“They Live”, directed by John Carpenter, is a 1988 science fiction horror film about an unemployed drifter named John Nada (John Nothing) who finds a box hidden in the wall of a “church” filled with dozens of sunglasses. Nada puts on a pair of the sunglasses and discovers that the glasses have some very unique properties. Looking through them he sees the world in black and white and discovers a dark reality he’s never seen before. Nada can now see that media and advertising hide constant subliminal totalitarian commands to obey and conform, and that those with wealth and authority are actually humanoid aliens with skull-like faces and those who help the humanoid aliens are unethical and immoral human beings driven by a desire for power and control.
The film was panned by film reviewers when it hit theaters, but has since gone on to become a cult classic. In the 2012 documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, which explores “the mechanisms that shape what we believe and how we behave”, philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek ” said:
‘They Live’ is definitely one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood Left. … The sunglasses function like a critique of ideology. They allow you to see the real message beneath all the propaganda, glitz, posters and so on. … When you put the sunglasses on you see the dictatorship in democracy, the invisible order which sustains your apparent freedom.
“They Live” was the single most scathing satire done on the “Greed is Good” business culture of the Ragan era. Its core statement was that the wealth and privilege gap between rich and poor had gotten so obscenely enormous that it was as if aliens had secretly taken over the world. Carpenter’s film explores that as an actual scenario, and from there its plot flows quite naturally to an inevitable conclusion. The use of special glasses as a prop was satirical genius. Glasses allow you to see better and Nada’s sunglasses allowed him to see the truth and reality of the world he lived in.
As a film, “They Live” is both a good example of cheesy B movie science fiction and an example of the very highest level of social commentary. Satire at its best transcends the normal expectations of any genre, which is why this film, once described by the movie critics as a rather ho-hum B movie, is a hidden gem for the ages and an essential film for the current socio-political moment.
You can watch the entire film above.