Dystopian sci-fi has enjoyed a popular resurgence in film in recent years. Whether it’s youth oriented, big ticket franchises like The Hunger Games and Divergent or more highbrow offerings like Blade Runner 2049 and Ghost in the Shell, it’s increasingly difficult to discern whether Hollywood wants to warn us or simply prepare us for a dystopian technocracy of one form or another. Though dystopian science fiction has been a staple of literary sci-fi for a long time, cinematic portraits have a shorter history. Certainly among the first and, for my money, unquestionably the best vision of the Orwellian technocratic dystopia is George Lucas’ first feature length film, THX 1138. Made with the modest budget of $777,777, THX 1138 is an unremittingly grim visual and technical marvel which portrays a society that micromanages and monitors every facet of human behavior. The fact that it is so nightmarishly vivid about its forecasts of a technocratic police state makes you wonder about whether or not the occult numerological significance of the budget may have actually embued it with its oppressive malevolence.
THX 1138 opens with a Buck Rogers clip of Tragedy on Saturn, Chapter Two from April 18, 1939. Besides being a subtle homage to the films of his youth, its sunny optimism over the glorious future of scientific progress creates an immediate contrast to the dreary and oppressive portrait that awaits the viewer. Embedded within the introduction, Lucas is also setting up the theme of THX as a “ordinary, normal human being who keeps his wits about him”. Is the title of the episode yet another subtle Crowley reference to the Nazi crackdown on the Brotherhood of Saturn? Or is the film itself a subtle allusion to the Buck Rogers episode which foreshadows THX’ purging of his profane and egoic selfhood through his union with the Mary-Isis-Sophia avatar and crossing the abyss of the demiurgical Saturnian Matrix to attain his Promethean gnosis? It may be a reach, but given the very specific numerological significance of the budget, I’m not ruling it out.
The film is unspecific about the year in which it’s set, but it is presumed to be the early 21st century. Like Orwell and Huxley, the accuracy with which it predicts the future to which we seem headed makes you wonder whether he was offering a warning or simply telegraphing intention of a larger agenda. People have been stripped of actual names and have been assigned names that resemble UPC barcodes. Human emotions have been suppressed through a strict regime of pharmacological treatments. Sex and love have been outlawed. Subsequently, drab unisex white uniforms and shaven heads ensure that no one will stand apart nor any gender distinction be recognized. In other words, a world of perfect #EQUALITY. There is no organic life whatsoever. The entire film is a series of colorless, antiseptic interiors which resemble a laboratory or a shopping mall. Presaging the sensory overload of Ridley Scott’s future metropolis by a decade, THX 1138 is arguably the cinematic archetype for every cyberpunk dystopia since then. People are awash in a bath of electronic stimulation and automated messaging. The line between advertising and state propaganda has all but disappeared.
Female voice (over P.A.): Changeable. Alterable. Mutable. Variable. Versatile. Moldable. Movable. Fluctuate. Undulate. Flicker. Flutter. Pulsate. Vibrate. Alternate. Plastic.
As the titular character, Robert Duvall is an operator on an assembly line who uses mechanical arms to insert radioactive fuel cells into robots. Anticipating both Blade Runner 2049 and Robocop, the entire police force of THX 1138 are androids. Since all organic forms of social organization and restraint have been completely obliterated, humans essentially serve the purpose of manufacturing the machines which are programmed to police their own behavior. Extend this speculation a little further to fully sentient AI, and you have the foundation for the entire Matrix and Terminator franchises.
As we’re introduced to THX, a horrific explosion takes place in an adjoining facility resulting in many injuries. A brief shot of a mutilated corpse being dragged out of a contaminated area on a surveillance camera suggests tight control of any and all information that pertains to public safety or raises any possibility of emotional distress. A velvety smooth PA announcement immediately tries to put a spin of positivity on a deadly and toxic industrial accident by comparing the quantity of losses between sectors. It’s very black humor, but it’s a chilling commentary on the depth of society’s emotional anaesthesia.
Male voice: That accident over in Red Sector L destroyed another 63 personnel, giving them a total of 242 lost to our 195. Keep up the good work and prevent accidents. This shift is concluded.
Paired strictly on the basis of sanitation ratings, THX 1138 shares a flat with LUH 3417. Living an emotionally arid existence with another human with whom she has no connection drives her to commit one of the highest crimes in society. She begins to steadily reduce the dosage of drugs required by law which has the unexpected side effect of restoring natural emotional responses in THX. After receiving sexual gratification from a mechanical device, THX switches from the African exotica porn hologram network to the violence network. Anticipating the VR trend by several decades, THX zones out to hologram of a robocop mercilessly beating the pulp out of some poor soul with a nightstick. You see very little of the actual violence, but you don’t need to because the sound effect alone creates its own psychic trauma.
In order to unburden himself from the unexpected side effect of his restored capacity for feeling, THX goes to the proto-AI confessional. Anticipating Anthony Levandowski’s transhumanist church by several decades, OMM 0000 manifests as a screenshot of Hans Memling’s Christ Blessing, but is later revealed to be a Wizard of Oz style illusion. Similar to the Wizard of Oz, I suspect Lucas wanted to simultaneously portray religion as the Noble Lie as well as a hollowed out, postmodern One World Religion demiurge. It even has the vocal inflections and cadences necessary to convey absolute interest, concern and compassion.
OMM: My time – is yours. Go ahead.
THX 1138: What’s wrong with me? What am I to her, she to me? Nothing!
OMM: Yes, fine.
THX 1138: Just an ordinary roommate. I share rooms with her. Our relationship is normal. Conforming.
THX 1138: We share nothing – but space. What is she doing to me?
OMM: Yes, I understand.
Taking the #MeToo movement to its fullest conclusion, heterosexual intercourse has been outlawed. When THX and LUH finally have sex, it is filled with menace and dread. THX tries to assuage LUH’s fears that they’re being watched, but Lucas cuts to a control room of surveillance monitors transfixed on the crime being perpetrated. It is a pitch perfect foreshadowing of the social media star chamber and the myriad ways our open embrace of technology has given the surveillance state every weapon they could ever need.
LUH convinces THX that they can escape the city and run away together. They arrange to meet after LUH finishes her work shift, but she appears at THX’ sector to inform him that she’s been reassigned to a new shift and new living quarters by her superior, SEN 5241. Played by Donald Pleasance, SEN is a schizophrenic collision of nervous conformity, clenched authority and creepy obsequiousness. Unbeknownst to either THX and LUH, SEN had been monitoring their transgressions all along. Traumatized by LUH’s sudden disappearance from his world, THX nearly causes another industrial accident by dropping a nuclear fuel rod. He is placed on a mind lock and detained for criminal drug evasion.
While under detention, THX is subjected to a beating that is one of the most horrific scenes ever committed to film. The police subdue THX with cattleprod-like nightsticks which are able to inflict neurological and psychic damage without ever making physical contact.
He is pronounced guilty for drug evasion and sexual perversion and sentenced to a program of reconditioning. After being mind locked and tortured by psionic nightsticks, a couple of indifferent re-education technicians bicker amongst themselves while being completely oblivious to effects their knob twiddling is having on THX’ nervous system. What Lucas is presenting is the extent to which the technocratic overlords have constructed vast systems of management which allow them to control the minds and nervous systems of the citizens through voluntary and involuntary methods.
As THX escapes, we are introduced to other ideas that are found in numerous subsequent dystopian sci-fi films. SRT is a bored AI hologram who forms an alliance with THX. The very notion of an AI which elicits sympathy from the viewer is now a standard feature of any sci-fi film with transhumanist themes. There are also hints of both organ harvesting and laboratory grown fetuses. State controlled, scientifically managed birth rates, eugenics, genetic engineering and industrial food production gone wrong would be famously examined in Logan’s Run, Gattaca and Soylent Green among many others.
Fans of Star Wars will likely appreciate the seeds of its visual world building and sound design contained in THX 1138. Lucas’ prodigious skill was evident right out of the gate. Not only did Lucas continue to reference this film throughout the Star Wars series, THX 1138 contains the first cinematic reference to a wookiee.
After a breathtaking car and motorcycle chase, the film culminates with THX escaping the confines of the city by climbing upward through a ventilation tunnel of some kind while being chased by a robocop. The robocop eventually receives instruction to abandon the chase because it would exceed the budget allotted. All decision-making has been fully optimized around efficient usage of resources. It seems insignificant on the surface, but this final scene also has esoteric symbolic significance when seen through the lens of qabalistic mysticism. THX crossed the abyss of Da’at on the Tree of Life, and passed through his spiritual nigredo to rise phoenix-like to the surface of the world with Knowledge.
Then there’s the entire question of the hidden numerological meanings embedded in the names of the characters. Both THX 1138 and LUH 3417 add up to 29 and 2+9=11. 11 has alchemical significance in that it represents the twin pillars of Solomon’s Temple, Boaz and Jachin. These pillars signify the reconciliation of opposites into an invisible third pillar. Besides being another subtle Crowley reference, OMM converts to 14 and 14 = 7+7. If you think I’m reaching, consider the dollar amount of the budget. I don’t think there’s anything that didn’t serve a very specific purpose.
Even if Lucas was using this to transmit occult symbolism and esoteric messages, it still seems to be a film which portrays a man breaking free of the conditioning and liberating himself. That alone sets it apart from the current messaging of Blade Runner 2049 or the latest cyberpunk dystopia, Ready Player One.
Though A Clockwork Orange is a very close second, I believe THX 1138 is the quintessential sci-fi dystopian film. Not only does it contain the seeds of every dystopian sci-fi film since its creation, it foreshadows the world in which we currently live. I’d like to think that Lucas wanted to warn people of the dangers of the technological age with this film. But even if he didn’t have that goal, that’s exactly the lesson you should take from it.