SPOILER ALERT: While I’ve tried to be vague, this post does reveal details about the film’s final third.
Before the start of this screening the curator admitted that she was unsure how well They Live fits into the remit of the London Labour Film Festival. She needn’t have worried. John Carpenter’s 1988 cult classic arguably has more claim to an appearance at this inaugural event than the documentaries and ‘slice-of-life’ dramas that dominate its programme, dealing as it does with the alienation that forms our experience of society under late-capitalism.
Roddy Piper plays a casual labourer entering a nameless post-industrial metropolis in search of work. It is revealed he last worked in Denver, Colorado, but otherwise we’re given no sense that he “comes from” anywhere. He is the embodiment of the working subject under neoliberalism: a flexible unit of labour, unhindered by any sense of “home” or “community”, pushed through life by his own precarity and the demands of the economy. The ponderous pace of the opening sequence reflects the drudgery of such an existence. He looks up at the skyscrapers which greet him at the city’s limits not as thrusting monuments to ambition and opportunity, but as the promise – perhaps – of some casual construction work.
As well as being figuratively without place, his in-arrears pay means that for the time being he is literally homeless, relying on the goodwill of strangers to provide him with food and shelter in a shanty town on a patch of wasteland. When he raises his suspicions about those who help him with his colleague Frank, he is advised to “follow the white line”, do what’s expected, keep himself to himself – down the middle of the road. Survival is tough enough, the implication persists, without asking awkward questions and causing trouble for yourself. As it turns out, Piper’s suspicion is an effect of how we are conditioned to think of our neighbours: as discussed by Frank, we are all put into a race against each other, with everyone doing what they can to trip up the other. In the labour marketplace, workers are competitors.
This sense of resignation is persistent. When the omnipresent TV signal is hijacked by a “hacker” spouting polemic about “them”, “us” and the sedation of the people, he is derided by the viewing slum-dwellers as a nutcase and the channel is changed. Then one night Jacksonville is violently and apparently senselessly cleared by an army of police. Homes are destroyed, key figures are beaten and the nearby church is raided. The arbitrariness of the violence shocks Piper into investigating and he recovers a box of sunglasses which, when worn, allow him to see. The world is suddenly rendered black & white, adverts and magazines display nothing but simple commands to “OBEY”, “CONSUME” and “MARRY AND REPRODUCE”. Most terrifyingly, some of the people around him appear as ghoulish monsters, clumsily adorned with wigs and fancy clothes. These are “They”, and they occupy positions of authority: police, businessmen, politicians on TV, upper class “housewives” – in short, members of the bourgeoisie.
What the sunglasses ultimately allow our hero to bluntly perceive are the mechanics of spectacular control. But Carpenter is no Debordian. Piper’s character is so shocked and repulsed by what he sees that he (wrongly) assumes that all it takes to change people is to persuade them to “put on the glasses!”. His revelations, combined with his material circumstances, compel him to embark on a violent insurrection against these intergalactic colonialists; while the undermining of the authority of the spectacle (‘the Father’) which comes with its visibility gives Piper the “permission” he needs to carry out his crusade (“I ain’t Daddy’s little boy no more,” he says ominously after recalling his abuse at the hand of his father).
The fact that the vision afforded by the sunglasses is in black & white may provide a cute homage to the Cold War 1950s sci-fi movies which massively inspired the film*, but it also visually reflects the myopia in seeing a struggle between the capitalist and working classes as one between Good and Evil, People and Impostors. The paucity of this insight is hinted at by Piper’s and Frank’s encounters with humans like Holly, who through her job at the TV station actively assists in propagating the sedation of the population, and George “Buck” Flower’s cretinous turncoat, who informs the rebels that “people sell out every day – what’s wrong with being on the winning side for once?”. (Intriguingly, he does not meet his comeuppance.)
Perhaps aware of this, They Live concludes open-endedly, with the suppressive “signal” destroyed and swathes of the population revealed as the insidious impostors they really are. But how the now fully “awake” native Earthlings deal with this, we do not know. Do they arise as one and cast out the invaders? Are they able to negotiate some kind of shared existence with the aliens? Or, most depressingly, do they shrug and accept their subordination to a self-evidently “stronger” race? And there is the real problem of our alienation. Most people are aware that much of modern life is governed by arbitrariness, spectacle and bullshit – but live it we must.
*An echo which is neatly inverted by the aliens’ depiction of the resistance movement in the news as “communists” and “terrorists”