- 30 years of They Live and its lasting impact on society as we know it. -
“I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass… And I’m all out of bubble gum.” Perhaps one of the most legendary ad lib’d lines in all of cinema history, besides DeNiro’s “You talking to me?” scene in Taxi Driver. They Live is as 80’s as 80’s gets in this “science-(not-so)-fiction” film. A High-Concept, corny one-liners, unnecessarily long fight scenes, you name it. All the things we love about 80’s cinema is captured in They Live, only this time it does all this while spreading a strong message about issues we face and will continue to face as both individuals and as a society.
They Live is a classic 80's film which does what so few from this time rarely did. That is, shedding light on a hidden, sinister reality that we can all relate to. This has lead many to elude to They Live as being “The Matrix” of the 80’s. Which if that’s the case, it seems only logical that Plato’s Allegory of the Cave was then in fact, the “They Live” of 400 B.C. Who would have thought the director of “Big Trouble in Little China” would be mentioned in the same sentence as Plato? Both “They Live” and Plato’s “Cave” share a common theme in which in both stories, certain groups of people are completely brainwashed and led blind to the workings of the outside world and what is actually happening in reality. Both Plato and John Carpenter do a fantastic job in their respective workings, in illustrating how easily people are lead to believe the things they’re told and how those same people can be completely irrational when faced with the opposing beliefs.
While we don’t know for sure if Plato was necessarily on Carpenter’s mind when making this film, the themes explored back then rang just as true as it did in 1988, and even continues doing so today, 30 yeas later. However, we do know that John Carpenter was “mainly inspired by Ronald Reagan’s Conservative Revolution” and the ideas of Reaganomics when constructing They Live. This is further solidified early in the film when we hear a woman over a speaker at an employment office state that “The food stamp program has been suspended.”
The film starts off with Roddy Piper’s character “Nada” drifting into a dusty, cold looking version of Los Angeles. He finds work in construction where he soon meets fellow construction worker Frank, where he takes Nada to a little shantytown home to the homeless and other drifters. He notices a blind preacher who continuously chastises everyone to “wake up.” Across the street from the shantytown is a church which Nada decides to sneak into after believing it to be a front for something far more devious (As if organized religion isn’t devious enough). Inside the church, Nada finds a box filled with sunglasses which can only be compared to Chinatown versions of Ray Ban's.
Now, this is where it starts getting good. When Nada puts on these glasses, he is thrown into this black-and-white world where the subliminal messages society is given each day, is presented to him in it’s true form. Billboards and advertisements for various products or political endorsements were now simply seen as “Obey” or “Marry and Reproduce.” Even dollar bills were now simply white pieces of paper that said “This is Your God” on it, which brings on a whole new meaning to the phrase “In God we Trust.”
Nada putting on these bootleg Ray-Ban's was essentially an analogy for being woke. The same message that Plato shared in the Allegory of the Cave (I promise this is my last time bringing up Plato). They Live is an in-your-face plea to open your fucking eyes and to not believe everything you’re told by people you don’t even know. Pure obedience is something that people do the most of subconsciously, yet resists against so strongly when it’s presented to them in a way that they are conscious of. People love to say “Fuck the police!” when they get pulled over for speeding or get caught hot-boxing their ’04 Corolla, however they have no issues with obedience when faced with the societal goals placed on us like going to school, getting a 9-5 job, obeying laws, and most importantly not asking any questions. Now what’s the difference exactly? That’s right, you’re only aware of this confrontation of obedience in the former of these two comparisons.
I know what you’re thinking, well then someone should say something!! That’s just the thing. A lot of people are saying it and have been saying it, however the usual response to it is going to be that of mockery and ridicule. Much like in Plato’s Cave and in They Live, those who were not enlightened quickly dismissed conflicting beliefs and ideas as bullshit. Sounds a lot like your suburban, middle-class parents right? Probably.
This statement made by They Live, in response to subliminal obedience and the order the government has over others, is something that was taken to heart by street artist Shepard Fairey. Often referred to as “Our Generation’s Warhol”, you probably know Shepard best from the clothing company “Obey” and even more-so from his famous Obama “Hope” posters that made rounds around the country in 2008. Which some like to credit as a huge influence in Obama’s election.
Shepard’s goal was to democratize art, in making it more accessible to people and exhibiting that there is room for more in public space than just advertisement and government signage. Starting with simple “Andre the Giant has a Posse” stickers being posted around town, Fairey took this notion and idea that Carpenter put out into the world and has created a historical revolution in which he used street art as a means to change the world for the better and to create conversations on both rebellion and hope, which otherwise would never happen. This is just one of the countless examples of how They Live has inspired others and has created a lasting impact on society and those who wish to alter the traditions we've become so blind to. So, really think about what it is “Obey” is trying to say next time you’re at Zumiez or PacSun trying on that Obey Worldwide tee, alright?
Now here we are 30 years later, and this message Carpenter spread through They Live could not ring more true today. Let’s think about what was happening in the late 1980’s when this film was released. The Top 10% had seen an increase in salary and wages while the rest of the 90% of Americans unfortunately, did not reap any of those benefits. Wage gaps, media manipulation, and mass consumerism were just a few of the things affecting societal order of the U.S. and coincidentally are the main topics taken on in this film. It seems more and more evident as time goes on that it really is true that “History repeats itself.” We’re right back at the top of this inevitably steep slide that is politics and society. John Carpenter, where are you? We’re gonna need you again...
- Young Gosling