THX-1138 is a 1971 dystopian science fiction film directed and co-written by George Lucas. Set in a massive underground city, completely cut off from the natural world, the film presents a society whose human population is forced into dehumanizing and oppressive conformity. Co-living arrangements between men and women are chosen by a central computer, and drugs are administered to everyone in order to suppress emotions. The population is kept in line by an android police force; the manufacturing of which, ironically, is depicted as being one of the few jobs people are assigned. All activity is closely monitored and behavioral infractions often result in imprisonment, torture and/or execution.

What distinguishes THX-1138 from many other dystopian science fiction films is that the central hierarchical state apparatus we typically see is not present. There does not appear to be a leader or government agency “in charge”. Rather, the entire population appears to be oppressing themselves, as a matter of momentum. It is implied (through mentions of radiation danger) that the population was forced underground due to some kind of natural disaster on the earth’s surface, but this is not fully explained. Interestingly, the original title of the film was “THX-1138-EB” (for “earth born”) but was later shortened. The visual aesthetic of the film is minimalist and futuristic, but George Lucas has said, “THX was a parable about the way we were living in 1970. It wasn’t about the future.” (1) Regarding his motivation for making the film, Lucas has said he was “trying to investigate the ramifications of an unbridled consumer culture that has lost any connection with the organic world and is completely self-contained.” (1)

Science fiction scholar Darko Suvin argues that science fiction’s focus lies in cognitive estrangement – a new way of thinking about the world and human society that is subversive, or encourages those who are oppressed to resist. (2) Science fiction works that use cognitive estrangement rely on thought experiments, which present alternative realities as a direct contradiction to normal modes of being. Suvin argues that cognitive estrangement is used in conjunction with a novum – a hypothetical ‘new thing’ which can be explained by science, that the viewer engages with. (2)

The underground city of THX-1138, with all of its physical characteristics, structure and rules, functions as Suvin’s novum. This world is presented as an alternative reality; one we do not wish to live in. Therefore, the film serves as a warning: This is where humanity could wind up if we’re not careful. Using cognitive estrangement, the viewer will not only explore the horrors of this kind of authoritarian system, but will be left to examine how this might have happened in the first place. Perhaps an extrapolation will be made, leading to a series of questions: What about this looks and feels familiar to me? How far from this are we now? How can we avoid this?

The practicality of these questions increases the more one’s society inches toward parity with the film. If mandatory drugging feels far-fetched, for example, perhaps an urban commuter might find the corridor scenes showing the claustrophobic chaos and aggressive frenzy of ‘human traffic’ hitting closer to home. At first glance, the idea of pre-arranged co-living might also seem far-fetched, but there are many cultures today where arranged marriages are commonplace. The oppressive nature and inhumanity of these concepts becomes apparent, perhaps, only by comparison.

The final image of THX-1138 is a man rising triumphantly from the depths of a hellish nightmare and standing in the sun, but what about all the people who still remain enslaved below? Very disturbing.





1) Artifact from the Future: The Making of ‘THX1138’ (2004) documentary
2) Darko Suvin – “Estrangement and Cognition” (Strange Horizons, Issue 24. Nov, 2014)