Sci-Fi Film Fiesta: THX 1138 (1971)

admin2021January 7, 2023

“For the Party and for all, masses are what we are.”

Just before reaching home, he stops by an Uni-chapel. He enters a small confession booth (one of many) that resembles a public telephone booth. As the door closes, an image which we might identify as being the face of Jesus Christ is illuminated by florescent lights. As if he were confessing his sins to a priest, THX relates his troubles stating that he is disoriented and can’t concentrate and that his mate is acting strangely. He also admits to needing more sedatives than normal.

We soon begin to realize from our own experience that THX is communicating with little more than an AI program or Chat bot equivalent that’s been programmed to provide prompts to elicit further communication and to provide standardized propaganda, platitudes and slogans as interactive-sounding responses:

“Yes, yes I understand.”
“Could you be more specific?
“You are a true believer, blessings of the masses, thou art a subject of the divine, created in the image of man, by the masses, for the masses.”
“Let us be thankful we have an occupation to fill. Work hard, increase production, prevent accidents, and be happy.”

As if to confirm our suspicions, we see a tape recorder playing back “OMM 0000’s” voice. God apparently has become a mass of wiring and electronics and THX like all members of society are “a subject of the divine, created in the image of man by the masses, for the masses.” (“What’s wrong?”)

“They know. They’ve been watching us. I can feel it.”

At home, THX watches a holo-broadcast during which he masturbates. The video is of a police robot rhythmically beating a man, the sound of which pervades the scene, a constant reminder of what the state can do to the errant powerless individual who transgresses the established order of things. It seems also as if pornography and sadomasochism is used as a form of controlled release in conjunction with the mandatory use of drugs to keep the populace calm and compliant. 

In a later broadcast we hear the following: “The theater of noise is proof of our potential. The circulation of prototypes. The golden talisman underfoot is phenomenon approaching. And in the history of now… all ethos are designed.” Language with structure and syntax but devoid of meaning and sense. This is the kind of babbling nonsense that washes over the viewing audience via the media broadcasts and this all-pervasive noise is apparently accepted as signifying…..something? Sound kind of familiar?

Meanwhile THX’s roommate, LUH secretly substitutes her pills for THX’s medications, causing him to develop nausea, anxiety, and sexual desires. Unlike THX, LUH displays emotions, especially fear and anxiety and she is also “birth born.” LUH runs the risk of being arrested for “criminal drug evasion” for changing the drug doses.

THX suffers more and more from the chemical imbalance in his body brought on by the change to his drug intake. As a result, he can no longer adequately perform his duties at work.

A return visit to the Uni-chapel, merely provides THX with much the same series of mechanical replies from Omm along with exhortations to buy more and be happy.

THX eventually learns that LUH has been interfering with his medication in order for him to care about her, to have feelings for her, to reach out and touch her and to love her. Although THX did not want to get involved with LUH initially, now that  the effects of the medication have worn off, he realizes that he does care for her.

Just by having sex and expressing their love for each other, THX and LUH are both asserting their freedom but are also committing a felony, an even more heinous offense than drug evasion. 

It later turns out that SEN 5241’s roommate was eliminated due to some unspecified reason, and as he is impressed by THX’s sanitation rating, SEN wants him as a roommate. Of course, this will necessitate the removal of LUH from the picture via a shift change. Wishing to stay with LUH, THX files a complaint against SEN for an illegal shift pattern change.

“1138 suffering severe sedation depletion, which requires mindlock and arrest.”

Without drugs in his system, THX falters during a critical and hazardous phase of his job where he manages to drop some radioactive material. Someone in control center measures his biological signs and determines that he has a severe sedation depletion. A “mind lock” is then engaged on THX which raises the level of danger as he cannot pick up the material he dropped. Unless the mind lock is released, an explosion will result. After the release of the mind lock, THX makes the required correction to that work phase.

“1138 THX is charged with violation appendix 445 to 613, index 78.7”

At THX’s trial, he is charged with “drug evasion, malicious sexual perversion and transgression.” Two lawyers debate the punishment, using few words robotically delivered staccato fashion as if they are themselves automatons. The subject of the “trial,” THX is not permitted to speak in his own defense. His guilt has already been determined and all that is to be decided is whether or not he is to be “destroyed” as a “source of sin.” THX is ultimately convicted, “pronounced incurable, and shall be conditioned and held in detention.” – The implacable logic of an insane system in which the real crime consists of defying the dehumanizing and conformist dictates of the State.

As an individual who has transgressed the norms of conformity and compliance of his society, THX’s treatment stands in sharp relief to the all-pervading whiteness of his detention surroundings.

THX wakes up with a start as he hears footsteps and begins to panic as they approach, growing louder and louder. Suddenly, a robot chrome-faced policeman appears holding a long electronic prod. THX runs frantically and futilely in circles as two more policemen appear also brandishing electric prods and proceed to surround him.

Slowly closing in on THX, the three robo-cops prod him with the long poles causing him extreme pain. The irony of this is not lost on us as it was THX’s job to work on and construct these very instruments of his own torture and imprisonment.

After the procedure while sitting alone, THX is found by LUH who tells him that she is pregnant. Their time together is brief, however because the police robots have come to take THX is to a detention center.

“Where you going?”

“I’m leaving.” 

“Leaving? Leaving what? 

You can’t leave. You can’t go.” 

The detention center is like much of society – awash with the infinite vast monotony of whiteness. THX finds himself with several other incurable offenders, including SEN whom he earlier reported to the authorities.

What to do when faced with the crushing pervasiveness of an insane dehumanizing system? When legal recourse is meaningless as the legal framework reflects the insane logic of that system? When the broader population is rendered compliant by the medical, media and economic organs of power in service of the needs of the State?

Could it be up to the lunatics to take over the asylum?

• “The mumblings of an old man” who spent his “level-headed” life watching but never acting?

• The raging impulsive fool who’d jump up and down on a single robo-cop’s head? And then what?

• The rage-filled hot-head who longs “to thrash out, to tear down, to destroy and annihilate, to ravage, wreak havoc and plunder?” And then what?

• Wannabe leaders waiting for that “one idea” to “get us out of here” but in the meantime fall back on making stirring grand speeches and believing their own rhetoric while achieving nothing?

• Or perhaps those filled with the positivism of mindfulness and acceptance and so are able to fashion a “veritable paradise” for themselves right here in their prison?

It seems that THX is not interested in the mantra of “we’re all in this together.” The ‘lunatic’ dissenters have been excluded from society and cast out into a purposeless white void of impotent irrelevance. Yes indeed, in this sense they are in this together and no doubt will never escape from whatever and wherever “this” is. THX, on the other hand is simply intent on being with LUH, the one he loves and on finding a way out – to leave, to opt-out, find the exit, to escape to another place.

“It’s a man. He’s waving. He’s waving to us.”

THX with Sen in tow, eventually meet a hologram named SRT. The three men locate the exit only to discover somewhat surprisingly that it doesn’t have any alarms or locks. There is no need for any as it is the men’s lack of will to escape that was keeping them prisoner.

It’s a strange life
I always wanted to be part of the real world……So I left.
So I left.
I left.
Yes, yes I understand.
Could you be more specific?

They know. They’ve been watching us. I can feel it.
Most men failed to realize that anything had happened at all,
So I left.
You are engaged in an unauthorized procedure;
Remain where you are.
Violation appendix 445 to 613, index 78.7!
Drug evasion,
Malicious sexual perversion
And transgression!
Take four red capsules.
In 10 minutes, take two more.
Help is on the way.

I wanna do the right thing.
You are a true believer,

Blessings of the masses.
Thou art a subject of the divine,
Created in the image of man, 

By the masses, for the masses.
I wanna go back. I can start again.
Let us be thankful we have an occupation to fill.
Work hard; 

And be happy.
I can change. I can help.

The scenes of THX at work were shot in front of a functioning radiation containment chamber known as a “hot cell”, which was used by those who handled radioactive materials such as isotopes.

THX’s final climb out to the daylight from the ventilation shaft was filmed (with the camera rotated 90°) in the incomplete Bay Area Rapid Transit Transbay Tube before installation of the track supports. The actors made use of exposed reinforcing bars on the floor of the tunnel as a ladder.

The final scene, of THX standing bathed by the light of the sunset, was shot at Port Hueneme, California.

On completion of editing of the film, producer Coppola took it to Warner Bros., where the studio executives who disliked the final film insisted that Coppola turn over the negative to an in-house Warner editor, who cut about 4 minutes of the film prior to release. In addition to the cut, the marketing budget was reduced.

Many of the electronic sound effects heard throughout the film consist of telephone dial tones that have been pitch-shifted, and electronically modified.

The music playing during the end credits is the first movement from Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244.

It has been suggested that George Lucas named the film after his San Francisco telephone number, 849-1138 with the letters THX corresponding to letters found on the buttons 8, 4, and 9.

One possible explanation for the character names, THX, SEN, and LUH are that they are close homonyms for “sex,” “sin,” and “love,” the very concepts that set the characters apart from society.

The image of OMM in the confessional booths is a cropped image of Hans Memling’s painting, “Christ Giving His Blessing” (1481.)

The letters “THX” we all well know as a cinema sound certification.

Some of SEN’s dialogue in the film included excerpts from speeches by former president Richard Nixon in keeping with the era in which the film was made.

I found it somewhat difficult to establish a real connection with the characters and the story despite the film’s compelling premise. The film relied a lot on dialogue at the expense of an engaging story to carry the audience along. TXH 1138 has more of the feel of a rather slow-paced but thought-provoking, atmospheric and largely artistic experimental project.

THX 1138 is a very gloomy dystopian work in a similar vein to Orwell’s “1984” and Huxley’s “Brave New World,” along with films like “Gattaca” (1997). Such works force the audience to think and consider what exactly is happening, why particular choices are made and what it all means. A very difficult balancing act between this aspect of intelligent film making and the temptation to inundate the audience with constant on-screen action and infantile messaging.

Full Film (original cut)  (Link)

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