The amount of eye rolling I've received from half interested listeners when I'm trying to explain the significance of They Live in our sociopolitical reality is just about as frustrating as the sting of tears from slicing an onion. Slap a low budget on a film with lesser known "stars" and an alien conspiracy plot and the normies cry lunacy. I'm not one to completely dismiss a film's ability to make an imprint on the American consciousness, camp be damned. I loathed Titanic for all its hype of a mediocre love story and an insufferable Celine Dion ballad. But maybe there was some overall sense of romance and love masses of people were trying to negotiate and grasp for themselves. Scratch that, I have no clue what made people so batshit over Titanic.
1988's They Live was penned and directed by John Carpenter. Based on Ray Nelson's 1963 short story "Eight O’Clock in the Morning," the film sticks firmly to the original ideas and concepts of which its based. They Live was cult creation beyond its lens. Literally and figurately, to fully appreciate such a classic, you must look through the sunglasses and awaken to a reality that medicates injustices with 'buying happiness.' Henceforth, liberation, justice, and activism are empty commodities that lead you to believe you can transform your station in life through consumption.
The film opens with John Nada (Roddy Piper), a drifter who tries to find work in downtown Los Angeles. Acquiring a position at the construction site of a new development, fellow worker Frank Armitage (Keith David) leads him to a small community of folks living in destitution for food and modest shelter. Curiosity overwhelms Nada after the mysterious activities of a church nearby is destroyed, including the community where cops brutalize and bulldoze people out of their temporary habitation. He goes back to the church and finds a box of sunglasses. He doesn't think much of them until he puts them on and sees an entirely different world. Everything is in black and white. Advertisements and billboards are blank with commands like "Obey", "Marry & Reproduce", and "Stay Asleep". Magazines, store signs, everything without the sunglasses are cloaked under enticing fabrications.
Most disturbing is when he discovers that we humans are not alone, unsightly creatures are walking about disguised as humans. I was about seven when I watched They Live on VHS idly with my mother and that first encounter made my stomach sink into paralysis:
"I am here to chew bubblegum and kick ass... and I'm all out of bubblegum."
The film goes on from there. Only Nada makes it to the top of the roof of the television station to break the signal and awake everyone everywhere.
Heavily political, the ever opinionated Carpenter wanted this film to reflect his "growing distaste with the ever-increasing commercialization of 1980s popular culture and politics." Fans alike have grasped this idea as well, juxtaposing the film with today's similar societal ills by finding it interesting to see the "social/political commentary [in] the Post-9/11 age [seeming] totally appropriate and relevant" within the film and interpreting it as "actually based on reality."
The film to me has always been one, big omen of all the ism's and ist's I challenge and question. The example based on class when it comes to advertising and selling is a huge theme in the film. There was no given explanation of why the small community was targeted to be left in ruins but only as a symbol of destroying its physical existence to erase the systemic institution of poverty from sensory memory.
The illogical conclusion: destroying poverty by destroying the people in it. Even John's last name, Nada, is representative of the impoverished. Nada, as in nothing, no one. Someone who's invisible and to be looked over. Marginalized because he isn't and will never be, a part of the, pardon the cliche, American Dream.
Carpenter in the past laments, "I began watching TV again. I quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something... It's all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money."
Why and where are we spending our money when the conditions of the poor haven't changed?
What are they being told about their lives?
How is the institution of their education organized to systematically keep them uncritical of those conditions? And change them?
Money, as a literal symbol They Live is labeled the one deity. Humanitarianism, compassion, and equality are all obsolete.
This sort of lulling, what They Live calls "sleep" is directly related to Antonio Gramsci's concept of hegemony, the use of domination and the ideologies of the ruling class without force but through subtle channels such as mass media...
By hegemony, Gramsci meant the permeation throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and morality that has the effect of supporting the status quo in power relations. Hegemony in this sense might be defined as an 'organising principle' that is diffused by the process of socialisation into every area of daily life. To the extent that this prevailing consciousness is internalised by the population it becomes part of what is generally called 'common sense' so that the philosophy, culture and morality of the ruling elite comes to appear as the natural order of things. [Boggs 1976 p. 39]
If the ideals of the powerful few are plugged continuously to the marginalized many, it becomes sacrosanct. The flashy world of mass consumerism with little gain is what is made appealing in the film, and in reality. When we take this journey of discovery with Nada, we understand the price for comfort is our survival. In my past graduate program, it took a lot of confidence to enter certain classes and propose to certain instructors that the very ideas they claimed to be proponents for were found heavily in "rinky-dink" science fiction films like this one.
It was frustrating to see mass media used as an educational tool without the acknowledgement of the impact that genre film has on our world. It's fair to feign ignorance, but knowledge does require some responsibility for the exploration of this diversified space. In my experience, I made the effort through essays and presentations and even though I may not see it now, I hope there are more genre buffs entering my specific program to transform the considerations people make when approach a film like They Live. It's ripe, critical discourse; whether students and instructors want to put on some sunglasses or not.