Socioeconomic disparity, unemployment, oppressive government and police violence. No, I am not talking about the world today. I am talking about John Carpenters seminal classic They Live. Celebrating its 35-year anniversary this year, They Live is still as relevant today, maybe more so, than when it was released. Without going too far down the political rabbit hole, we will discuss this horror classic which, to this day, seems to be a glimpse into the current world. So, break out the sunglasses and prepare to take a trip down memory lane.
They Live stars the late “Rowdy” Roddy Piper from World Wrestling Entertainment fame as Nada. He is an unemployed drifter who makes his way to Los Angeles. Nada finds himself working a construction job by day and staying at a homeless encampment by night.
While traversing around the encampment, Nada finds a slew of interesting characters. Two in particular park themselves in front of television and watch mindless shows throughout the day and night. The television signal is repeatedly hacked with strange and prophetic messages. The hacked signal shows a bearded man who proclaims “They are dismantling the sleeping middle class. More and more people are becoming poor. We are their cattle. We are being bred for slavery.” He also declares “The poor and the underclass are growing. Racial justice and human rights are non-existent. They have created a repressive society and we are their unwitting accomplices.”
The next day, Nada checks out a church where a lot of suspicious activity is taking place. There, he finds a box of sunglasses hidden in a wall. He also discovers the hacked broadcasts originated from there. Later that night the police raid the church and destroy the homeless encampment. When the smoke clears the next morning, Nada goes back to the church and retrieves a box with the sunglasses. He takes a pair for himself and stashes the rest. He then begins walking around the city with them on. Through the sunglasses, he can view the world as it really is. Nada realizes he is surrounded by aliens.
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They Live was a satire, very much like Robocop, of the excesses of the 1980s under Reagan. John Carpenter certainly did not hide his opinion of consumerism, crony capitalism and economic disparity between the have and have nots in this film.
There are also very subtle jabs at the establishment. When you understand the tone and feel of the film, you pick up on these references. The homeless encampment that Nada stays at is surrounded by urban decay and trash. The camp is dwarfed because in the background are the huge towers of steel of downtown. It is a side-by-side comparison of the riches of downtown with the downtrodden forgotten, just outside its reach.
Not much has changed from 1988 to 2023. We still suffer the same problems and issues Carpenter tackled. While watching this film, you begin to realize something about the aliens. They are all well dressed, have good paying jobs, and some are involved in politics. By choosing this avenue, Carpenter was basically throwing the middle finger to the yuppies of the time.
The term yuppie is now dated and seems to have faded into obscurity. But the fight against economic disparity is still as much of a problem now as it was when They Live was released.
In a nutshell, They Live is a political commentary neatly wrapped into sci-fi horror film. I implore you to read a newspaper and then watch the film. You can clearly see that we have not made much progress since They Live hit the silver screen and made people question their existence. Always remember…..They Live, We Sleep.