Conspiracies, Commercialism & Cheap Sunglasses: They Live 23 Years Later

If nothing else, John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live, which celebrated its 23 birthday this past weekend, will be remembered for two memorable moments. The first is this:

The second would be one of the longest fight scenes I’ve ever seen, and that apparently found both Piper and Keith David pulling few punches. Sit back and relax for a few minutes and check this out – I’ll be here when you’re done.

Believe it or not, there is actually more to They Live than either of those legendary cinematic moments. What may have been thought of as a simple sci-fi story back in November of 1988 has managed to age nicely, thanks to its overt commentary on consumerism and mind control.

If you didn’t see it back in the day or haven’t caught it in the ensuing 23 years, They Live folows out of work drifter John Nada, who unknowingly uncovers the truth behind the advertising and television we consume. Nada discovers that when he puts on sunglasses he discovers in a church formerly used by rebels, he can see subliminal messages such as “consume”, “marry and reproduce” and, when he spies a few dollar bills, “this is your god”. The sunglasses also reveal that the wealthy elite on Earth are actually aliens who have taken over the planet. Nada manages to convince his new friend Frank of the truth, and the two attempt to reveal it to the rest of the planet. If you’ve got a Netflix subscription, you can watch it here.

Like a lot of John Carpenter’s later work, They Live isn’t as well regarded as films like The Thing or Halloween. It didn’t do huge business at the box office, but it has managed to retain a life, thanks in part to the great performance by Roddy Piper. They Live was Piper’s first big film following his departure from the wrestling business, and he managed to do a great job, playing quiet when he has to and turning it up as the film progresses.

But for fans of conspiracy theories, there are other strengths to They Live, which come from Carpenter’s script (which he wrote under the alias Frank Armitage, a character from an H.P. Lovecraft story). Having grown frustrated with the obsessive consumerism of the 1980’s, Carpenter wanted to clearly attack and demonize big business and corporate monopolies, the wealthy elite looking to take control of our world. He uses aliens among us as the reason North American culture had become so materialistic and devoted to acquiring more and more, but in They Live those aliens are in line with the power hungry people of Earth looking to get rich quick. They Live may have been released back in 1988, but it sure feels like it could be set in Los Angeles circa: right now.

I think it’s pretty fair to say that, as a culture, we can all be influenced a little too easily. Definitely more than we’d care to admit. I don’t know, maybe it’s mass hysteria or something in the water, but I have no doubt there are subliminal messages in the commercials on our tv screens. Probably our movies and music too. How else can you explain the popularity of the Twilight films or Nickleback?

23 years later, They Live continues to live on. What I wouldn’t give for a pair of those sunglasses. How about you?

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