They Live (1988)

Director: John Carpenter

They Live is an interesting experiment in science fiction.  John Carpenter certainly makes great use of science fiction to demonstrate class antagonisms in America of the late 1980s.  The protagonist (who is interestingly played by the wrestler “Roddy Piper”) enters Los Angeles looking for work after having obvious failures abroad finding it. His experience in the unemployment office is painted as a typical painstaking venture that many have to go through (due to the current economic conditions at the time).

After his failure at the unemployment office he finds work at a union construction job where he follows the supporting character (played by Keith David) to a camp for the homeless.  As the story progresses, it becomes clear that some sort of group is opposed to the “rulers” of society is based in the camp.  The main character becomes aware of this and investigates the night before the police and military raid the camp.  This raid scene itself perhaps demonstrates Carpenter’s leftist leanings as police repression against the “working poor” is brutal and seemingly senseless (although they are after a resistance group).


The city revealed for what it really is

After the raid, the main character stumbles upon sunglasses that reveal to him the “true nature” behind things like advertising, the rich and control methods used by the “elites of society” (which in the film are portrayed as an alien force of some sort).  The scene where he first uses them in the city is itself clearly an analogy of the control methods used by advanced capital and the “putting on the glasses” is of course symbolic of becoming aware of this. The city is full of signs reading things like “Obey” “Reproduce” “Sleep, don’t think.”  Thus the glasses reveal the true nature of advertising as a control mechanism.  He then goes on a rampage against the “aliens” he discovers and goes on the run as a result.

While he’s on the run, he eventually finds Keith David’s character again and tries to convince him to join his crusade against the “elite aliens.”  While trying to convince him, the two get into a major fist fight which eventually convinces David’s character to join the fight.  In a speech about the film itself Zizek makes an interseting point about this scene representing the vanguard forcibly making the working-class wake up out of its comfortable position (Link to video).  This further underlines the “subversiveness” of the film.

The film itself ends with the main character destroying the main radio tower that broadcasts propaganda to the city followed by a montage of people realizing who is an “alien” and what is propaganda.  It doesn’t depict any mass movement or uprising after and is essentially just a call for people to rise up in their own way.  The idea is that the main characters made the relations of society clear and that society itself, and only society has the responsiblity to act in its own appropriate way.  (This is also similar to what Michael Moore’s new film Capitalism: A Love Story calls on for its viewers)


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