THX 1138 (1971) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Unless you live in a distant galaxy and are only here briefly to study the quaint ways of earthlings, you probably know that THX 1138 was the only commercial feature George Lucas had ever directed before Star Wars and American Graffiti. You may also know that it is a Sci-Fi film about a future dystopia and that it is an expansion of a student film which Lucas had made at USC.

In the film's vision of the future, almost all human passion and motivation has been suppressed by medication, and humans live underground in sterile environments. Human names have been replaced by alphanumeric codes similar to license plate numbers. Humans look as much alike as possible because their heads are shaved and they dress alike.

(Like many anti-establishment types from the 60s, Lucas got a bit mixed up here about exactly what in the "establishment" he opposed. Just everything, I suppose. On the one hand, he wanted to show the destruction of individuality, but on the other hand he wanted to portray the triumph of blind consumerism. It may be possible to have it both ways, I suppose, but not when it comes to clothing styles. If capitalism and consumerism triumph, people will not dress and look alike. You can't make a buck marketing clothing and hair care if everyone wears the same government-issued look. To have everyone dressing and living alike is the logical future extension of socialism, not capitalism. Anyway, back to the film ...)

THX 1138 is the central character, a man who manipulates remote robotic arms from behind a radiation shield as he works with dozens of other drones on a radioactive assembly line to create the super androids that police their world. He requires even more meds than normal, because his work is dangerous and nerve-wracking, and even a tiny mistake can cost many human lives, as we find out in an establishing scene which shows the result of a foul-up in an adjoining sector. The workers must be medicated to keep them from panicking. A reassuring computer voice tells THX and his colleagues that they should be proud, because his sector has only lost a few hundred lives, and is so much better than that other one next door, which has lost twice as many.

The humans of this world are so sedated that police work is simple. There are no gunfights. Computer voices tell people when they have committed a crime, and instruct those people to remain in their present location until they can be escorted away. They invariably comply peacefully. It works a lot like England. ("Halt ... or ... I'll have to yell 'halt' again.")

THX does his job placidly, and goes home at night to his sterile living quarters, where he watches lame holographic entertainment. One day, with no apparent justification, THX's female living companion decides to cut back on their medication, and as they snap out of their drugged-out haze, they find sexual and emotional attraction to one another, which eventually leads to their arrest for criminal demedication and sexual perversion. (You have to love a world in which they arrest people for NOT getting high.)

THX is thrown into a strange prison with white walls, floor, ceiling, and furniture, where he joins other social misfits in white prison smocks. As it turns out, this prison is largely a mental trap where the prisoners are convinced they cannot escape, and drone on endlessly to one another about where they are, how they would change the world, and who their jailers really are. As it turns out, escape requires nothing more than simply walking off toward the unlocked door, then walking out. THX does this, then conceives of a far grander scheme. Knowing that he cannot stay in the city, because doing so means entrapment and a return to prison, THX decides the only route to freedom is to flee the underground world entirely and to seek the surface. Two other prisoners escape with him, and the three men meet with very different fates based on their varying personalities and risk-taking proclivities.

Because the film is some kind of countercultural parable about life in America in the late 60s and early 70s, it is suffused with moral consciousness and a general feeling that individuals should not be suppressed by the state, and all of this is supported by some imaginative specifics:

  • One of THX's fellow escapees gives up his flight simply because he fears the unknown more than a return to prison. He reaches the limits of the city by taking the metro to the end of the line, then crosses a boundary into some undeveloped, unsterile place, sees a scorpion there, and realizes he is unprepared for what lies beyond. He re-enters the sterile area, gets back on the train, returns to a public square, sits passively, and waits to be apprehended.

  • And what about THX himself? He would have been apprehended by the pursuers, but he got close to the surface, and the police department in pursuit ran out of budget, so they simply ceased the pursuit to prevent cost-overruns. His harvestable organs were not worth the continuing expense of bringing him in, so the police looked at their cost-benefit analysis, and called in their droids. In my mind, that was the single best idea in the whole film. He didn't escape because of any great heroism or by unrealistically outlasting some super-powered droids with no need for sleep. He simply became an expendable asset. The state felt he was no longer worth owning because the price of capturing him was greater than the benefit of capturing him, so he was left to find his future on the surface world.

  • When the film was made it was not generally imagined that sedation would be so common, and that people would be punished for not taking drugs. In 2004, with much of the American population medicated for depression or ADD, this 1971 insight is starting to seem like a astonishing example of precognition.

Great ideas!

Unfortunately, the great conceptualization is not supported by enough plot for a feature-length film, so the film moves glacially, and the minimal plot twists are more symbolic than real. Moreover, the plot line is not really very interesting, the characters' actions don't always make sense, and the characters are largely undefined. Some examples of the problems:

  • It's difficult to relate to THX because he's just another guy like every other guy in this world, and we don't know him at all. He's just a symbol.

  • We have no idea why THX's housemate suddenly decides to abandon their medication. We know nothing of her thought process. Again, she's not a person, just a symbol.

  • It's difficult to believe the specific twists of the plot because there is no attempt to make the details add up.

    • Could prisoners really be held securely in an imaginary prison which resembles Les Nessman's office on WKRP? You mean for centuries before THX was tossed in the calaboose, all people believed they couldn't escape just because somebody told them they couldn't? Does this sound like human nature to you?

    • One of THX's fellow escapees is a hologram. Are we supposed to believe that a hologram can really make a transition to the "real" world and become flesh and blood? Or is this another case of drug-induced suggestion - something the "hologram" believes because someone told him so?

    • THX has a reunion with his lover in prison. Did this really happen, or did he imagine it? If it is real, why did the State allow it?


  • The prison scene seems to drag on forever, as if the inmates were characters in a Samuel Beckett play, waiting for some undefined unknown. This stuff is so flaky it would embarrass Robin Williams. Maybe even Crispin Glover. OK, maybe not Glover.

So the film is slow, and symbolic, and we can't relate to the characters. In other words I should have just summed it up for you in one word. Let's call in Joanne Worley to deliver it, shall we?


And that is no exaggeration. Screaming out "boring" in the Worley voice is probably going to be your exact reaction. It is boring, and not a little pretentious. Waiting for Godot acted out by men in white clothing in an all-white room? Give me a fucking break!

And yet, the film, like Star Wars, has some irresistible visual fascination. George Lucas has many weaknesses, but the creative visualization of his ideas is not one of them. Long after you see the movie, you'll be remembering specific scenes. You may remember how boring the scenes were, but by God you'll also remember how striking they looked. Lucas did a lot of cool stuff with no money, and very little technology. This film is his equivalent of Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

Check out the images below.


  • Robert Duvall shows his bum in the prison sequence
  • Maggie McOmie shows her breasts in two sequences, and a very distant full frontal in the director's cut.
  • another woman shows one breast in the prison sequence

DVD info from Amazon

  • re-mastered film, director's cut, in widescreen anamorphic transfer, 2.35 aspect ratio.

  • Commentary by writer/director George Lucas and sound editor, Walter Murch

  • "A Legacy of Filmmakers: The Early Years of American Zoetrope": new 60-min. documentary

  • "Artifact from the Future: Making of THX 1138": new 30-min. featurette

  • "Bald" original production featurette

  • Master session with Walter Murch (Branching sessions from isolated effects track)

  • "Electric Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB" -- George Lucas's original student film

  • Theatrical Trailers

The two-disk special edition DVD is a good value. I recommend it for any serious film buff. You will have to see the re-mastered director's cut of the film, because ... well, because he's George Lucas, dammit, and because the film has some great ideas and looks absolutely sensational - as crisp as a brand new film.

You may get frustrated and fast-forward through it a lot, but the film itself it is still worth a watch, even if you do that.

In addition to that, I thoroughly enjoyed the special features on the second disk, which are fascinating because they combine documentary "making of" footage from 1971 with new material reflecting back on that era from 2004. You'll hear Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola, Caleb Deschanel, Bob Duvall, and many others talk about the film. Perhaps most interesting of all is hearing the obscure Maggie McOmie, the female star, talk about her one and only film role, 33 years ago, as a bald woman in a George Lucas film.

The Critics Vote ...

The People Vote ...

  • Box Office Mojo. It grossed $2.4 million in its 1971 run. A director's cut was re-released in September 2004, and it was shown on about 21 screens in major markets.
The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C. Visually stunning and interesting. A lot of bang for a very small buck. Also illogical and downright soporific. All in all, the movie is worth a watch, at least with the fast forward button within thumb's reach. The special edition DVD is well worth a look to see the remastered look of the film and to review the special features on the second disc.

Return to the Movie House home page