EDIT: Just noticed that I actually wrote about this film earlier so I guess this would be a part 2? That must mean I really like it.LOL
Before I get started talking about this film I want to let my new readers know that I don’t do strict film reviews. I like to talk about the social ramifications of films, what they can teach us and how they fit into our current dystopian hellscape. There will be SPOILERS.
I am a John Carpenter fangirl who loves his films and his music. With that being said this is my all time favourite film of his, because I feel like it actually ‘gets’ me. It takes a very sharp look at capitalistic consumer culture and what it does to a society who lets it take control of their lives.
This is not a very complex film, in either message or tone. A group of people living in poverty learns that the world around them is being controlled by Aliens who, through the use of subliminal messaging, bombard them with words such as obey, sleep and reproduce. When you think about it it’s an ingenious way for an alien species to invade Earth. Instead of having a military battle, in which many lives would be lost, they slowly tighten their grip upon society until people are so brainwashed they they really don’t care what is going on. If they can buy their new car, pop out a baby, and stuff themselves with food then everything is fine.
I was a teenager in the 80’s when this film came out and to say that the 80’s was a decade of conspicuous consumption is an understatement. If you were poor in any part of that decade you were made to feel like you were totally crap for not having the nice shiny things that everybody else had. Yes, this has happened throughout history, however it really peaked during that decade. I remember once wanting a pegged legged type of jeans and the only pair I could find were by Guess. As soon as I got home I ripped the label on the back pocket off. When I wore them to school people were asking me why I ripped the label off. No joke, people were befuddled as to why I didn’t want to wear clothes with blatant labels. I didn’t want to be in the part of society that worshipped brand names like they were gods.
The downtrodden rebel group in the film start making sunglasses that allow people to see what is really going on around them. When worn you not only can see the subluminal messages, you can also see what the aliens really look like. The aliens have disguises that allow them to look human and they are everywhere; bank tellers, politicians, policemen,etc… They have infiltrated into every facet of life in a capitalistic consumerist based society, and their presence assures that things will stay exactly the same. People in the society are so conditioned not to question authority that when offered the sunglasses they will fight to the death rather than accept the chance to see what is really going on.
The themes in this film still hold true today. A whole segment of society will believe whatever they are told without question, and if somebody has a worse life than them it’s their own fault for not pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Since these people don’t have the money to buy nice shiny things then they should be forgotten. In this film people actually sell out and turn on their fellow humans because the aliens promise to make them wealthy for doing so. Gaining wealth is so important in that society, and in this one, that people will do anything to achieve it.
The 80’s was a very wealth obsessed decade, but with the advent of the internet new ways to perpetuate this line of thinking have come to fruition. ‘Influencers’ on social media perpetuate all of this. They basically want to be famous for not having any sort of talent, other than getting others to buy the products that they are promoting. They are capitalist consumer conmen. They promote products to their wide eyed audience as if they too can be an influencer someday if they also buy the product. Aspiring to be an influencer is seen as an actual career path by some of these people. Why go to school when you can get cash and free shiny things while having no discernable talent? Remember folks, acquiring shiny things makes you a vital part of society and better than those who don’t have them. The aliens in this film would be very happy about this state of affairs.
John Carpenter has stated that he made They Live as a statement against Reaganomics. He saw the American middle class being harmed by economic policies that only helped the wealthy and felt that he had to say something against that. What he ended up making is now considered to be a cult classic, a film that is as relevant today as it was over thirty years ago.