They Live: The Truth Not Everyone Wants To See

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1988 cult film, They Live, introduced a new kind of horror, the horror of the reality we live in.

Written and directed by John Carpenter, They Live (1988) is a science-fiction/ horror movie which a lot of people consider a “documental” for the important message this carries with it. Less popular and known than other Hollywood films from the director like Halloween (1978) and The Thing (1982), They Live has gained the status of “cult film” among the audience. It is worth mentioning that the film was not successful at box office neither received good critics when it was released —yes, I know, film critics usually don’t know a thing— but this grew in popularity thanks to the social commentary that this possesses.


Entertainment has always been a tool used by mass media to persuade and influence people, yet there are times when real artists like John Carpenter have dared to wrap the truth in a fiction work. Sometimes, fiction can be truer than truth itself for what most of we had been told that is true, is just fiction, a construct serving someone’s agenda, whereas “fiction” could be hiding powerful messages. You may think all that you watch on the news is beyond doubt and all you watch on the movies or TV shows is fiction. Actually, these are just different kinds of fiction, one is supposed to be true for they told you it’s the truth and you shouldn’t question it; meanwhile the other is fiction for is an invention and thus you shouldn’t take it seriously.

Have you ever wondered who decides what is real and what is not? I mean, there are facts you cannot deny like the existence of gravity, but how do you know the history schools teach us is really what actually happened and not a piece of fiction to serve the particular interests of the big powers above us? The subversion of this film lies in the ability to questioning the truth and try to show the reality to a mass of people that simply don't want to see it.

Do you know Plato’s Cave? If not, let me tell you what this is about. This is an allegory in which Plato describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people gaze at shadows projected on the wall from objects passing in front of a fire behind them and give names to these shadows. The shadows are all the reality the prisoners know for these are all that they have known —or seen—, but then, let’s suppose, one prisoner is freed, he looks around and see the fire. The light would hurt his eyes and make it difficult for him to see the objects casting the shadows. If he were told that what he is seeing is real instead of the other version of reality he sees on the wall, he would not believe it, and he would prefer the reality he’s accustomed to. Now imagine someone should drag him out into the light of the sun. The prisoner would be angry and in pain, and this would only worsen when the radiant light of the sun overwhelms his eyes and blinds him yet his eyes adjust gradually to the light of the sun. Eventually, he can look at the true shape of things and reason about it.

The allegory continues with the freed prisoner returning to the cave and, in his excitement of having discovered a “superior world”, attempting to share with the remaining prisoners the journey he has endured and the reality he has discovered. The returning prisoner, whose eyes have become accustomed to the sunlight, would be blind when he re-enters the cave, just as he was when he was first exposed to the sun. The prisoners would infer from the returning man's blindness that the journey out of the cave had harmed him and that they should not undertake a similar journey. Plato concludes that the prisoners, if they were able, would, therefore, reach out and kill anyone who attempted to drag them out of the cave.




Talking a little about the plot and argument of They Live, this is based on a short story titled Eight O’clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson which was first published in a 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. The film follows Nada (Roddy Piper), a drifter who in the pursuit of the “American Dream” goes to L.A in search of work. Upon his arrival he soon stumbles upon a priest who throws a strange apocalyptic sermon on the street:

They have taken the hearts and minds of our leaders. They have recruited the rich and the powerful… They have blinded us from the truth. Our human spirit has been corrupted. Why do we worship greed? Why, when we say "family values", do we mean censorship?… Because outside the limits of our sight, feeding on us, perched on top of us from birth to death, are our owners! They are all around us, right now! Right beside us!


After being turned down flat at the overburdened unemployment office, Nada gets a job on a construction site. There he meets fellow labourer Frank (Keith David), who helps him out by introducing him to Justiceville, a small shantytown sheltering the homeless. When Nada arrives at the township, he watches some interference on the TV in which a man who, like the priests, gives a strange speech:

Our impulses are being redirected. We are living in an artificially induced a state of consciousness that resembles sleep… The movement began 8 months ago when we discovered, quite by accident, these signals being… 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… Their intention to rule rests with the annihilation of consciousness. We have been lulled into a trance. They've made us indifferent, to ourselves, to others. We are focused only on our own gain… as long as they're not discovered. That's their primary method of survival, keep us asleep, keep us selfish, keep us sedated…

Then, Nada notices some suspicious comings-and-goings at the little church across the street involving Gilbert (Peter Jason), the person in charge of Justiceville, and a blind street preacher (Raymond St. Jacques) who we previously saw giving a sermon.


Suspecting some sort of exploitation of the homeless may be afoot, he is compelled to investigate further and finds that the church is indeed a cover for some kind of covert operation. He discovers that the choir-singing is nothing but taped playback and what’s really going on is the secret manufacture of sunglasses. WTF?!!!

They Live
Starring Keith David, Meg Foster, Roddy Piper, Raymond St. Jacques

Sh*t just gets real from this point, and I truly mean it. When riot police clear Justiceville with bulldozers, raid and burn the church, he realises there must be more to this than meets the eye… and he recovers a box of the sunglasses from the ruined building. They just seem to be regular sunglasses until he puts them on and then suddenly sees the world in black and white. Weird, right? Weirder still is that when he wears them on the street, they reveal subliminal messages all around.


Yes, do you know that street-wear brand called OBEY, well, they just ripped off the name, the message, and typography from this film. Every advertising sign bears a simple command: OBEY, CONFORM, CONSUME, STAY ASLEEP, SUBMIT, BUY… money becomes only plain white paper with the message THIS IS YOUR GOD printed across it. It’s like having consumer society explained with subtitles for the simple-minded. As Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The Medium is the Message”, and this fundamental idea is literally written all over the film.

Furthermore, Nada also sees that not everyone is human. The aliens among us look more like horror film zombies: cadaverous, lipless, and skeletal. Their corruption suddenly made visible to the eyes of Nada. When the evil capitalist elite are finally revealed as aliens, this alienates the threat,  making it easier for viewers to dismiss the film’s core message as a far-fetched bit of sci-fi fun. What it does, though, is to turn our parasitic overlords into ‘the other’ — using the same psychology that mass manipulators have tried again and again on an unsuspecting public. If you dehumanise a stratum of society, the working class, the immigrant, foreigners, those of a different faith or skin tone, etc. it makes it easier to view them simply as statistics, as a commodity. This is exactly what we can witness today, governments trying to dehumanise certain groups so that we can see them as threats, as common enemies whose lives worth nothing. Let’s not misunderstand the social commentary on the rich or those who have certain economic commodities for that’s also a form of historic indoctrination whose aim is that the poor remains poor by stating that being rich is the same as being evil. Money itself is not the problem but greed.


When the aliens are revealed to be inhuman in their origin as well as in their conduct and, in no uncertain terms, are the enemy of humankind. Wearing the glasses enables Nada to see, but also induces a kind of madness. When he is apprehended by police, he loses it, kills the alien officers and arms himself with their pistols and a check-riot shotgun from their patrol car, before inadvertently entering a bank while trying to escape. This is when he speaks the iconic line that has since become a cultural meme. “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass …and I’m all out of bubblegum.”


Later in the film, Nada tries to convince Frank to wear the Hofmann lenses and see what’s truly going on. Understandably, Frank just thinks Nada is crazy and wants nothing more to do with him. It takes 10-minutes of brutal back-alley brawling before Nada manages to get the glasses onto the face of his reluctant accomplice.

Here, though, the fight takes on another level of meaning as it’s not between rivals, but between friends that really should be working together against a common enemy. The fact that the adversaries are black and white could be a comment on racial tensions stoked by the media and political factions to divert energies from other problems. They waste their strenght against each other instead of directing them against their unscrupulous overlords.

As the film progresses, things grow crazier and darker towards the end with Nada and Frank joining the anti-alien activists that were behind the fabrication of the Hofmann lenses —it’s very likely the name was inspired by Albert Hofmann, the first person who synthesised, ingested and experienced the psychotropic effects of LSD— and who now are giving contact lenses to replace the sunglasses. They’re also plotting to destroy the source of the alien broadcast’s signal so that the entire humanity can see the hidden reality in which they’re living. The police interrupt the meeting of the anti-alien activists leaving several of the activists dead. Meanwhile, Nada and Frank use a stolen wristwatch to open a portal that leads to the alien’s secret headquarters.

The film ends with Nada and Frank discovering a banquet offered by the aliens and the human collaborators. They pass themselves off as collaborators managing to infiltrate in the Cable 54 facility and although both of them die trying to reach the roof in which the alien transmitter is disguised as a satellite dish, Nada success in destroying the alien signal before dying. When that happens, humans all over the world discover the aliens living among them.

Fiction diverges from reality for whereas in the film humans end up discovering and accepting the truth, in reality, people just don’t want to see it. Most of them are happy living in their ignorance and in the shallow comfort that consumerism and modern society distractions offers them and similarly to what happens in Plato’s Cave, people are so used to the darkness of the lies they’ve been told that they refuse just to imagine the light of another reality existing behind it. Of course, I’m not talking literally, as far as I know, we’re not being governed by aliens but by a group of people who have been exploiting human race and its weaknesses just for greed and lust for power.

Therefore, the reality people refuse to see is that in the chase of what we think is a “dream life” pursuing our freedom and happiness is precisely what make us slaves. All the messages we perceive surrounding us are designed to appeal to us for what they offer us is pleasures. The freedoms we boast we have are the chains that hold us back, and the terrifying thing is they are not forcing you to fulfil your mission or sacrifice yourself, you’re doing it willingly for you’re a subject of pleasure. They offer you pleasure, and you’re running to take it. Reach your true potential, be yourself, achieve success. Only when you put the glasses on you can see the dictatorship and the order that sustains your apparent freedom.

Is that feeling of safety and comfort what restrains you from emancipate yourself and gain agency over your own life. Maybe you don’t want to study that career, but it’s better for your future. Perhaps you hate your job, but you still need money to pay your private student loans. Maybe you don’t want to get married but you have to for it’s what you’re supposed to do at your age. The problem is, you’ve been told you have to study and go to college so that you can get a good job. Then, you should get married and buy a big house, a nice car, have children and work until you die or pay all your debts —which is more likely than becoming a pensioner— and that’s the whole plan they’ve made for you. You don’t even have to bother taking difficult decisions, they’ve done it for you. So all that you have to do to enjoy that comfort throughout your life is to stick to the rules of the game, remain blind, don’t question anything, and sleep while they live.

© 1988 John Carpenter, Universal Entertainment.

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