develop more commercial storytelling and film making techniques, the issues he explores in THX 1138 are the same ones he would continue to address is his later films.
THX 1138 is available on VHS, while the original film THX 1138:4EB has been released on the DVD Short 10, a collection of short student films.
Note: The letters and numbers THX and 1138 have appeared as recurring allusions throughout Lucas films. For example, John Milner's license plate in American Graffiti is THX 138; the holding cell in Star Wars is 1138.