Ending Explained is a recurring series in which we explore the finales, secrets, and themes of interesting movies and shows, both new and old. This time, we’re looking at the end of George Lucas’ dystopian feature film debut: THX 1138.
For a film as relentlessly propulsive as THX 1138 (1971), it is difficult to pinpoint the true beginning of the end. Is it when LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie) weens her unwitting roommate, THX (Robert Duvall), off his state-mandated sedatives? Or when, returning to his job without a drug-induced steady hand, THX drops a radioactive cylinder of magnum, exposing his sobriety to the authorities? Or is it when, beaten and imprisoned, THX learns of LUH’s pregnancy, right before the two are separated forever?
Before he became an industry unto himself, George Lucas was a film student. Created during his graduate studies at the University of Southern California, Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (1967) won first prize at the National Student Film Festival. After graduating and co-founding American Zoetrope with his mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, Lucas was keen to rework the short film as his feature film debut. Both Electronic Labyrinth and his earlier, three-minute short Freiheit (1966) underpin the creative force of THX 113‘s breakneck conclusion: an ordinary man, fleeing an oppressive regime, risking his life in choosing freedom.
The future envisioned by THX 1138 is totalitarian and antiseptic. A nightmarish surveillance state of machine-enhanced paranoia devoid of individuality or human connection. The rules are simple: work hard, increase production, prevent accidents, and be happy. Even human names have been depersonalized to a string of code. THX 1138 works at a factory that produces android police officers. The same chrome-faced, leather-clad automatons who, after his arrest, will stab him with cattle prods while promising that there is nothing to fear.
In the film’s final act, THX finds himself imprisoned with other “deviants,” including the talented hacker SEN 5241 (Donald Pleasence), who has been sentenced for illegally manipulating the system to become THX’s roommate. His presence comes as no surprise. After all, it was THX who filed the complaint. The prison itself is disorienting, an endless white void with no obvious boundaries. The prisoners are, it seems, free to leave at their own peril. But then, most of the detainees seem wholly uninterested in breaking out. After days, weeks, or maybe even months, without any theatrics, THX begins to walk into the void, with SEN scrambling to keep up.
Soon, they can see nothing but white. And just as SEN begins to panic, they encounter SRT (Don Pedro Colley), a hologram performer condemned for wanting to see what real life was like. With an alarming sense of calm, SRT points them to the exit, remarking gently that they must have been walking in circles. Reaching the loudly blinking doorknob, SEN chuckles, amazed that nothing stopped them. Maybe the system is not so impervious after all.
Beyond the door, a chaotic thoroughfare of commuters sweeps the trio away, and in the commotion, SEN is separated from THX and SRT, ultimately falling back into police custody. Meanwhile, THX and SRT slip into a control center, pursued by two police androids. They move through the vents and find themselves in a morgue, where bodies, emptied of organs, are being prepared. Continuing to flee, the pair duck into a security room. While androids attempt to unjam the door, THX uses the computer to search for his roommate/lover, LUH, only to discover that her name has been reassigned to their unborn child and that she has been “consumed.”
Bursting through the door, trampling the cops underfoot, THX and SRT make their way to a parking lot where they steal two cars. Immediately, SRT crashes his vehicle into a concrete pillar, rousing the attention of the authorities, who give chase on motorcycles. THX flees through a stark and deserted tunnel with two cops in hot pursuit. His skids and swerves leave a trail of destroyed barriers and scaffolding that send his pursuers flying. Both androids felled, THX continues on foot. Perhaps the presence of the feral Shell Dwellers tipped him off: the exit must be close.
And then: a ladder. THX clasps the rebar rungs and begins the long ascent. The androids are not far behind, THX more aware than most of his pursuers’ irradiated hearts, powering their conviction and inexhaustible drive. And then, suddenly, they stop. At 3,410 units, Central Command has ruled that the expense of THX’s capture now exceeds the allocated budget. The androids give THX one last opportunity to turn back. In a tone that almost registers as sympathy, they lay out the stakes of THX’s decision: he has nowhere to go, he’ll never survive outside the city, and this is his last chance.
Between cops and an uncertain orange sky, THX lowers his head, finally forced to confront what he is doing. Everything up to this point has been so frantic and instinctual, he never stopped to consider what he was doing. If what the androids say is true, continuing means death. But it would be his death. And so, finally forced to make a conscious choice: THX continues to climb. The first movement of Bach’s sacred oratorio swells. And in comparison, the city’s state-sanctioned deity (James Wheaton) feels all the more manufactured and lacking. The choir breaks out as THX emerges on the surface, his back-lit figure is dwarfed by the triumphant immensity of the setting sun. A bird flies by and the firey horizon fills the screen; a shocking sight after so much time spent in stark sterility.
Most 1970s science fiction does not end so optimistically. From nihilistic plagues to anxiety-riddled fever dreams of environmental collapse, it is, as a genre, defined by an overwhelming bleakness. It was a cinematic space for gazing slack-jawed into the future with awe and terror in equal measure. Who’s to say what fate befell THX after the sun crept below the horizon and he finally caught his breath. To the bitter end, the circumstances that caused humanity to re-locate underground are left to our imagination. Perhaps a nuclear holocaust irradiated the world. Maybe climate change threw the planet into chaos. Maybe the android’s warning was based on outdated facts that no longer hold true.
Ultimately, whether THX survived the night is beside the point. Presented with death or imprisonment, he chose freedom. And in so doing, he got to see his first sunset. Whether he got to see another one, in the end, is up to you.