I did not see They Live in theaters 30 years ago, but it came out when I’d started reading Fangoria so I remember the pictures of the aliens. When I finally saw They Live on HBO, I was excited by the simple premise of a hero who could see the real monsters. 30 years later I have lived in the world They Live predicted.
Nada (Roddy Piper) rolls into town looking for work. He gets some construction work and Frank (Keith David) introduces him to a tent city where he can live and eat until he gets on his feet. There’s a church nearby but the choir is just a cover for the real resistance movement trying to expose the evil forces infiltrating our society.
The resistance’s pirate TV signal (remember antenna frequencies?) isn’t strong enough to penetrate the airwaves, so they manufacture sunglasses that let people see the real world. With a pair of glasses Nada not only sees the real messages underneath photographic ads, but also sees the real faces of the people in power.
The messages are obey, don’t question authority, buy, consume, stay asleep, marry and reproduce. Basically conform and feed the system. And yes, the aliens are the rich. The 1% back when it was probably still at least 2 or 3%.
This was a ballsy, rebellious premise for the end of the Reagan ‘80s. Now, it’s a hopeless cry of, “Why didn’t you listen?”
They don’t even bother subliminally selling us anymore. Everywhere you go someone is blatantly pushing you to buy something you don’t want or need. They call us on the phone and they read a script to us. That script must work pretty well since every single company uses the same one. It’s all about how they’re doing us a favor by offering us the opportunity to buy this thing. The folks seeing through it (wearing the metaphorical sunglasses) are so few and far between they don’t even bother having an alternate script to talk to us. Frankly, if you had something I wanted I’d come to you. You wouldn’t have to sell me on it.
“How would you like to save money on XXX?” I’d rather spend no money on it, thank you very much. Or customer service designed to distract you. “I’m so sorry you’re having this problem and it would be my pleasure to help you today.” I don’t need you to be sorry. Just fix it and stop stalling. Or the worst, “How would you rate my service today?” Much worse now that you’re taking up more of my time asking me to validate you. Or the variation “what could I do to earn a 10/10 rating for my service?” I’ll take of more if you don’t stop harassing me.
Imagine if the glasses worked online, on social media, all the horrible subliminal messages there’d be there.
Also, imagine if it was a day laborer who exposed the conspiracy today. They’re so vilified, either because they’re immigrants, or if they’re white like Roddy Piper in the movie they’re still vilified because they had the audacity to be poor. Back in 1988, they weren’t even seen. I guess being invisible is better than being a target, but it’s not good either. Today, everyone is working the gig economy, so I guess any of us could be some form of Nada.
The epic fight between Nada and Frank is more poignant than I ever realized. I used to think it was just a fun bit of gratuitous action made humorous by just how long it goes on. Now I realize it is actually a visual depiction of how difficult it is to get someone to believe the truth. Frank just wants to stay out of it and mind his own business. Nada has already seemingly gone crazy shooting up a bank, so Frank can’t afford to be on the wrong side of his job. So he will fight Nada before he puts on his stupid sunglasses.
Of course Nada wins and forces Frank to see the aliens and messages. But it’s true, you can know the truth and no one will believe you. They’ll fight to the death to believe their fantasy of reality. You can show them all the evidence but they’ll say no, that’s fake news. Wouldn’t it be great to force people to put on the sunglasses?
There’s even a minor detail that wearing the glasses too long hurts. That’s true too. It’s painful knowing the truth and being alone in a world of the sleeping. It’s exhausting seeing through all the lies but the liars keep getting away with it. We have an election on Tuesday and just getting people who agree with us to participate is so much work. God, I hope it works because we don’t have cool They Live sunglasses to expose the insidious evil in our world.