For an escape from totalitarianism: on THX 1138

Robot-police close in on the position of fugitive THX 1138

The 1971 film THX 1138—incidentally, George Lucas’ first feature film—is a challenging and important work. It portrays a highly repressive future-society in which humans are largely made dependent upon drugs that suppress sexuality and human passion generally conceived, thus ensuring that extant totalitarian-capitalist social relations continue with little challenge from either erotic or rational critique. It is a film with themes that might well have interested Wilhelm Reich and Herbert Marcuse, among others; it shares many concerns with Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1921), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and seems undoubtedly to have influenced later science-fiction films such as the Star Wars and Matrix trilogies.The allegorical nature of Lucas’ work—THX 1138 essentially examines the tentative beginnings of the title-character’s rebellion against imposed repressiveness and barbarism through to his successful physical escape from such—remains highly relevant to the contemporary predicament; reflection on such, then, could perhaps be of use.

The world in which Thex (as THX 1138 is referred to by his lover LUH 3417, or Luh) exists is one characterized by near-total alienation. The occupation to which he seems to be bound is that of working on an assembly line constructing robots that are meant to serve as society’s police; Luh works as an operator who monitors the intake by the general population of emotion-suppression drugs. Everyone in the society depicted in THX 1138 other than for the robot-police and the African bodies that are shown dancing erotically for entertainment on television programs is Caucasian, shaved, and dressed entirely in white. People in THX 1138 are remarkably estranged from each other: inter-human relations marked by “normality” and “conformity”—entirely asexual—are also largely if not entirely meaningless. Thex expresses his turmoil over Luh—the stirrings of eros and, indeed, ofautonomy—to a machine in a confessional booth of sorts associated with the supposedly divine OMM, a Christ-like deity worshipped in THX 1138; due to hegemonic repressiveness that conceives of inter-human sexuality as criminal, Thex surely cannot express such concerns to a companion or friend, if he has any (the film suggests that he does not), and so must resort to religious confession (“the sigh of the oppressed creature”1). Significantly, it is rather likely that the emphatic “Nothing” with which Thex responds to his self-imposed question of “What am I to her [Luh] or she to to me?” represents an expression of inculcated hegemony—a hegemony with which Thex breaks radically through his symbolic exodus from heteronomous social values, however established such heteronomy and hegemony is among the residents of the world of THX 1138, most of whom “no longer exist in dialectical opposition to society but rather are identical with it in their substance,” as Theodor W. Adorno puts it in his reflections on Brave New World.2 The first time Thex and Luh come to embrace erotically, indeed—an eventuality made possible only because Luh surreptitiously switches out Thex’s sex-inhibition drugs with others—Luh tells Thex that she had been “so afraid” and “so alone” prior to communing sexually with him. The tenderness and love shown by the lovers to each other, indeed, contrasts dramatically with the normal functioning of hegemonic social relations—for “normality is death,” as Adorno puts it.3 In this sense Thex and Luh’s love for each other represents the possibility of an autonomous development beyond that which is given—the sublation of the existent. It is precisely because of this, then, that emotions are consciously repressed, sex forbidden, and the outlaws (‘erotics,’ as the prosecutor at Thex’s trial refers to them) relegated to the “edge of society,” as one of Thex’s co-inmates has it.

Like countless other films, especially science-fiction ones, THX 1138 provides speculative insight into plausible futures that humanity may at some point face; Lucas in THX 1138 “projects observations of the present state of civilization along the lines of its own teleology to the point where its monstrous nature becomes immediately evident”4—evident, that is, at least to critical viewers of the film, far more privileged in this sense than the effectively lobotomized denizens of the State. Much of the monstrousness seen in the film’s world—at least, that which has thus far gone unmentioned—should be noted. For one, workers in THX 1138 are treated in entirely instrumental fashion by their overlords: a scene in the film discloses that an industrial-explosion which kills 63 workers brings the death-total recently experienced on that work-team to 242, against the 195 killed from the work-team of which Thex is a part; the announcement of such is followed by a congratulation to Thex’s team for ‘winning’ in this simulated competition. Besides amounting to little more than the captive lions that, in perishing in circus fires, constitute nothing more than “capital losses to their owners,”5 then, who, in producing robot-police, participate in their own suppression—as the EZLN puts it on a mural in one of their caracoles, dignify the “power that humiliates”—society’s producers are subjected to mystificatory in-group/out-group ideological conditioning reminiscent of the contemporary problem of nationalism and similar irrationalities. Furthermore, religion in THX 1138 serves many of the reactionary social purposes it has basically always advanced: during Thex’s sessions in the confessional-booth dedicated to OMM we hear the supposed deity demand that the devout “be thankful [that] we have an occupation to fill” and that “we have commerce”; he also implores that confessors “[w]ork hard, increase production, prevent accidents, and be happy.” That OMM should be heard to echo advertisements calling on people to “Buy—buy more now!” should not then be surprising. Beyond work-alienation and religion, television comes in for critique in THX 1138 as well: one program shown during the course of the film has African bodies dancing erotically for the audience in terms suggestive of Orientalism and racism, while another features robot-police continuously beating a man lying on the floor with a baton. The culture industry propagated via television, then, serves to distract its consumers by providing safe objects of sexual desire (exotic virtual ones that are essentially nowhere to be found in the actual world) as well as to tie viewers into society’s ruling maxim—one not terribly far from Orwell’s image in 1984 of a “boot stamping on a human face—forever.”

In general terms, THX 1138 is impressive for its anti-authoritarianism, also present in varying degrees in Lucas’ other films. In one scene from THX 1138, Lucas has a handful of robot-police sadistically abuse the imprisoned Thex with shock-batons, employing attacks against Thex with such names as “the 5-5-5-2,” “the 4-1-0-5,” or “the 1-2-2”; in another scene, scientists test various shock treatments on the prisoner. Society’s controllers, moreover, nearly cause Thex’s death on the assembly-line after engaging him in a “mind-lock”—a ‘freezing’ of his mind—that prevents him from being able to safely operate the machinery to which he is tied; the almost-laughable impunity that these controllers enjoy for having nearly killed Thex by means of the mind-lock surely has parallels in existing reality. THX 1138‘s robot-police, for their part, are particularly interesting. The manner in which they communicate with their human victims expresses the absolute lies that govern the society depicted in the film; among the most repeated of the few things the robot-police say are the following: ‘I am here to protect you.’ ‘Everything will be all right.’ ‘We are only trying to help you.’ As they close in on Thex as he approaches the escape from the underground city to the surface above, they tell him that he has “nowhere to go,” and they insist that Thex cannot survive on the surface—that is to say, survive without them, and the system they work to protect.

Thankfully, the police are recalled just as Thex is reaching the exit to the surface by ladder—for the sole reason that the credits expended in the operation to ‘recover’ Thex had by that point gone past the credit-budget allocated for such. He is left free, then, to reach the surface and there to witness the setting sun, in an archetype reminiscent of Plato’s “ascent of the soul”6 from the darkness of the underground cave to the light. It is to be hoped, however, that Thex’s escape is not to be taken as solely his, but rather that humanity as a whole be afforded the chance Thex has to successfully liberate himself. It should nonetheless be said that it is doubtful whether actually-existing capitalism would so readily allow the metaphorical Thex to escape; contemporary totalitarianism, indeed, is destroying humanity and, it must be said, life itself.7

From the aforementioned, it should be clear that THX 1138 is an important film, if film can be taken to be important. For one, it depicts the possibility of inter-human love—eros, life—as a means by which to displace hegemonic social relations characterized by radical estrangement and promote alienation “from the alienated society.”8 Its treatment of the negation of this possibility—the murder of Luh by the state together with the harvesting of her organs (she is ‘consumed’)—is brutal, for so is the act and the totality of social relations that underpin such. Its highly disturbing portrayal of the machinations of constituted power can surely be said to be relevant to the contemporary state of affairs, as is the re-appropriation by Thex of a police-car he employs toward his escape—for the present importance of the project of expropriating and re-directing the technologies and material base provided by capitalism should not be underestimated. Interestingly enough, that the police in THX 1138 are in fact robots opens the possibility that they are non-sentient, and hence that reservations about using violent means to resist and overthrow them might for this reason be less pervasive—not that such aids much in the actual situation we face.

Perhaps the most important gap THX 1138 leaves open is that of explaining precisely who it is that directs hegemonic social relations as they are seen to exist in the film’s world. The answer would likely be private owners of the means of production, the organizers of the OMM religion, and the terrifyingly invasive thought-control bureaucracy, together with the complicity of the populace as a whole.


1Karl Marx, “Introduction,” A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (1844)

2Theodor W. Adorno, “Aldous Huxley and Utopia,” in Prisms (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1981 [1967]), p. 100

3Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, trans. E.F.N. Jephcott(London: Verso, 2005 [1951])

4Op. cit. (1967), p. 99

5Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2002 [1947]), p. 208-9

6Six Great Dialogues, trans. Benjamin Jowett (Mineola, New York: Dover, 2007), p. 362

7Steve Connor and Michael McCarthy, “World on course for catastrophic 6° rise, reveal scientists,” The Independent, 18 November 2009; David Adam, “Carbon emissions creating acidic oceans not seen since dinosaurs,”The Guardian, 10 March 2009; Suzanne Goldenberg, “Greenland ice sheet faces ‘tipping point in 10 years,’”The Guardian, 10 August 2010

8Herbert Marcuse, Counterrevolution and Revolt, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1972), p. 72

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