John Nada (Roddy Piper) is unemployed, spending his days walking around a big city looking for things to do. Finding a job as a builder, he is at ease. Well, until something untoward happens to him. He finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the true face of humanity and many of these “humans” are actually extraterrestrial lifeforms and part of The 1%. They keep humans as slaves. Beaten into submission by money, media and the daily grind, they can’t see their own chains. These aliens rule the world and John sees that he must locate and find some like-minded people who understand what is happening and join their fight against the systemic oppression.
“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum” says John, and that’s the film’s most iconic line and the only line of dialogue I dislike in the film. Though, this wouldn’t be an 80s movie without at least one piece of overly dramatic dialogue that is a testament to the time of its release. The 1980s saw the release to Science Fiction Greats like Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future / Back to the Future: Part II and Empire Strikes Back. Aliens, Blade Runner, Return of the Jedi and The Terminator also came out in the decade. This was the decade for science fiction and John Carpenter’s They Live was the icing on the cake.
They Live is a goofy sci-fi. Seriously, what sci-fi of the 80s wasn’t goofy? Most of them have signs of goofiness. The production is poor. The action isn’t great and the guns have unlimited bullets. And at times, the fight scenes are poorly constructed. But that is not the point of this movie. All those things don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. This film is basically an Orwellian look at western civilisation of the 1980s. And how people weren’t really living a life at all. After Jimmy Carter’s ‘Crisis of Confidence’ speech in 1979, it seemed America only took that as call to continue doing the same things: watch more TV, consume more and obey without question.
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” is the first line of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Clocks don’t strike thirteen, but this is only allegorical of the dystopian setting of the story, a setting that is reciprocated in They Live. Carpenter’s film is set in the 80s, a time notorious for Thatcher-Reagan ideologies like rampant consumerism and working nine to five shifts for your God. No, not Jesus of Nazareth. This God is the material, it’s Money. Martin Amis’ Money: A Suicide Note talks about this in detail. They Live only shows how things have gotten worse in the modern day. This was made in the 80s, but it’s actually more relevant today.
This movie just shows how society has made slaves of itself. Working for money that doesn’t exist (constructed ideology) and buying things to fit in. Sex is good and conforming is a necessity. Watching more television is a must. These are our gods, and we are only Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Wasn’t it God who told them not to pick from the tree of knowledge because it was just for him? Well, there are many ways to oppress those “who are not worthy”, it just so happens that the post-1980 way is to send us into a perpetual cycle of money, work and survival. And before you know it, you’ve worked yourself into a grave and now you really can stay asleep.
John (Roddy Piper) puts on some shades. His world view changes. Posters are now reading things like: Obey, Sleep, Marry, Buy and Reproduce. The magazines he once read without question no longer have news segments, articles or adverts, they’re just white pages with phrases written in bold. Once upon a time, humanity used to trade things. We had no need for money. But now we have money, which perpetuates greed and allows human nature to reveal its true intentions. Money is a white piece of paper which says “This is your God”. Amis (Money), Moore (V for Vendetta) and Orwell (Nineteen Eighty-Four) said this too, and they are right.
With films like this, the acting doesn’t matter in the slightest. What matters is how it’s filmed but also what the story is saying through its dialogue. It shows that our lives are not our own and that there is always going to be some higher power pulling the strings, not God. The Elite and their kind own us and They Live is an existential look at modern society and how most of us grow to love our chains.