They Live is a 1988 science fiction action film written and directed by John Carpenter, based on the 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, and the 1986 comic adaptation “Nada” by Nelson and artist Bill Wray. The film stars Roddy Piper, with Keith David, Meg Foster, George “Buck” Flower, and Peter Jason.
They Live was a minor success during its release, but received negative reviews from critics for its social commentary, writing, and acting; but like other Carpenter films, it gained a cult following and more positive critical reappraisal. The film has had a huge impact on popular culture, with such iconic scenes as that of the shocked protagonist (Piper) putting on and taking off special sunglasses that reveal subliminal messages enslaving the world to aliens, and of a six-minute alley brawl between him and his eventual sidekick (David).
The short story and comic are a straightforward narrative about a covert alien takeover of the world, with little if any sense of the aliens being among the ranks of the upper classes. Indeed, one of the aliens in Nelson’s story is disguised as “a loveable old drunk,” implying a homeless wino. Other aliens (or “Fascinators,” as they’re called in the story) are the neighbours in the apartment of Lil, the girlfriend of George Nada, the protagonist. The only suggestion that the “Fascinators” could be rich is that Nada finds “no aliens on the subway…Maybe they were too good for such things.” (PDF, page 5)
It was Carpenter (under the pseudonym of “Frank Armitage,” the name of David’s character in the film and also an allusion to Henry Armitage, a Lovecraft character) who turned Nelson’s story into an anti-capitalist allegory critical of the 1980s Reagan revolution and its war on the poor. A key element, however, retained in Nelson’s story, the comic, and the film is how the aliens use the mass media to lull the world into passive compliance with the nefarious, world-destroying agenda of the aliens.
Indeed, They Live is amazingly prescient in how it portrays the insidious effects of Reagan/Thatcher neoliberalism not only widening the gap between the rich and the poor, but also using the media to make us all passively accept our descent into ever-worsening alienation, submission to fascistic police, and mindless consumerism. The film grows more and more relevant with each passing year.
Though the anti-capitalist message should be so obvious that it doesn’t need comment, certain egregiously erroneous right-wing interpretations of who the aliens represent should be dismissed at the outset. No, they don’t represent a conspiracy of world domination by “the Jews” (capitalism, apparently, is only bad when they practice it, but when ‘good, decent Christians’ exploit the global proletariat, that’s perfectly OK [sarcasm]), or the Freemasons, or Big Government per se. Carpenter is very clear in his criticism of free enterprise, the “free market” that these right-wing morons all too often defend in their criticism of what’s wrong with today’s world. No, “small government” won’t fix our ailing society: a government that serves the people, rather than the rich, will fix it.
The film begins with Nada (Piper), a homeless drifter, walking into LA looking for work. His name is an interesting choice, being Spanish for “nothing,” and indeed, in the comic adaptation, when he dies at eight o’clock in the morning as predicted, we see the final panels showing his body decaying, being reduced to nothing, and him saying in the narration that he has become “…once…and…for…all…nada.”
As a personification of nothing, Nada represents the lumpenproletariat, thought by Marx and Engels to have no revolutionary potential, though some leftists today feel that people like Nada do have such potential…provided they are given proper guidance. When led astray, as the other Drifter (Flower) is, they can end up supporting the forces of reaction and even fascism.
Still, being “nothing” can paradoxically be everything from a dialectical perspective. We proletarian “nothings” can be everything if we come together in solidarity. Hegel’s dialectic, as expressed in his Science of Logic, finds the unity between being and nothing in becoming. In the course of this film, we certainly see Nada go on a journey from nothing to becoming something of the greatest importance.
After finding neither work nor food stamps in an employment agency, Nada walks by a park where he hears a blind street preacher (played by Raymond St. Jacques) warning his listeners of the aliens who are secretly controlling the world. He doesn’t mention aliens, so we assume at this point that he is simply talking about Satan and his demons.
The preacher is blind, yet he says the people’s enemies “have blinded us to the truth.” He is like the blind prophet Tiresias, who nonetheless could ‘see’ secret truths most people of his day could not see. This paradox of blindness vs. sight will be further developed when Nada sees through those black sunglasses.
The preacher speaks of our greed and, significantly, of “our owners,” which seems to anticipate what George Carlin would say in a rant, seventeen years after this film was made, about the real owners of the US, “the big, wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.” Police arrive at the park to shut the preacher up.
We hear the preacher’s words in a voiceover as the camera gets a shot of TV screens in a store window that night, showing Mount Rushmore, a bald eagle in flight, a cowboy on a horse, and men who seem to be celebrating winning a basketball game. All-American stuff: a colossal sculpture by a man “deeply involved in Klan politics,” and which was done on a mountain promised to the Lakota Tribe; a bird of prey aptly symbolic of the imperialist country; cowboy stereotypes; and pleasure in competition. It’s all on Cable 54, a station whose significance will be seen later. Nada walks by as a dazed black man is watching the TVs.
Nada finds a job at a construction area. After a day’s work, he meets Frank (David), who offers to show him a place, “Justiceville,” where the city’s homeless can get some food. It’s significant that homeless Nada is rarely welcome in any private property or shelter, which is why some of us wish to abolish private property.
The friendship between Nada and Frank is strained throughout the film, their alley brawl being where that tension comes to a head. This tension reflects how worker alienation is rife in capitalist society.
Frank has a good heart, and he has a sense, as most of us do, that something’s not right in a society that allows the rich to trample on the poor. Nada, who will ultimately lead in the duo’s revolution, is at first still willing to “believe in America,” to follow the rules, to do a good day’s work, and to hope for better luck in the future.
Frank, in contrast, though full of justified anger at the unfair system, is afraid of rocking the boat, since he has a wife and two kids in Detroit to support. Frank is, as The Last Poets once said, scared of revolution. This fear, combined with how the manipulative media hypnotizes us all, is one of the main reasons the masses won’t rise up against the ruling class.
Nada, though pro-American at the beginning, is observant to the point of putting everything together quite soon. He notes the bearded hacker interrupting the mesmerizing TV programs to warn people of the dangers the blind preacher was speaking of in the park. He notes that the church across from Justiceville, where the meals for the homeless are prepared, isn’t what it seems: recordings of church singing drown out the voices of a resistance movement.
This church reflects a paradoxical thing about religion: usually the church is used to prop up the class status quo, which is presumably why it’s a good hiding place for this resistance movement; but every now and then, Christians actually engage in anti-capitalism, like the preacher and the other resisters.
Still, in spite of the resistance’s attempts at being clandestine about their plotting, they’re discovered by the fascistic police, who raid Justiceville one night, trash the place, and beat the preacher and the bearded man who warned about the aliens when the TV programs were hacked. Attacking a homeless community, the kind the Black Panthers would have helped: what could be a more naked manifestation of class war? As we see in this scene, whenever the ruling class is threatened by plots of revolution, they use fascist violence to keep the people in line. Bourgeois ‘democracy’ is a sham.
Ever-observant Nada, however, is putting all the pieces together. After helping a boy get safe in a shelter from the police–a shelter in which one of the homeless says, “Somebody start World War Three?”–Nada goes back to the church to take a box of something he discovered before, something the resistance deems important. Inside the box are pairs of black sunglasses.
The reference to WWIII ought to be linked to something the other drifter (later, a collaborator–played by Flower) has said earlier. He spoke of an “epidemic of violence,” “end of the world kind of stuff,” terrorists “shooting people, robbing banks.” He’s talking about the resistance, of course, but he never develops the class consciousness needed to understand the need for revolution. These references to WWIII, epidemic, and the end of the world, as much as they’re made in passing in the film, are nonetheless another instance of how prophetic They Live really is, when we consider how dire the situation is in our world in the 2020s.
Anyway, Nada hides the box of sunglasses in an alleyway trashcan after taking out a pair for himself. Soon enough, he’ll realize their significance.
A paradox about wearing them is how they make you see the truth, yet in a way, they also ‘blind’ you. Wearing them, he sees only black and white, a seemingly simplified world; and while he sees the revelatory subliminal messages, these messages are as simplistic as their black-and-white presentation.
What’s more, though they’re black sunglasses, they can be associated with the dark glasses a blind man wears. Like the preacher, Nada is ‘blind,’ yet he sees what most seeing people don’t.
The propaganda used to keep the masses in their place is, of course, often far subtler in real life than merely “obey,” “marry and reproduce,” “conform,” “no independent thought,” and “consume,” but much of what is presented in the media, the breads and circuses as well as the divisive propaganda to keep partisan-minded people loyal to this or that political party, is also simplistic, so the simplicity of the film’s black-and-white subliminal messages is fitting.
In today’s intellectually impoverished political discourse, critics of Biden are assumed to be Trump supporters; disliking both the red and blue parties seems to require a capacity for abstract thought far too complex for too many of today’s liberals. The same applies to ultraconservative Trump supporters, who claim that their critics must be DNC “commies,” a ridiculous pairing of labels as any I’ve ever heard. The same black-and-white thinking applies to the conservative vs. liberal (actually bourgeois) parties in all countries around the world.
What is, of course, the most shocking thing that Nada has to deal with is his seeing the aliens, as they actually look, for the first time. He stares in a daze at a middle-aged businessman whose face looks like a skull with his eyeballs popping out.
In Nelson’s short story, the aliens look reptilian, snake-like, with green flesh and “multiple yellow eyes,” speaking with “bird-like croaks” (PDF, page 1). Such a description reminds us of David Icke‘s reptilian overlord conspiracy theory, but Nelson’s story is not so overtly political. The aliens in the comic adaptation are colourful, many-eyed, and grotesque, but not at all reptilian.
Carpenter’s representation of the aliens’ appearance is the most sensible one. Properly understood to be symbolic of the capitalist class, the aliens with their skull faces are agents of death. The lack of lips and eyelids gives their faces a zombie-like lack of human expressiveness that is chillingly fitting for the purposes of this anti-capitalist allegory.
The endless pursuit of profit is a dehumanizing process, causing alienation among people and within them, alienating them from their species-essence. Not only are the people of Earth enslaved by the aliens and their ideology, but the aliens themselves are also thus enslaved, hence their reading of newspapers and magazines with the same subliminal messages. Capitalists don’t pursue profit merely because they like to; they are compelled to maximize profit because of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.
The wish for endless growth on a planet with finite resources is why capitalists are agents of death, and therefore why it is apt for the aliens to have skull-faces. Late stage capitalism is destroying the planet through climate change and endless wars; the US military, being the number one polluter in the world, is waging wars to ensure the sustained profits of Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, Boeing, etc.
The capitalists know they’re destroying the Earth, despite their denials and lies that ‘climate change is a myth’; they have underground bunkers to survive in when “the Event” happens, be it climate change, nuclear war, or American civilizational collapse in general. Small wonder the bearded man on the TV says, “Look around at the environment we live in. Carbon dioxide, fluorocarbons, and methane have increased since 1958. Earth is being acclimatized. They are turning our atmosphere into their atmosphere.” Then he says the aliens will “deplete the planet, move on to another.”
Again, so there isn’t any doubt about who the aliens represent, resistance leader Gilbert (Jason) says it most explicitly. He says, “They’re free enterprisers. The Earth is just another developing planet. Their Third World.”
So, the aliens represent not only the ‘free market’ capitalism that right-wing libertarians idealize, they also personify imperialism. As we on the left understand so clearly, and try so hard to get the rest of the world to understand, imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, exporting capital to other countries, expanding markets out there and hiring cheap labour from Third World countries to maximize First World profits, and fighting wars in a competition to keep the biggest slice of the pie. The aliens in They Live do this on an interplanetary level.
Nada is amused, but not surprised, to see (through his sunglasses) a politician on a wall-mounted TV who is an alien speaking of how we should “have faith in our leaders,” and be optimistic about the future, in a world as obviously bleak as it is in the film, and by extension as bleak as ours is now. One is reminded of, for example, Trump’s State of the Union address in 2020, when he spoke of America’s great economic recovery…then soon after, the whole economy came crashing down.
Nada’s shock at the sight of all these aliens, and the messages saying “obey,” etc., cause him to react inadvisably, making the aliens realize that he sees them as they really are. After fighting off and killing two alien cops, he takes their guns and tries to take all of them on alone.
He runs into a bank with a number of aliens among the humans, and he introduces himself by saying that iconic line (of Piper’s own invention) about bubble gum and kicking ass. As bad-ass as this scene is, we must understand the error he as a potential revolutionary is making: his spontaneous attack on the aliens is mere recklessness and adventurism. It’s thrilling to watch at first, but it ultimately ends in failure. Revolutions must be planned, organized, and timed well.
To escape his inevitable pursuers, Nada goes into a parking lot and kidnaps a woman, Holly Thompson (Foster), and has her drive him to her home. It’s interesting how when he gets out of her car at her home, two male neighbours (aliens?) of hers seeing them, he in those sunglasses looks rather like a blind man (recall what I said above about seeing and blindness). She is scared, but cooperative with him…and cunning in her private thoughts.
Inside her home, he finally takes off the sunglasses, which have been giving him a headache. Earlier, whenever the bearded man on the TV interrupted the Cable 54 broadcast to warn of the aliens, his viewers would get headaches after a short while of listening to him, too. Indeed, it’s painful and depressing for us to learn the truth about our oppression; TV shows and fashion ads are so much more comforting in the illusions of superficial pleasure they perpetuate for us.
Nada gets excited to learn that Holly works for Cable 54, knowing that that’s where the alien signal is coming from, and therefore he can get a chance to destroy the transmitter. He lets his guard down, and she smashes a wine bottle over his head, making him fall out of her window and down a steep hill. Calling the police with a cold look on her face, Holly reveals herself to be a class collaborator. Nada has lost his sunglasses in this incident: will she put them on, realize the aliens are controlling everything, and later redeem herself to Nada? Or does she already know about them, and is she collaborating to save her own neck?
To get a new pair of those sunglasses, Nada has to go back to that alleyway and find the box he hid there. He’s already seen Frank at the construction area, who is so shocked from having heard of Nada’s violence in the bank that he wants nothing to do with him. Still, Frank has a good heart, and he goes to the alley with a week’s wages to give Nada. Frank wants no part of Nada’s revolution, all the same.
Frank’s unwillingness even to try on a pair of the sunglasses shows just how adamant so many of us are even ‘to wake up’ and see the enormity of our ugly reality. In Nelson’s short story and in the comic adaptation, ‘waking up’ is a straightforward matter of coming out of the state of hypnosis that the ‘Fascinators’ have put the human race under. The story begins with George Nada coming a little too much out of the hypnotic state to be lulled back into it.
He must try to wake up the rest of the world, including his girlfriend, Lil, before eight o’clock in the morning, the time a ‘Fascinator,’ by force of suggestion, has determined for his death by heart attack. Since he does die this way at the end of Nelson’s story, it’s clear that even he isn’t completely ‘awake.’
So as with Frank, there’s plenty of resistance to ‘waking up.’ Lil, represented in the comic as a shapely, buxom babe, comes across as ‘asleep’ in the sense of having internalized a wish to attain all of society’s beauty ideals without question. Her female equivalent in the film, Holly, is similarly all given over to the aliens’ agenda, if at least more aware of their existence.
Being ‘awake’ versus ‘asleep’ in our world is far from being the simple dichotomy that it is in the film. Various factions in the left disagree as to what it means to be ‘awake’ to the reality of capitalism and on what to do about it. What’s the answer? Anarchism, Trotskyism, social democracy, or Marxism-Leninism? Leftist infighting has made it most difficult for us to rise up together and defeat the ruling class.
Though it isn’t really dealt with in the film, Frank as a black man is especially affected by the capitalism that the aliens personify. Still, he’s scared to ‘wake up,’ yet the need to ‘stay woke‘ has been given expression as a major issue for African-Americans ever since the 1930s. Further complicating matters has been the bastardizing of the term “woke” by the right, first in the capitalist exploitation of the term, and also by conservatives’ pejorative use of it, similar to their use of “politically correct.”
So as we can see, waking people up is a hard thing to do for blacks (Frank) and women (Lil), as well as for a number of other complicating reasons. Small wonder Nada has to fight with Frank for about six minutes in that alley, just to get him to put on the sunglasses.
The ruling class loves to have the people fight with each other, rather than join together in solidarity to fight the elite. The Western oligarchs would have us all hating Russia and China to distract us from the glaringly obvious problems in our own societies. So in the story, George Nada has to tie Lil up and take her car; and Nada and Frank beat the crap out of each other.
In the hotel, Frank, finally acknowledging the situation with the aliens, speaks of how they must have always been here, making us all hate each other. The alienation brought on by class conflict has led to the kind of parental abuse Nada suffered as a kid from his dad.
Gilbert finds Frank and Nada in the hotel, and he tells them of a secret meeting of those in the resistance. At the meeting, our two heroes replace their sunglasses with far more effective contact lenses. Here, Gilbert tells the others that they all have to be far more careful. The resistance movement is suffering because of such problems as adventurism. He advises the others to blend into society to avoid getting caught. Indeed, one must wait for a revolutionary situation before rising up. In the meantime, one must be patient and bide one’s time; they can strike when they find out where the hypnotizing alien signal is coming from.
Another big part of what makes revolution so difficult is how so many people sell out, as Gilbert explains to Nada and Frank. So many join the police, who have historically existed to protect the interests of the owners of private property. Many on the “left” sell out, like Bernie Sanders, AOC, and the Squad, politicians who act as mere sheepdogs to lull American voters to elect right-wingers like Joe Biden, politicians that the mainstream media disingenuously claim are on the left.
Opportunism is so easy to give in to. People get promoted this way, get more money, and buy nice houses and cars. The resistance gets labelled as ‘commies’ by the cops in the film (and this is who they truly represent; though Carpenter is a liberal who has admitted to supporting [regulated] capitalism, he represents the left-leaning variety of the pre-Clinton years when ‘left-leaning liberal’ actually meant something). Now communists, by contrast to the opportunists, are those who “stand out in the rain,” as Michael Parenti once described them: risking their careers and even their lives as they combat capitalism.
Nada is pleased to see Holly appear at the meeting. He imagines she is remorseful for hitting him with that wine bottle in her home. It would seem that she has led the police to the resistance’s meeting…though the film so far has left her private intentions ambiguous, so we’ll see her opportunism fully revealed at the end.
Nada and Frank, the only members of the resistance to survive the police attack on the meeting, manage to get to the Cable 54 building, where not only the source of the hypnotic alien signal is being transmitted, but also where the aliens are having a banquet with their human collaborators. Here we see symbolically how the ruling class colludes with the world’s politicians and the mainstream media.
At this banquet, Nada and Frank are reunited with the drifter from Justiceville who was the most resistant to the bearded man’s warnings about the aliens on the interruption of the TV program. This drifter, so totally given in to the mainstream media’s mesmerizing (as are so many of us), has predictably become a collaborator, having traded in his dirty old clothes for a tuxedo. Being as empty-headed as he is, he foolishly gives Nada and Frank a tour of the building, thinking our two heroes are collaborators, too.
They reveal that they aren’t collaborators in a sound-proofed room next to the TV studio where the mesmerizing messages are given by two alien news anchors. (For ‘Cable 54,’ read ‘CNN,’ to give but one example.) The drifter/collaborator rationalizes his treason to humanity by saying, “it’s business…there ain’t no countries anymore…we all sell out every day.” (This last line was inspired by something a Universal Pictures executive said to Carpenter.)
There being ‘no more countries’ shouldn’t be misinterpreted as the NWO ‘one-world-government’ nonsense, except in the sense that the new world order that George HW Bush spoke of referred to the post-Soviet, neoliberal, capitalist-imperialist one, in which it has been the ambition of Washington DC to rule the whole world. It’s business…it’s capitalism.
Nada and Frank manage to fight their way to the roof of the Cable 54 building, assuming they can trust Holly, who has a concealed pistol and puts a bullet in Frank’s head. He was so scared of revolution, and now his wife and kids have no man to put food on the table. This has made revolution all the more urgent, though.
Finally, Nada knows he’s going to be shot either by Holly or by the men hovering by him in a helicopter. Still, he says, “Fuck it” after shooting Holly, then he puts two bullets into the transmitter before being shot himself. Waking people up to the reality of our capitalist masters isn’t a sufficient condition of our liberation, but it’s certainly a necessary one. The mainstream media must be disabled.
Arousing class consciousness, as symbolized by the world finally waking up and seeing all the aliens as they really look, is of course a much more complicated process than what we see at the end of the movie. Yet it’s astonishing to see how many people in the world either deny that capitalism is the problem (preferring instead to focus on identity politics), or believe that only “unfettered capitalism” is the problem (as Carpenter himself believes!), or believe that billionaires can be allowed to exist in socialist states, or believe that, fantastically, “real capitalism” doesn’t exist and has never even been tried (as the market fundamentalists delude themselves)! They live, right-wing libertarians, while you sleep…and don’t even know you do.
Still, just as Nada doesn’t live to see the revolution happen, many of the rest of us who are ‘awake’ are not seeing a revolution happen, either. And as with George Nada of Nelson’s short story and the comic adaptation, there is little time left to wake the world up and start that revolution. George had only until eight o’clock in the morning to set the stage for revolution: how much time do we Nadas have before climate change, nuclear annihilation, or civilizational collapse become our eight o’clock in the morning?
Will we live, or will we forever sleep?