5 Reasons Why “They Live” Is The Orwellian “1984” of Cinema
“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubble gum.” The character John Nada, played by professional wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper, announces this line, armed with a shotgun as he prepares to blast away at aliens disgusted as human beings inside a bank in John Carpenter’s film “They Live”, released in 1988.
The movie tells the story of an alien race that has taken control of humanity using subliminal messages embedded in billboards, magazines, and other media to brainwash society into submission, while cultivating a group of human elite that has sold out mankind for their own financial and material gain to help secure the alien’s grip on this planet.
A small group of rebels are fighting back against this covert invasion by trying to wake up humanity, but at times it seems like a losing battle. On the surface, the film is a classic B-movie with unconventional casting by having a professional wrestler in the lead role, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously, though maybe that’s on purpose.
“They Live” presents a premise so dangerous and eye-opening that not only can the story be true, it actually is. Even if an alien race hasn’t taken control of our civilization, there is a global elite in our world that can substitute for the aliens.
That’s why “They Live” has been a cult classic for close to three decades; it tells an obvious truth about the world that we live in, and that no matter how much autonomy we perceive ourselves to have in a free society, we’re still being controlled by the powers that be without us even knowing it.
In a 2015 interview, Carpenter described “They Live” with the following: “You have to understand something: it’s a documentary. It’s not science fiction.”
When a drifter named Nada (Roddy Piper) puts on a pair of sunglasses he finds in a besieged church, he discovers the world is being controlled by an alien race. While the sunglasses appear to be a simple plot device to move the story along, in actuality it’s a brilliant metaphor that tells the audience to wake up and open your eyes to the truth, and once you strip away the bright colors of so-called reality, the black-and-white truth might be too shocking.
Nada is not the only one who can see the alien invasion and controlling of society; there’s a small group of rebels fighting back and they often broadcast a pirate underground news show to the public, and during one such broadcast, a speaker known as the Bearded Man reveals the truth that the sunglasses revealed.
The Bearded Man told the rebels: “Our impulses are being redirected. We are living in an artificially induced state of consciousness that resembles sleep. The poor and the underclass are growing. Racial justice and human rights are nonexistent. They have created a repressive society, and we are their unwitting accomplices. Their intention to rule rests with the annihilation of consciousness.
We have been lulled into a trance. They have made us indifferent to ourselves, to others. We are focused only on our own gain. Please understand. They are safe as long as they are not discovered. That is their primary method of survival. Keep us asleep, keep us selfish, keep us sedated.”
These are prophetic words because these lines of dialogue from “They Live” not only describes the US under the Reagan administration, but it also eerily predicts how the social media and Internet generation of present day can also be under some type of mind control by their gadgets and choices of entertainment.
Philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek gave an analysis of the film and had this to say about the use of the sunglasses in the movie: “’They Live’ is definitely one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood Left. The sunglasses function like a critique of ideology. They allow you to see the real message beneath all the propaganda, glitz, posters, and so on. When you put the sunglasses on, you see the dictatorship in democracy, the invisible order which sustains your apparent freedom.”
One thing that made “They Live” an instant classic was the concept of subliminal messages embedded on billboards and magazines that read: “OBEY“, “MARRY AND REPRODUCE“, “NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT”, “CONSUME“, “CONFORM”, “SUBMIT”, “STAY ASLEEP”, “BUY”, “WATCH TV”, “NO IMAGINATION”, “DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY.” And written on the money we all use reads the most devastating message of them all: “THIS IS YOUR GOD.”
This is where Carpenter’s film transitions from a fun science-fiction horror movie and becomes a dangerous political statement warning society that there are powerful forces in the world controlling us, using advertisements and the media. There’s no secret that ad agencies work hard to control our shopping habits and shape public opinions, and what’s not to say there isn’t some nefariousness force out in the world trying to manipulate mankind using these same techniques?
While George Orwell told the world that Big Brother is watching them with his novel “1984”, in “They Live”, Carpenter warns society that we’re all being controlled and losing our ability for free thought. The director came up with the concept after becoming disillusioned by the rampant commercialization he was seeing in society and said: “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.” Carpenter presents a certain truth that hits home, which makes “They Live” relevant for generations to come, because it presents a serious question to the viewer: could this really be happening?
3. The Resistance
After discovering the alien conspiracy, Nada searches for another pair of sunglasses and finds his co-worker and only friend Frank (Keith David). Nada pleads with Frank to try on the glasses, but his co-worker doesn’t want anything to do with Nada because he’s a wanted man after shooting aliens at a local bank.
After an epic five minute fist fight between the two men, Nada is able to slip the sunglasses on Frank, and at that moment he sees the world as it truly is. Soon after Nada and Frank discover the resistance movement, they fight against the alien occupation and join forces with the rebels.
You can’t help but wonder if Carpenter was inciting a call to arms for the audience, because just like the rebels, the director seems to be trying to wake up humanity to the truth with “They Live”. The rebels could serve as another metaphor in the film, to resist against corrupt capitalism, resist out-of-control consumerism, and resist self-destructive narcissism. Resist the very things that allow the elite minority in this world to control the masses while they make a quick profit.
4. The Signal
The aliens uses a signal that broadcasts from a news station to deceive humanity. The rebel group believes they know the location of the signal, but before they can come up with a plan of attack, the police raid their rebel stronghold because they have a traitor within their midst.
Nada and Frank manage to not only escape, but also infiltrate the secret alien base and destroy the signal coming from the local news station before both men lose their lives. Once the signal is destroyed, the human race can now see the skeleton face alien invaders controlling everything from behind the scenes.
There’s an important message Carpenter is sending to the audience, because just about all of the information that people receive from around the world comes through broadcast news, sent by a signal. All of our entertainment and everything relating to pop culture, which shapes and molds our society, is being transmitted to us by an invisible signal.
The people that control the transmission of information, whether it’s television, radio, or the Internet, are the true puppet masters because these media giants control a society that transcends laws and governments, so it’s no surprise that Carpenter would use a news station as the alien source of controlling humanity.
The poignant message that he’s trying to send is this: turn off the media, cut off the signal, and think for yourself, as they can’t control you if you don’t accept their (alien) thought process and return to having free will.
5. Cautionary Warning
With “They Live”, Carpenter warns the audience that any totalitarian government can rule as long as it gives the masses material rewards and the illusion of freedom. In the film, the ideas that Carpenter presents to the viewer are not just thought-provoking but also disturbing.
The director uses the Bearded Man to expose a few deep questions to the audience. “Look around at the environment we live in. Carbon dioxide, fluorocarbons, and methane have increased since 1958. Earth is being acclimatized. They are turning our atmosphere into their atmosphere.”
The leadership around the world allows corporate energy companies to lead us down a self-destructive road of global warming; could the reason for that be because our planet is being terraformed by an alien race? “They are dismantling the sleeping middle class. More and more people are becoming poor. We are their cattle. We are being bred for slavery. We could be pets, we could be food, but all we really are is livestock.”
But could this be the reason why so many of us feel empty inside? We search for the meaning of life, using drugs and alcohol to escape a pain that we can never fully explain with words. Could this emptiness arise from the fact that we’re just livestock being herded by an alien race?
While some of the questions Carpenter presents in the film can have the viewer wondering if we’re under control of some corporate alien race, the director always wanted the film to be a political statement disguised as a science-fiction horror movie. He had this to say in a recent interview about “They Live” reflecting on how little has changed in society since the release of his film: “It’s morphed into something really bizarre.
The same problem, unrestrained capitalism, still exists. Listen, I’m a very happy capitalist. I love my country. I love the system that we’re in, but not without some restraints on it. The last recession we had is an example. The ‘80s never ended. The mentality that the ‘80s bred is really alive and well, that’s the part that’s so bad. Nothing is to built to last. Everything is built to make profit. But I don’t want to whine about it.”
In reality, the aliens represented a far right-wing movement that many on the left felt took over the country during the Reagan administration. All of the aliens in the film are well-off financially, while the humans, including the lead character John Nada, are struggling hard-working people.
When Reaganomics took hold in the United States, all things corporate America was held in high regard. The iconic movie character Gordon Gekko from Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street” summed up the mood in the country at the time with the iconic line “Greed is good.” Corporate greed would lead to trade deals like NAFTA, which shipped millions of jobs overseas, destroying the middle class.
To keep the masses looking the other way, corporate America created more distractions with an overload of media, countless cable channels, the Internet, apps, and social media, and with new gadgets like cell phones, tablets, and flat screen TVs. The masses became distracted to the fact they were living paycheck to paycheck because corporate America was deliberately underpaying the workforce.
Carpenter was warning us about the things to come, and the aliens in “They Live” no longer use their wristwatch to communicate in the real world; they have iPhones and Androids, they patronize Starbucks and Whole Foods, and they support President Trump. It would appear that in real life, the invasion has been successful because so many people in today’s society seem to be content to “Obey” and “Submit”.
“They Live” is, without a doubt, a revolutionary film because not only is it a warning of the dangers of a hidden unseen power, it’s also predicted the dire consequences of a lack of independent thought.