In THX 1138, George Lucas tackles the question of what would happen if science, religion, and the state all merged together with the corporation. In an hour long amalgam of state mandated drug plans, a repressive surveillance state, psychological torture, and sexual repression George Lucas asks the question – is freedom worth it even if it probably means death?
The film hits three themes I want to explore here. First is the fusion of religion, technology and the state. Second is the nature of empathy of machines. Here “machine” means both computers and the “social machine.” Third is agency in the age of bioengineering, psychological manipulation, and brain implants leading to an annihilation of the individual will.
Once we examine these themes through scenes we will attempt to connect them to the state of artificial intelligence at the time and the broader cultural moment of the beginning of the 1970s at the time. Specifically the relationship to the Cold War.
Fusing Religion Technology and the State: Annihilating Empathy
Lucas explores the fusion of religion and the state and the machine in a frightening way. The protagonist, THX 1138 or 1138, at many points becomes emotionally distressed and goes to a booth that looks like a confessional. Lucas could have stopped at having the confessor be a human who spews propaganda, but instead the confessor is a television screen onto which an image of god appears. The image speaks from a pre-recorded script. As 1138 describes his struggles with work, his relationships, and his health the machines says, with pre-recorded patience, “Yes…Yes… I understand… Could you be more specific.” 1138 feels heard. He weeps. But immediately into the first visit to this confessional, the viewer is left in a state of despair. No one is actually listening. The machine is yet another manipulation – feigning empathy. But the computer cannot feel empathy. As the man walks away the computer blesses him saying, “Let us be thankful we have an occupation to fill. Work hard, increase production, prevent accidents, and be happy.” The second time he leaves the booth, it says, “Let us be thankful we have commerce. Buy more. Buy more. Buy and be happy.”
The pain of the illusion of empathy from a machine is only matched later by the pain of the lack of empathy of human prison guards who keep watch over 1138 while he is in jail. The confessional cannot feel, but, tragically, neither can the humans who operate the machines. Whether by state mandated drugs or just exposure and desensitization, the guards torture 1138 with electricity while watching him through a TV monitor. Rather than talk about the torture, they talk about the mechanics of a new panel they have. This knob does this. This knob does that. They have a clinical separation from the pain of the other. So to Lucas, both machines themselves and the social machine cannot feel empathy. To be able to feel, Lucas believes we need to exit the systems of social control.
Agency in the Age of Scientific Manipulation
Second is agency in the computer age. I have written about this elsewhere and will not go into detail about it here except to say that the thesis of the film is clear: it is better to risk death and be free and capable of empathy than to remain drugged, “chemically balanced” and productive. 1138 ‘s goal is to escape and become free.
There are three main connections I want to make. First is the connection to the Cold War which becomes readily the most prevalent. The film is a harsh critique on the soul-sucking collectivism of the USSR. The state assigns your job. People are encouraged to report on each other to the state. The state controls all aspects of life. Too cursory a glance and this film could be read quickly as a capitalist manifesto, but Lucas is not so simple. The state here has merged with the corporation, too. Productivity. Efficiency. Budgets. Buy more. Be Happy. Buy more. It is too shallow a reading to say Lucas is endorsing the capitalism of the 70’s. He is critiquing that too.
A second connection is to the state of AI in the 1970s. At this time MIT had developed an artificial intelligence program called “Eliza.” This bot mimics a therapist’s caring questions just like the confessional 1138 attends. Although I cannot produce evidence that Lucas knew of the program, the attitude that computers may one day meet our emotional needs is clearly addressed and criticized in THX 1138.
Finally, is the connection to historical attitudes and sex and sexual repression. By juxtaposition, Huxley in A Brave New World has his dictators allow for erotic play, Lucas’s controllers do not. Crucially, in the both the 1930s and 1970s, neither see the future as allowing intimacy. However, where Huxley sees the sex as allowed Lucas forbids it. There is even a chilling scene where the state’s officers watch video of the couple in the act – faces stoic – preparing to arrest them. It would be interesting to study attitudes towards sexual morality in the 1930s vs. the 1960s into the 70s and compare how these views influenced science fiction. While this study is beyond the scope of this essay, it would be interesting to see if the sexual revolution’s attitudes in the 60s and 70s are the cause of this discrepancy.
Overall, THX 1138 is a chilling, bleak depiction of what could happen if the needs of the state – capitalist or otherwise – become revered to the detriment of the individual’s needs. Lucas gives us two outcomes: a limiting of agency and a limiting of empathy.