Sunday, March 12, 2023

Thoughts on They Live

Some months back, when TCM Underground was still a thing, one of the movies they aired was They Live, which I knew a fair bit about because of how much of it has entered popular culture. Surprisingly, however, I had never seen it in its entirety, so I recorded it and made certain it was one of the movies I watched before I get rid of the current DVR in the upcoming move.

Professional wrestler Roddy Piper plays Nada, a guy with a shady past who winds up in Los Angeles working as an itinerant laborer in the construction industry. Since he can't afford anyplace else, he winds up at an encampent that's across the way from one of those street-corner churches that preaches an individual mashup of various strains of American Protestant theology that lean heavily on Revelation and the idea that the end might be nigh. At the same time, TV broadcasts are being broken into by grainy images of of a speaker telling everybody to wake up and that what they see around them might not be real.

Two things happen to change Nada's life. One is that the encampment is attacked by the police, Soylent Green style if you remember the scene where the police deployed bulldozers to deal with the food riots. The other is that the church is also raided, as the church was apparently a hive of anti-government activity. Nada makes his way into the church, and finds that among the things the church administration, if you can call it that, has dumped hastily is a box of sunglasses. Nada puts on one of the pairs of sunglasses, and is shocked at what he finds.

This is where the movie gets to the part that is much better known. Nada sees a whole bunch of subliminal messages. Behind billboards and magazines are messages such as "OBEY" and "NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT", also telling people to CONSUME and REPRODUCE. That's bad, but the glasses also reveal that there's a substantial minority of the people who are apparently not really human, as they have skeletal heads with no skin or hair and bulging eye sockets. Some people in very high places know about this, and no wonder they're trying to keep it a secret.

Now, of course, the question becomes one of whether Nada can convince other people of what's going on, which seems like it might not be that difficult if he can get anybody to put on the sunglasses. But that's difficult enough, and made more difficult by the fact the authorities are on his trail. There doesn't seem to be much of anywhere Nada can turn to.

A lot has been said of the idea that They Live is prescient. I have to admit that over the past several years my opinion on the conspiracy theory movies that go back to the 1970s and the Watergate era has in many ways changed. I think that's in no small part because of the broader changes in society in general. The people putting out the conspiracy theory movies of the 1970s were fighting "The Man", and in many ways they became "The Man", which will certainly change your perspective on the idea of questioning authority.

One other difference is that a lot of the conspiracy theory movies suffer from a form of "Top Man Syndrome", which is the idea that it's not the system that's a problem; just the people running it. Government is running for the benefit of Evil Big Business, and if we could only get the right people in who would run it for The People, everything would somehow be so much better. A good argument can be made that the government is really in it for itself first. There's a reason why I've made reference on a bunch of occasions to the British sitcom Yes, Minister and how the civil service seems to be as much if not more the ones running things than the elected officials. The past seven years have shown a pretty big disconnect here in America between the government class, and anyone who doesn't share the worldview of the government class, with the government class feeling it needs to do anything necessary, no matter how unconstitutional, to destroy the people who disagree with them.

One thing that I think a lot of conspiracy theory movies get wrong is to give government the wrong sort of power to keep people in check; I think I mentioned this not too long ago in my review of My Fellow Americans where the state is somehow able to get to Jack Lemmon's presidental library to alter records, along with bringing ridiculous amounts of overt force. To be fair, the latter looks good on film and gives the opportunity for explosions and action scenes. In reality, the power is more likely to be used to kill people through the death by a thousand cuts: politically-motivated tax audits; pressuring banks and other intermediaries to stop doing business with wrong-thinking companies (see One America News or Tucker Carlson); and the like. But that doesn't look good on screen.

They Live certainly falls into that trap, although at least director John Carpenter had the sense of making the back story, if you will, being one of aliens using Earth as a sort of Third World labor pool and coopting the wealthier and high-status people into being masters in a gilded cage. No wonder the government has the powers it does; these are alien powers.

Carpenter also doesn't get particularly heavy-handed in telling the story, letting the action unfold in a more entertaining way. I think that's part of the reason why the movie works and overcame its low-budget status to become a cult classic, while other conspiracy theory movies seem to be liked more by the critics and people who might like more arthouse-type movies

And if you think I haven't talked enough about politics, I'm sorry to say you're going to get more, and probably more controversial, when I get to a post about Tucker: The Man and His Dream sometime this week.

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