Science fiction has been frequently utilized in embellishing the capitalist system. Suffice it to mention movies like Superman and Exterminator, which, under a seemingly innocent story, cover a barely hidden apology of its dominant values. In the history of the seventh art there exist, however, opposing examples where the symbolism of the imaginary is used for aims of social criticism. One of the most outstanding is undoubtedly offered by John’s Carpenter’s They Live. Although it appeared about 20 years ago, in 1988, the movie remains timely and relevant as one of the most devastating and sharp criticisms of American imperialism ever made. And it also reads as prophesy of what later crystallized to be the embodiment of its most brutal features, the corrupt and cynical Bush administration, now leaving the scene.
The symbolic dimension is indeed central in science fiction. Moreover, its symbolism does not draw from the past, as in the case of myth, but turns to the future, which it attempts to predict and foreshadow. Yet, while in apologetic movies symbolism is realized in an irrational way, covering or distorting social contradictions in order to foist biased and fallacious conclusions on the spectator, in progressive creations it fulfills a realistic function of revealing and emphasizing contradictions, which elevates to a sense of the totality and awakens consciousness.
Following this second road, Carpenter, a talented, independent director who has given us a number of significant films, is able in “They live” to represent in exemplary fashion the process of neo-conservative barbarization in American society as well as the dynamic of its revolutionary overthrow. And while he possesses an element of conscious approach – he himself has compared his strange aliens to republicans – his sharp intuition results in lending the movie a much deeper problematic than his conscious intentions.
Nada, Carpenter’s hero, is a simple worker, a builder immersed in the American dream. His words in one of the first scenes, “I believe in America and follow the rules. I’m waiting for my chance”, sum up the illusions of the majority of American workers. What he ignores is that the yuppies and “successful” people he encounters in the streets are not what they seem. In fact, they are aliens who have come from a distant world and are plotting to gain control of our planet. The road of success is thus open only to those humans that are recruited by them and consent to become their docile organs.
Nada will become aware of this when he is hired in a construction plant and gets in touch with the rebel forces fighting the aliens. After an attack of the police, he will accidentally discover in a garbage heap the special glasses with the help of which it is only possible to perceive the ugly aliens. These creatures seem completely alike ordinary humans when one looks at them with a bare eye. However, when observed with the glasses, they transform to zombies, with a hideous, black face, just as in fact they inwardly are.
Yet the glasses have another, still more important function. Thanks to them, the multicolored virtual reality around us becomes white-black and the process of subjugation and brain washing, through which the aliens keep humans in ignorance and obedience, is revealed. When the hero puts them on, he is thunderstruck to see “Come to the Caribbean”, with the much promising, seductive top models, turn into a two-colored bill, “Reproduce”. “We are creating a transparent computing environment” becomes “Submit”. He is encircled with commands from all sides: “No independent thought”, “Consume”, “Watch TV”, “Buy”, “Stay asleep”, “Do not question authority”. As for dollar, it is a white paper with a black stamp imprinted on it: “This is your God”.
With this extremely clever trick, Carpenter is able to bring to light the true nature of the ruling elite, which is symbolically presented as a clan of aliens. Besides the rulers and politicians – almost never appearing in the scene, except for a brief but significant snapshot, when the hero sees a politician delivering a TV speech and then, wearing the glasses, the man turns to an alien appearing under the signboard “Obey” – the zombies include businessmen, policemen, bored petty-bourgeois and people of the star system. Even more cleverly, their headquarters is placed at Channel 54 (an allusion perhaps to the infamous Studio 54, the well known Manhattan yuppie disco of the eighties), a typical mass media corporation, through the antenna of which they come to earth and return to their far away planet, a clear hint at the role played by the media in general brain washing.
The role of the media
The channel controls heavily the information allowed to the people. Sporadically, the illegal channel of the rebels appears on the screen, only to be lost in the noise interfered by the aliens. The speaker, an orator with a somewhat fanatic look, zealously castigates the devilish rulers: “The poor and the underclass are growing. Racial justice and human rights are nonexistent. They have created a repressive society and we are their unwitting accomplices… They have made us indifferent, to ourselves, to others, we are focused only on our own gain. That is their primary method of survival. Keep us asleep, keep us selfish, keep us sedated… More and more people are becoming poor. We are their cattle. We are being bred for slavery”.
Through a number of such epigrammatic phrases, a bit schematic but illuminating as well, the creator depicts the essence of the social conditions. Yet, apart from its direct message, the movie unfolds in a second, deeper level, developing the dynamics of the struggle between the oppressors and the rebels.
When Nada realizes what is really happening, he decides to take law into his hands. He rushes into a bank and starts shooting the zombies. The aliens locate him soon, but he manages to escape and finds refuge in Holly’s house, who proves to be a highly standing executive of Channel 54. Ignorant of what is really happening, she violently defenestrates him when she finds a chance, and Nada returns in terrible plight to his workplace. There he meets Frank, his Negro friend, and attempts to enlighten him about the reasons of his strange behavior, which has resulted in him being presented by the media as a criminal and his persecution by the authorities. However, although eager to help him with some hardly saved money, Frank resists and declines his exhortations to wear the glasses. Their conversation is very revealing:
Frank: “I don’t want to see anything. I have a family and children.”
Nada: “I’m trying to save you, you and your family.”
Frank: “You did not save your own…”
Nada: “Put on the glasses. I do not want to fight with you.”
Frank: “I do not want to get in trouble.”
In the overall symbolism of the work, the heroes are not so much acting as individuals, but rather as embodiments of social groups. If Nada represents the conscious vanguard, Frank is the backward, still naive worker, who tries to hold himself aloof, in the hope that he will avoid all problems:
Nada: “You are a worker. Come to see the revolution.”
Frank: “Give it up, friend. This does not concern you or me. I want to keep my job. Do the same.”
Nada: “The white line is in the middle of the road. You are in danger.”
There follows a long scene of tough beating, when Nada reaches the point of almost killing his friend in order to force him wear the glasses. A scene with a deep meaning: the vanguard must show an iron will, in order to make the whole class accept the truth, after a process that will be both difficult and painful. Bleeding heavily, the two friends make up and fraternize again when Frank sees the deeper reality through the glasses. “They came here for profits. Many people sell themselves and get promotions. New houses. Money”, Nada explains.
The ascent of the aliens is ably depicted. In all places, banks, police, mass media, we see normal humans and aliens – honest people and scoundrels – coexisting, without the last being perceived by the first. Yet the aliens are methodically advancing and strengthening their domination and power.
Finally, the two heroes, using a special device of the zombies, will penetrate their headquarters and find themselves in front of a gathering of the newly rich. “In a few years”, the speaker prophesies, “the whole planet will be under our domination. Profits are huge. The capital of all us present here increased last year by 39%. The terrorist network was obliterated” (this last remark refers to the extermination of most rebels after a police attack in their refuge).
When Nada and Frank start shooting the guards in order to get inside the forbidden area of Channel 54, one of the rascals attempts to dissuade them: “Believe me, they know what they are doing. You are making a big mistake. It is only business. There are no countries any more. The planet belongs to them. Is profit bad? They will give us money. We sell ourselves every day. I will go with the winners”. They are ready to shoot him as well, but he manages to escape by using a special watch-like device, permitting the aliens to disappear.
An excellent finish
The last scene sums up the meaning of the movie. The two friends ascend to the sundeck of the building, aiming to destroy the antenna making the aliens appear as ordinary human beings. Holly, who meanwhile has learned the truth about the aliens and met once the hero in the underground movement leads them, yet events prove that, while she is not one of the aliens (when seen with the glasses, she appears human), she in fact belongs psychically to them. She shoots Frank and threatens Nada from behind with her gun, precisely when he is ready to destroy the machine. “Do not do it. You can not win”. Initially he is taken by surprise, but manages to draw a gun from the back of his trousers and shoots her dead. In the end the hero is himself killed by guardsmen in a security helicopter flying over the roof, but only after he succeeds in destroying the antenna. In this way the aliens become uncovered. In the comic epilogue we watch the Oscar winners as zombies now being interviewed without knowing they have been revealed (“all this sex, all this violence” one of them protests hypocritically) and a zombie-yuppie wondering in front of his girlfriend staring at him with disgust: “What is the problem, baby?”
The expressive and attractive Holly is in fact the embodiment of the American dream, of the hero’s illusions that he can satisfy his human needs within the capitalist system. Only after killing her, thus liberating himself form illusion, he will therefore be able to accomplish his mission. And his loss immediately after this displays a tough but authentic realism. The vanguard sacrifices itself, bearing the difficulties of the struggle, but due to its efforts and self-sacrifice it becomes possible to open the eyes of the people.
With this scene “We live” is elevated from the level of an acute polemic to that of a masterpiece. If instead Carpenter had given a different solution – making his heroes triumph in a happy end or even allowing them to be killed by the aliens only and not Holly, the artistic result would be significantly inferior. For Holly does not only personify Nada’s illusions, but also his inward uncertainty. Her phrase, “You cannot win”, sums up the essence of dominant ideology, its ability to create confusion and passivity, by continually corrupting human minds and consciences. Had this moment been ignored, the work would lose in strength and persuasiveness, because the most crucial question would remain unanswered: is the working class able to overcome this pernicious influence?
The truly amazing thing is that while other symbolisms, like the comparison of the aliens with republicans, are made consciously by the creator, the peak of the movie comes intuitively, without a clear comprehension of its meaning. Thus, Carpenter himself in his interviews failed to give the above interpretation, moving in the circle of Christian sacrifice ideas and other metaphysical notions with which he is preoccupied in other movies.
Reactionary and misconceived criticisms
Needless to say, reactionary commentators, sensing the significance of the movie as a devastating critique of their beloved capitalist system, have made every attempt to bury and discredit it. Making it worse, even progressive commentators have sometimes failed to appreciate the meaning of critical scenes and details.
Limiting ourselves to just a few examples, Mike Clark of USA Today is of the opinion “They live dies around the time Carpenter allows 10 minutes of gratuitous Piper-David eye-gouging, an apparent bone to wrestling fans. Forget the amusing premise; a full crate of magic glasses couldn’t make this a bearable movie”. A similar view is echoed by Peter Stack of San Francisco Chronicle: “Typical of some of the absurd moments in this film is a long drawn-out fist fight between the hero and Frank, who almost kill each other because Frank is too proud to try on the magic dark glasses. It is completely stupid.”
Even more hostile is Richard Harrington of the Washington Post: “Even for sci-fi, the creatures-walk-among-us plot of “They Live” is so old it ought to be carbon-dated. Oh, sure, director John Carpenter trots out the heavy artillery of sociological context and political implication, but you don’t have to get deep down to realize he hasn’t a clue what to do with it, or the talent to bring it to life… The plot for They Live is full of black holes, the acting is wretched, the effects are second-rate. In fact, the whole thing is so preposterous it makes “V” look like “Masterpiece Theatre.”
These unjust and scornful remarks are easily understandable. Their motives lie in the reactionary commentators’ sense that they themselves are the zombies so acutely exposed and satirized in the movie. It is this feeling of those who not only do not understand, but do not wish to understand that stirs their indignant contempt and not any concern to show some real shortcomings of the film, which, if existent, are definitely of secondary nature.
Passing to a more objective critic, G. MacReady, praising the critique of capitalism, also considers that from the moment Nada takes law into his hands “Carpenter fails to make much of the movie… Meg Foster’s character is almost totally irrelevant and extraneous. She serves no purpose. The prolonged fight scene between Nada and Frank is supposed to be funny, but simply isn’t. It just feels odd”. Similar complains have been expressed by others, finding Nada’s character too rough and his remarks, like the one in the bank shooting scene – “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass and I’m all out of bubblegum” – excessively crude (in fact Roddy Piper, whom Carpenter appropriately selected for Nada’s role, is a wrestler and no actor at all).
In fact, these are the vital innovations introduced by Carpenter, who based himself on Roy Nelson’s small novel Eight o’ Clock in the Morning. Such innovations, having a deep, if hidden, meaning, are feasible only to a great, inspired creator, and Carpenter depicts the workers in a realistic way, as they truly are in capitalist society, which prevents them from acquiring any kind of subtle taste.
Asked if his approach is somehow related with Marxism, Carpenter answered in the negative. Nevertheless, They Live does not cease to be perhaps the Marxist movie par excellence in the history of the seventh art. Even if it appeared 20 years ago, it does not cease to be topical and will remain so until the social evils it so graphically and skillfully depicts will be removed through social transformation.