Film review: They Live (1988)

Like many others who have at times perhaps overly-immersed themselves in the conspiratorial worldview of the likes of David Icke, what struck me most upon first seeing the John Carpenter film They Live in the mid – 2010’s, was that it was the perfect cinematic accompaniment to such an alternative worldview. It is a film that could have been specifically made for the internet age, and despite the fact that it is a movie that shows its age as far as special effects and societal attitudes go, it can still come as a surprise to find that it was actually made in 1988.

Of course, ideas of secret, shadowy rulers of the world, be it through such provable real-world organisations as the Illuminati, the Bilderberg group and the Trilateral Commission, had been around long before the World Wide Web became a central part of all of our lives, and the possible extra-terrestrial dimension to the Hidden Rulers of the world narrative had already been explored in popular culture, most notably in this period in the hit American television series ‘V’, which was made on 1983 and could well have been a direct influence on Carpenter. But these were ideas that were much more niche than is now the case, much less the property of the masses. The idea that someone like Icke, whose conversion from professional footballer, to sports presenter, to Green Party spokesman, to International Guru had yet to begin when They Live was made could pack out venues like Wembley with what is essentially a power-point presentation based on his own books, would have seemed more than bizarre.

Interestingly, along with the Matrix trilogy, They Live is one of the movies that Icke sites as ‘evidence’ for the truth of his assertion that we are living in a deliberately concocted false reality, justifying his use of works of cinematic fiction on the grounds that some people in high places, including in Hollywood, ‘know stuff’, stuff that they are prepared, or perhaps ‘permitted’ to share with the rest of us in coded form.

In They Live, it is special sunglasses that allow humanity to see through the artificial surface façade to the true nature of reality. ‘Investigators’ like Icke, Alex Jones, James Corbett and an ever-lengthening list of many others, have set themselves the task of essentially becoming the sunglasses of humanity.

Both John Carpenter and David Icke, and now seemingly everybody who suggests that all is not necessarily as it seems, have been forced to defend themselves against accusations that their work is actually nothing more than the age-old World Jewish conspiracy, as depicted in the faked Protocols of the Elders of Zion back in Czarist Russia, recycled for the modern era. Carpenter was moved sufficiently by such allegations to explicitly reject them in a tweet:

They Live is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism. It has nothing to do with Jewish control of the world, which is slander and a lie.

Carpenter made it clear that his primary influence was the excessive consumerism of the 1980’s that arose through the policy of Reagonomics in the United States (and we should mention its British twin-sister, Thatcherism):

“The picture’s premise is that the ‘Reagan Revolution’ is run by aliens from another galaxy. Free enterprisers from outer space have taken over the world, and are exploiting Earth as if it’s a third world planet. As soon as they exhaust all our resources, they’ll move on to another world… 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…I thought of sunglasses as being the tool to seeing the truth, which “is seen in black and white. It’s as if the aliens have colorized us….They want to own all our businesses. A Universal executive asked me, ‘Where’s the threat in that? We all sell out every day.’ I ended up using that line in the film.” The aliens were deliberately made to look like ghouls…The creatures are corrupting us, so they, themselves, are corruptions of human beings.”

The movie itself was based on a 1963 (very) short story called Eight ‘o Clock in the morning by Ray Nelson, which was adapted into an equally and thematically near-identical short comic book story called Nada by Billy Wray in 1986

It was in this comic book form that Carpenter first came across the story.

Aside from length, there are two main differences between the original versions of the story and the actual movie.

1) In the latter, the central character George Nada has no real backstory and does not engage in some rather gratuitous (and in the graphic version) sexualised violence towards his girlfriend in an attempt to ‘awaken’ her.
2) The central mechanism for human awakening in the text/graphic versions is a hypnotist’s stage show rather than special sunglasses. The movie idea is much better.

The central plot is simple enough. Nada is a drifter in search of work who winds up on a construction site, which is served by a shanty town which provides basic accommodation for its workforce. Here, first through brief, illuminating interruptions to scheduled T.V programmes, and then through the discovery of the sunglasses, Nada becomes involved with a violent resistance movement to the secret, Alien, rulers of the planet, rulers who are, as Carpenter indicated, looting it of resources for their own benefit.

The aliens maintain control through the means of open collaboration with sections of the human, particularly the corporate human world, who are aware of the nature of their planetary occupation but either embrace it openly because of the profits it brings, or accept it out of necessity; and through the use of a blocking mechanism which prevents humanity from seeing both the aliens, and the true nature of reality as they really are.

Once he discovers and has access has to the sunglasses, Nada is able to see through the seemingly human appearance of the aliens. In the original short story, the aliens are described as reptilian in appearance, thus much closer to Icke’s extra-terrestrial-shape-shifting lizards than the Ghoulish apparitions of Carpenter’s cinematic vision, their faces resembling moderately decayed human skulls.

The cornerstone of the film, and the part that has most caught the public imagination in the years that have followed its release, are the subliminal messages hidden within the fabric of apparent reality, messages that become visible once the sunglasses are applied. Here is a sample of these subliminals: Obey; No Independent Thought; Consume; Watch T.V; Submit; Buy; Stay asleep; Do Not Question Authority; (beside a shot of a Dollar bill) This is Your God. No imagination; Marry and Reproduce.

(Despite a close rewatching of the film in preparation for this review, I could not find my favourite subliminal, as mentioned on a recent podcast discussion of the movie: Honour Apathy.)

The last mentioned here, Marry and Reproduce, is perhaps of particular interest to students of modern social trends. It plays to the classically Marxist viewpoint that the family is an essential unit of the capitalist system, a stable means of continuing to produce and socialise the workers of tomorrow, a steady flow of which is required for the continued production of surplus value, the profit which allows the capitalist class to maintain its economic and political power. This analysis of the family would still have been dominant in leftist circles in 1988. However, it could now be argued that this is the one subliminal slogan that now looks out of place. It would appear that our rulers now view the family as dispensable, as just another institution (along with the nation-state, the outmoded nature of which is explicitly referred to in the film) to be ‘deconstructed’ and ultimately eliminated as an impediment to the final and total atomisation of the human race. After all, we have already seen the downplaying of the importance of marriage to the extent that in America, Britain and many other parts of the ‘advanced’ Western world, children born within wedlock are now a minority; and now we have the increasing corporate embrace of ‘woke’ ideology, which seems to be reaching its ultimate apogee in the denial of the reality of biological sex itself. Perhaps in a modern remake of They Live, ‘Marry and Reproduce’ could be replaced simply by ‘Reproduce’, alongside seemingly benign slogans related to the infinite number and variety of genders and sexual orientations? Maybe ‘You Are Free to be Whatever You Want to Be is the ultimate subliminal message, the ultimate Big Lie through which those with power maintain their power? Just a thought.

(As a further thought, even ‘Reproduce’ may now no longer be valid. Maybe the increasing automation of the Fourth Industrial Revolution with the accompanying development of Artificial Intelligence will render even the production of further workers superfluous to the needs of the elite. See my review of the book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism by Peter Frase elsewhere on Counter-Culture.)

Once Nada uncovers the true nature of things through the medium of the sunglasses, the film then plays out as a pretty much straight-ahead violent action thriller. And indeed, many have no doubt enjoyed the film purely on that level, with no prior knowledge of either Marxism or modern conspiracy theory/Alternative Information necessary.

Nothing wrong with that of course, although on this level the film perhaps lacks depth. The jump from Nada’s discovery of the glasses to his involvement in violent shootouts with the aliens seems rather sudden, and there is no sense of an inner conflict within the character as regards the use of violence, any more than there seems to be any debate within the resistance movement itself as to whether there might be other modes of struggle worthy of consideration. At the risk of giving away too much of the ending, I found the idea that a supposedly advanced species of extra-terrestrials should be so reliant on a single means of keeping the human race enslaved to be rather simplistic. Wouldn’t it be likely that, if this species can transmit a signal that effectively cloaks both their existence and the reason for their presence on Earth from human eyes, they would have a more dispersed, and more effective means of defending the continued transmission of this signal, and equally likely that they would possess advanced weaponry which would allow them to continue their domination, even if human beings should become aware of their existence?

Perhaps, again looking at the film from a more or less Marxist perspective, all of this plays neatly into the reformist illusion that all that is needed for humanity to become free is for enough of us to become aware of the nature of our exploitation, without any accompanying need for an ongoing struggle against the structures and modes of thinking that gave rise to it?

The iconic fight scene between Nada and his new friend Frank is comically lengthy, almost certainly deliberately so, and may perhaps have directly influenced the ever lengthening and increasingly elaborate battles between the central character Peter and the Giant Chicken in the long running American animated television series Family Guy.

The fight is sparked by Frank’s reluctance to put on the sunglasses and see for himself that which Nada has insisted they will enable him to see. It’s never quite made clear why Frank is so reluctant to at least try the sunglasses, but I took this reluctance simply as an analogy for all of those, perhaps always the majority of society at any given time, who despite an instinctive grasp that all is not as it seems, and perhaps not all that it could be, choose cynicism, apathy and feigned ignorance, rather than having the courage to really open their eyes, and thus be forced to embrace the sort of struggle that the resulting vision would necessitate. In that sense the fight is an effective analogy, although one rather undermined by its comic nature and length.

This would be my main criticism of the movie as a whole. The subliminal message element suggests a much deeper and darker film than They Live finally delivers. In the end, as much as I love the work of John Carpenter in general, and as much as I love this film just as it is, I’m not sure that in the end if he ever really decided what it was that he wanted to do with the source material. Or maybe it’s simply the case that, as it stood, the source material was simply insufficient in length and depth to allow They Live to become the film that it could have been?

Or perhaps, even more simply, the film was simply made too early. It received generally favourable reviews at the time it was made, and did well enough at the box office. But, to return to the point at which I began, it was made before ideas of secret rulers of the world had gone beyond that of being the property of a few cranks, to become common currency amongst the mass of the population. Any reasonably intelligent and curious individual with an internet connection today, at least in the western world, is aware that there are forces at work in the world that far surpass in power that of our official political leaders, though they might disagree as to who (or what) these shadowy wielders of hidden power might be. An increasing number of people are also aware that the phrase ‘Conspiracy Theorist’ is no longer (if it ever was) a description of a particular mindset (a mindset that was well described in an early and little-known Philip K Dick novel called The Crap Artist, originally written in 1959), but has instead become a catchall means of closing down debate, at excluding from public discourse anyone whose view might perhaps be a little too close to the truth.

Watched from the vantage point of 2021, They Live, for all its limitations and inconsistencies as a piece of art, is a much more prescient and important film than it ever could have been in 1988.

Anthony C Green (July 2021)
Anthony C Green is the author of four published novels:


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