My rating: 9/10
‘They Live’ is a Roddy Piper movie by director John Carpenter (known for Halloween, Escape from New York, Dark Star, and many more classic movies), but you don’t need to seek out any They Live torrent or trailer because you can watch the whole film right here: it is freely available online. Roddy Piper is a WWF wrestler who did a bit of acting too. And, realistically, he isn’t bad in this, probably one of the best, and most prescient, science-fiction movies ever made. Just remember it was made in 1988 so don’t expect too much in the way of slick special effects or even good action sequences: what makes this film great is its message – years ahead of its time – that advertising is destroying our individual freedom.
Watch ‘They Live’ now [1h 34m] or read my extended review below – or do both!
Roddy Piper plays Nada (slang for nothing, or in this case, nobody), an itinerant or drifter, unemployed and wandering around the USA looking for work during an economic depression. Being made in 1988, he manages to sport a permanent blow-dry hair style, but I suppose that was just a sign of those times. He also has a majorly muscle-bound body but never works out in the movie either, but that kind of realism is not really the point of this film.
Instead, the point is about just who exactly is running this world, and whom does it benefit?
Nada manages to get a temporary job on a building site, and a place to sleep in a shanty town on the outskirts of some city. Whilst there, he notices some strange goings-on at a church nearby: there appear to be services, but no congregation. The local TV keeps getting interrupted by some nutcase telling people to ‘wake up’ and that they are being manipulated – much to the viewers’ annoyance, of course: nobody wants to wake up. Sneaking into the church, he finds a tape playing the sounds of worshippers singing, and overhears the clergyman and others discussing the manufacture and distribution of ‘Hoffman’ lenses, whatever they may be. He notices them hiding some boxes behind a false wall.
Shortly after this, at night, the powers-that-be raid not only the church, but the shanty town too. The church is emptied and the shanty town bulldozed. Some of people who he had seen in the church escape but others are caught and beaten (or worse) by the police. He hides out in nearby house and once the heat has died down, sneaks back into the wrecked church to find out what was behind the false wall: it turns out to be boxes of sunglasses.
Somewhat disappointed and mystified, he hides a box of them in a dustbin, but keeps one pair for himself. Then, walking down the street, he tries them on, and is shocked by what happens. He looks at an advertising hoarding and all it shows in giant letters is the word, ‘OBEY’. He whips the sunglasses off and sees only a normal advertisement. He looks at another showing a bikini-clad babe with the caption, ‘come to the… Caribbean’. With the glasses on, it says, ‘MARRY AND REPRODUCE’ instead… and so on: the sunglasses are revealing the subliminal messages behind the advertising.
Later, at a magazine stand, he looks at another customer – a wealthy-looking man – and sees an alien. Here, there, and everywhere, dotted about among the ordinary people, are aliens running the world… and so the adventure begins.
I’m not going to summarize the rest of the story – you get the idea: aliens are brainwashing humanity for their own purposes. In the movie, this is literally true, but it is of course a metaphor for what advertising and industrial society do to us as human beings anyway. ‘They’ want us to be docile, unthinking consumers. They Live is a 1980’s version of the more recent movie, The Matrix, and much clearer with its message, as well. It is obviously a favourite of conspiracy theorists everywhere, from David Icke to Alex Jones, as it says much the same thing as they do: there is more going on in our day-to-day world than most of us realise.
This doesn’t mean that its message is nonsense, either. Far from it. The theory of advertising is entirely based on Freud’s psychological observations that people are more easily persuaded by emotion than by facts, and by the behaviourist psychologist’s discoveries that conditioning (repetition) can be used to teach people to do what you want them to do. Especially if you can bypass their conscious awareness and condition them without them noticing. This is entirely what advertising aims to do.
So: the acting. It is OK. Nothing sensational, but the film is watchable. It is a little slow, perhaps, for those of us conditioned to expect action and lame humour from beginning to end, but this is a film to watch with your brain switched on. Its message is profound, powerful and important. Watch it, and learn what is happening to you…