They Live Is a Timeless Anti-Capitalist Horror Classic

It’s never a bad time to revisit John Carpenter’s 1988 classic They Live, a hilarious sci-fi thriller that skewers the inequality of the neoliberal era and offers an iconic depiction of capitalist ideology.

The truth behind capitalist advertising, per John Carpenter's 1988 They Live. (Alive Films, 1988)

It’s almost Halloween, the time of year when every good socialist watches They Live (1988). The cult classic about the politically revealing sunglasses that expose the monstrosity of our overlords and the brutal alien society they’ve made never fails to satisfy upon repeat viewings.

Though it didn’t do well on initial release, They Live is one of John Carpenter’s ever-more-revered films, because of its extraordinary prescience in depicting the fallout from the Reagan Revolution that overwhelmed American society in a disastrously complete way starting in the 1980s. Regarding the admiring reappraisal of the film, Carpenter says, “Over the years, what I was yelling and screaming about in economics, has become painfully clear to a lot of people. . . . The eighties never ended, and they’re really with us today.”

The film is specifically about the thoroughness of Reagan-era brainwashing. There’s a scene featuring an alien pundit on television spouting that it’s “morning in America” — the presidential campaign slogan Reagan ran on in 1980 — wedged between vapid and insistent commercial ads representing the consumerist madness of the 1980s, when everyone was urged to run up credit card debt, live beyond their means, and worship wealth.

The televised ballyhoo tells everyone that things are great and the only problem is “pessimism” on the part of a minority of killjoys. Meanwhile, the film shows, steel mills and factories are closing, unemployment is rising, the homeless population is growing, and police forces are being expanded to raid homeless encampments and crush political protest.

An alien overlord revealed to the protagonist in They Live (Alive Films, 1988)

What’s astonishing is that Carpenter called it out so directly in 1988, as Reagan’s two-term presidency was ending and he was handing the baton to his vice president George H. W. Bush to keep the ruinous right-wing domination of the country going. Recognizing that his film probably couldn’t offer much but a gesture of rage, Carpenter made it nevertheless: “By the late ’80s, I’d had enough, and I decided I had to make a statement, as stupid and banal as it is, but I made one, and that’s They Live,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 2013. “I just love that it was giving the finger to Reagan when nobody else would.”

Missing the Point

That makes it infuriating to read recent interviews and think pieces on They Live, with their repeated attempts to portray the film as a catchall narrative about anyone who thinks they see the truth of the world and tries to persuade others of it — equally applicable to any source from the Communist Party USA to QAnon. This notion persists even after the outrageous attempt on the part of insane right-wing antisemites to lay claim to the film. Message board comments like “This is, by far, the best pro-white movie ever” inspired Carpenter to set the record straight on Twitter: “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.”

Still, people write think pieces that provide weird, overgeneralized cover for such claims, like this willfully obtuse moral-of-the-story burbling:

With They Live, many of the film’s most devoted viewers make the mistake of looking outward for the monsters we sense but can’t always see. It’s what makes the movie, like all conspiracy theories, a comforting fantasy; whatever is ruining our lives is out there, somewhere, even if I’m one of the only people who realize it. But the monster is not always out there, stalking us like Michael Myers. Sometimes, it’s in here.

This ignores the fact that, even if you manage to kill your monstrous inner capitalist, there are still those government-controlling plutocrats out there, external and real as hell. They’re sucking up every possible resource, laying waste to the planet, making it harder and harder for you and yours to afford housing, education, health care, and other basic necessities. That’s not some perceptual error, and it’s certainly no comforting fantasy. It’s really happening.

Carpenter is unambiguous about his own take on his film in relation to the contemporary state of the world, as he put it on the eve of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016:

I made They Live back in 1988, and nothing has changed! Everything has stayed the same. Reaganomics has continued to flourish. . . . The problem is unrestrained capitalism. It’s worshiped and adored by everybody here. Well, not everybody, but a lot of people. It’s unbelievable, and I’m scared. I’m just scared of the future.

Piercing the Veil

They Live contains the plot point that anyone opposing or even accurately recognizing the situation unfolding in America is labeled a communist, which enables limitless persecution. The police are rounding up suspected reds in brutal raids, which is how the contraband sunglasses get into circulation in the first place. And it’s specified that the police being recruited are mostly humans, not aliens — humans worshipful of authority, eager to be on the winning team, and looking for scapegoats to punish.

Any realization of what’s happening is regarded as a huge threat to the alien overlords, who call into the authorities on their watch-phones, “I’ve got one that can see!”

Mostly, the film is known for its wonderful device of the special sunglasses that, when put on, enable the wearer to perceive the reality that most can’t see. It’s a stark dystopia controlled by colonizing aliens who ideologically overwhelm the colonized with subliminal messaging. Every surface is covered with messages such as “OBEY,” “CONSUME,” “MARRY AND REPRODUCE,” “DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY,” and “STAY ASLEEP.”

But what’s not generally noted about the plot of the film is that protagonist John Nada can already “see” to a dangerous degree even before he gets ahold of the sunglasses.

Nada is a displaced laborer who lost his job in Denver after ten years at the same job. We first see him on the literal wrong side of the tracks in gritty downtown Los Angeles, emerging from behind a passing graffiti-covered train as the opening credits roll. He walks forward at the dogged, unhurried pace of someone who’s been walking a very long time, carrying all he owns in a backpack, apparently accustomed to rough urban life and unintimidated by it. In spite of the tough times, he’s still holding onto his conventional patriotic thinking, enough to make an earnest speech to thoroughly disillusioned construction worker Frank Armitage (Keith David) about his conviction, in spite of everything, that if he works hard the opportunities will come, because “I believe in America.”

Nevertheless, in his own way, Nada is likely material for rebellion because of three major factors. First, he’s rootless and unattached, with no family ties or children to make him vulnerable to control. This is in contrast to Armitage, who wants no involvement in trouble of any kind and repeatedly mentions his wife and kids in Detroit as the reason he’s concentrated on keeping his hard-earned construction job no matter what.

Second, Nada is a throwback to a laborer of a previous era, physically toughened by hard experience, confident in a steady work history before recent events forced him into an indigent life, and inclined to be unapologetic and unafraid. Casting the World Wrestling Entertainment star “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as Nada was a stroke of genius. Carpenter was once a major wrestling fan and saw a way to make a low-budget action film in the action-dominated ’80s using Piper as an unusual heroic figure — both manifestly indomitable and yet sad-eyed and lonely looking. And according to Carpenter, “[H]e would be believable as a working man, as a blue-collar guy. . . . Roddy has scars on his face. He looks like he’s been through it.”

Piper himself came up the hard way, running away from a troubled home after a falling out with his policeman father. He lived on his own, often homeless, from his early teens onward. His wounded yet defiant spirit shows in his eyes and his wary loner’s way of moving through a hostile world.

And that’s the third factor: Nada’s dangerous loner’s habit of wandering around noticing the world he’s living in. He’s not interested in the omnipresent television programming that seems to captivate everyone else, and he’s got no money to shop with, so he roams about aimlessly, looking at things. He even borrows a pair of binoculars to get a better look at certain oddities he observes.

That’s how he sees that the “African Methodist Church,” near the homeless encampment where he and Armitage are staying, is operating oddly, holding intensely serious meetings at four in the morning. He investigates further and discovers that the hymn singing pouring out of the building is a tape recording and that there’s a laboratory operation inside.

Is Seeing Believing?

It’s a great Carpenter perception hiding in plain sight in the film: you need people with the time and mental freedom to observe what’s going on around them, and to wonder about it, before you can get political traction. It makes you realize how well our current overlords are doing — they’ve got practically everybody who might object to the current system working around the clock, in a daze of exhaustion, just to get by.

As the rest of the film shows, trying to persuade people of the terrible truth who can’t — or more likely can’t afford to — see it for themselves is a protracted uphill battle that, in most cases, fails. What’s the great Upton Sinclair line? “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

And Carpenter illustrates that too, in dark comic fashion, as Nada makes several attempts to tell people what he knows about the world they’re living in and gets angrily dismissed and mocked and has the police called on him. He winds up in a wild shootout with the cops that makes him a fugitive.

Finally, his last attempt to create a comrade in perception leads to the epic battle with the only friend he has, Armitage, trying to get him to just look through the sunglasses. The six-minute fight scene that ensues — which seems much longer — deliberately goes over the line into wild absurdity as they punch, shove, kick, and powerslam each other into near-unconsciousness, then drag themselves up to fight some more. Finally, Nada has to use his last ounce of strength to physically force the glasses over Armitage’s eyes.

As Carpenter summed up the sunglasses idea, he needed a straightforward, tangible way to represent political awakening: “I tried to put myself in the eyes of the revolutionaries. How can we wake people up to the world that they’re in?”

Carpenter’s dystopian vision ends bleakly, with both protagonists, Nada and Armitage, dying in their efforts to destroy the aliens’ transmitter that interferes with human perception. Everywhere at once, the aliens are exposed for the nightmarish colonizers that they are in public and on television screens everywhere, with no need for sunglasses to recognize them — which is as cheerful an ending as Carpenter tended to provide in his films.

Of course, a sequel to They Live might tackle the question of whether seeing would actually be believing to the majority of the human race. A refusal to acknowledge what might seem to be demonstrable facts, even after they’ve been demonstrated as thoroughly as possible, is central to the recent dark comic satire Don’t Look Up, for example.

A mass refusal to recognize the aliens as aliens — a series of arguments gaining traction with the public that, yes, they may be aliens colonizing and exterminating and extracting all resources from Earth, but they’re also job creators — a large movement building with the slogans “So Much for the Tolerant Left” and “I for One Welcome Our Alien Overlords” . . . you can see the possibilities. Maybe Carpenter, who’s been hinting that he might come out of retirement, can be persuaded to do They Live 2.