It’s easy to forget just how creative George Lucas can be. Sometimes the Star Wars franchise becomes so commonplace that you forget how thought went into it, and all the amazing creations it boasted. (But it certainly doesn’t help Lucas’ case when he goes back and destroys everything he ever worked on.)
Nonetheless, Lucas’ supreme creativity renders THX 1138 an incredibly challenging film to watch. After viewing the film, I even needed to search online for a synopsis to be 100 percent sure I knew what had just happened. Much of this can be attributed to its unconventional storytelling style. What’s perhaps most inventive is the use of “android” narration. Most of the film’s key elements are presented through cheery, prerecorded voices. In many ways, this makes the android environment even more off-putting. It’s like your creepy uncle who seems way too happy about everything. If he’s that happy about everything, he’s obviously not to be trusted.
Add the fact that much of the dialogue comes from characters not shown on camera. A great example of this is during the sequence in which Robert Duvall’s character is being prodded by the workers, who constantly jabber in futuristic jargon about how to treat Duvall’s character. None of the characters involved in the dialogue is seen on camera, yet their attributes, their ideas, and their personalities become clear, merely by listening to their conversation. Likewise, this seems to keep these people at a healthy distance, not allowing the viewer to feel any sort of affinity for them. (This distance, of course, is not present throughout the entire movie, but it seems particularly effective when it’s used.)
Simply considering the plot structure in this film takes viewers through a helpful thought process in which they must extrapolate. Is the depiction in THX 1138 actually what an android-controlled society would look like? Through the paradigm of audio in particular, what sounds might be missing from the sonic array that is presented? The answer is anybody’s guess, although it may seem expected that an android police state would use gentle cheeriness to keep humans complacent in their control. In this thought experiment, we must also consider The Matrix (1999), which is completely opposite in android treatment of humans. However, The Matrix also depicts the robotic overlords as giant, mechanical insects rather than human-resembling machines. It should also be noted that in The Matrix, these robotic beings do not interface with the captive humans, rendering the need for human affinity for the robots somewhat moot. There is one exception to this: the agents. The agents must bear resemblance to humans to fit in within the virtual world that is the matrix. They speak English rather than communicate in clicks and beeps like the real robots.
Perhaps somewhat between THX 1138 and The Matrix may be the Terminator films. Why would terminators bear any sort of human resemblance if their purpose were to wipe out humanity with raw power and no deceit? As the film dictates, Skynet turned on its creators, so perhaps the humans initially built human-esque robots for their own purposes before the robots turned on them. Nonetheless, this remains a helpful thought exercise. Is there anything about being built like a human that gives creatures a mechanical advantage? In a nutshell, why be like a human when you can be like a tank, an airplane, or some design not even conceived by human minds?
There seems to be very little that comes to mind that THX 1138 is missing. It’s bizarre, leaving much to our imaginations. What’s outside the underground, android society? The only glimpse we see is of the large sun during the closing credits. Is the earth scorched or otherwise inhabitable, as in The Matrix? It’s entirely possible that an inhabitable earth was within the film’s vision, especially given the great similarities between this film and The Matrix (consider the white, boundless prison in THX 1138 and the white, boundless computer program in The Matrix).