THX 1138 is a 1971 science fiction film directed by George Lucas in his directorial debut. The film is based on a screenplay by Lucas and Walter Murch. It stars Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence and depicts a dystopian future in which the populace is controlled through android police officers and mandatory use of drugs that suppress emotion, including sexual desire.
THX 1138 was the first feature-length film directed by Lucas, developed from his 1967 student film Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, which he made in 1967 while attending the University of Southern California. This short film was itself based on a one and a quarter page treatment of an idea by Matthew Robbins. The feature film was produced in a joint venture between Warner Brothers and Francis Ford Coppola’s new production company, American Zoetrope. A novelization by Ben Bova was published in 1971.
In an underground city of the future, sexual intercourse is outlawed and use of mind-altering drugs is mandatory. Narcotics are critical both in maintaining compliance among the city’s residents and also for ensuring their ability to conduct dangerous and demanding tasks for long periods of time. The inhabitants worship a godlike being known as “OMM 0910”, with whom they commune in telephone booth-like areas known as “Unichapels”. At their jobs, SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasence) and LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) keep surveillance on the city and field questions (mostly about proper drug intake).
THX 1138 (Robert Duvall) works in a factory producing androids that function as police officers. The work is hazardous as it requires handling explosive and radioactive material. THX’s female roommate, LUH, becomes disillusioned and makes a conscious decision to break the law and stop taking her drugs. She subsequently secretly substitutes inactive pills for THX’s medications. As the drug’s effects wear off, THX finds himself experiencing authentic emotions and sexual desire for the first time.
At first conflicted and nauseated, he eventually connects with LUH. Knowing that their relationship is illegal, THX must decide whether to return to using the prescribed drugs, or escape with LUH. He knows that he will not be able to function without his drugs while at his demanding job, but he does not want to lose what he has created with LUH. They consider an escape to the “superstructure,” where they hope to be able to live in freedom.
THX is confronted by SEN. Using his position as LUH’s superior, he changes her shift. SEN admits that he wants THX as his new roommate. THX files a complaint against SEN for the illegal shift change. Without drugs in his system, THX falters during critical and hazardous phases of his job. The city’s authorities discover THX’s and LUH’s crimes of sexual intercourse and drug evasion (Because of a bureaucratic error, THX is briefly “mind-locked” while at a critical juncture of android construction—this almost leads to disaster.) THX and LUH are arrested.
THX is imprisoned in a white limbo world. He enjoys a brief reunion with LUH—one disrupted by the enforcer robots. THX is consigned to another region of limbo, this one populated by a collection of other prisoners, including SEN. Knowing that THX filed the complaint against him, SEN nevertheless rallies him to join his undescribed cause (some of SEN’s dialogue is taken from speeches by Richard Nixon.).
Most of the prisoners seem uninterested in escape, but eventually THX and SEN decide to find an exit. They encounter SRT (Don Pedro Colley), who starred in the holograms broadcast citywide. SRT has become disenchanted with his role in the society and is making an attempt to escape.
Exiting their prison, THX and SRT are separated from SEN. Controllers in the city learn of the escape and allot a strict budget (14,000 credits) for their recapture. Chased by the robots, THX and SRT find a computer center, from which THX learns that LUH has been “consumed”, possibly for organ reclamation (since bodies were discovered earlier, of which, as SRT put it “the insides are gone”) and her name reassigned to fetus 66691 in a growth chamber. This suggests that she has been declared “incurable” and killed.
Alone and hunted, SEN makes a tentative exploration of the limits of the city’s underground network. Cowed by what he sees, he finds his way to an area reserved for the monks of OMM. Alone, SEN prays directly to OMM before being confronted by a lone monk who notices that SEN has no identification badge. SEN attacks before the monk can report him. Returning to the city, SEN strikes up a conversation with children before police androids apprehend him.
THX and SRT steal two cars, but SRT crashes into a concrete pillar, disabling it (it is uncertain whether SRT survives the impact, although the film’s script indicates he does not). Pursued by two police androids on motorcycles, THX flees to the limits of the city’s underground road network.
Eventually THX locates a route to the surface. The police pursue THX up an escape ladder, but are ordered by central command to cease pursuit, mere steps away from capturing him, as the expense of his capture exceeds their pre-determined budget. THX stands before a large setting sun in a red sky, while birds intermittently fly overhead, indicating that life is possible on the surface.