I feel like I would need the strength and gusto of a professional wrestler to fully emphasize the importance of watching ‘They Live’. For years, friends suggested I watch it as if it were the cinema equivalent of ‘Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’. Needless to say, once I watched ‘They Live’, I have to say I was truly mesmerized. ‘They Live’ may be today’s Throwback Thursday, a column looking at sci fi of the past, but its continued presence in popular culture is certainly essential.
‘They Live’ was released in 1988. Written and directed by John Carpenter, the movie is based on the short story ‘Eight O’Clock in the Morning’ by Ray Nelson. Roddy Piper stars as a drifter named Nada who finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the subliminal fascist meanings in everything. Advertisements turn into words that say “obey” or “submit”. Dollar bills read “I am your God.” Furthermore, the sunglasses give Nada the ability to detect the alien race that has infiltrated the population, aimed at taking over the planet.
‘They Live’ is filled with one-liners that you’ve likely heard before. (I know most people appreciate the bubblegum line, but I found myself laughing way too long at “You look like your head fell in the cheese dip back in 1957.”) The movie also includes a famous five-minute fight scene between Nada and his soon-to-be ally, Arnitage (Keith David). It’s incredibly hypnotizing and incredibly hilarious.
In the 2012 documentary, ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology’, philosopher and cinephile Slavoj Žižek expertly uses ‘They Live’ as a primary example of seeking out the true meaning behind the images we absorb on a regular basis that end up shaping our ideology. The sunglasses equip Nada with an awareness of the controlling forces that make us believe that the choices we make are of our own free-will.
This can certainly send your mind into a frenzy. Is every aspect of our lives manipulated by some greater force programming us to think and behave a certain way? Do I really like ‘They Live’ or am I behaving in a way that indicates I like it because someone I perceive as more powerful than me told me I would like it? I would dwell on it, but I think I’m just going to chew bubblegum and watch that fight scene again.