Time to look at another film. This time around it’s the 1988 science fiction/conspiracy film They Live directed by John Carpenter who also wrote the script under the pseudonym Frank Armitage and co-composed the score. Carpenter shot to fame with the classic horror film Halloween in 1978 and even during his years with bigger budgets and studio backing he was always a more innovative-than-usual film director. Avoiding sensationalism in the form of excess gore and nudity, his films were driven by atmosphere, as well as by storytelling and filmmaking creativity. They Live is no exception to this and it comes from a time in Carpenter’s career when he went back to making lower-budget independent films after lackluster performances at the box-office with studio productions. It all worked for the better since there is no way a big budget movie studio would produce a film like this: it has one of the most effective anti-Zionist metaphors of all time. Of course, there is no way to prove that his intentions were anti-Zionist, but that just might be Carpenter making a clever chess move.
Nada – a drifter who winds up in Los Angeles. Discovers a special set of sunglasses and soon links up with a revolutionary group on a mission to save the city, and maybe even, all mankind. His name is a witty take on the “man with no name” or nameless hero archetype who sweeps in and saves the day. Appropriately so, Nada’s name is not mentioned once in the film and we only learn it in the end credits.
Frank – works at a construction site and helps Nada find a place to stay. Thinks Nada is nuts when told about the truth about society and even takes a bit of convincing, but eventually teams up with Nada.
Holly – initially taken hostage by Nada when he needs to escape undercover. She lives in a posh house and has a well paying thus hasn’t even considered the possibility of society being endangered. Her character is ripe material for a standard love-subplot, but unlike Hollywood cheesefests, the film here takes a much different direction.
Man watching TV – an interesting though very small role. He becomes the film’s ultimate example of a sellout.
Gilbert – volunteer working who helps out around the shantytown, but also works with the revolutionaries.
Revolutionary Group – all glance roles, but they show that a militarist movement is in operation.
A DEGENERATED WORLD
The world is in a state of decay. Nada mentions that many banks in Denver have closed. Lower-class people have trouble finding work in a packed jobs office. A street preacher in the middle of a sermon about how civilization worships greed is suspiciously taken away by cops. Note that what this preacher says, using a venomous snake tongue metaphor, is very similar to Jesus’s words to the Sanhedrin Jews. Frank mentions that in Detroit many steel mills closed and despite workers taking many cuts to their pay and benefits, but the corporate owners just “gave themselves raises.” Around the city people can be seen to be entranced by television sets that play pointless programs and show dull ads all appealing to vanity and desire for longevity. The world seems to have lost purpose and direction with the rich milking all resources for their own benefit while keeping the lower classes entranced in a servile/goy state of mind.
At one point a TV ad mentions “divine excess” which, reflects the street preacher’s example of how much of a religion materialism has become. Peoples’ lives consist of just spending and comsuming, which are the sustaining processes of their society and they cannot see past this. Their frustrations as to why things never get better have no rational answer, at least not one they can see. Nada says, “I believe in America” and that he is sure a chance will come for him if he waits, while Frank seems to see this hope as naive. Later, when Nada wants to look into something that may provide some answers, Frank tells him to “leave it alone” as he has a job and just walks the white line doing his job, while Nada responds, “white line’s in the middle of the road, that’s the worst place to drive.” Their respective attitudes seem to have switched.
Note that Frank’s mentioning a white line, effectively means he is going along a path that has been drawn out for him, which is analogous to Nada “believing in America.” So sometimes they may feel that something is not right, however what is likely true is their attitudes sway back and forth from day to day or week to week, but the end result is they remain servants locked in am empirical prison with glimmers of false hope here and there.
SEEING IS BELIEVING
The central idea of the film can be seen as a slam on the myth that White Nationalists love to preach, which roughly sums up as: “Wake up!” Meaning, we’re asleep and the Jews (and also all non-christian non-whites, according to false-Aryan white nationalists) are robbing us of our freedom and rights. The movie does cater to this by using the “wake up” message in several forms, for example Nada sees a sign “They Live We Sleep” – an elaboration on the title and an indicator that Nada is learning more about the reality of his world. However, these references to waking up and sleeping are well outnumbered by film’s references to sight.
The first hint of this is in the opening shot: we get an oddly framed title card with the film’s title off to the bottom left written in what looks like hand-writing. The first shot fades in and we see a graffiti covered wall and the movie title is actually written on that wall… it is part of a bigger picture and the film has just very specifically pointed it out. In approaching such a large mural, one bit of writing off to the side is not likely to be noticed first if at all. This is the key idea: “seeing” isn’t enough, “seeing the right thing” is what matters; the right patterns so that the right conclusion and right course of action can be taken.
In the shantytown where Nada settles down some people are watching TV, which is showing some dull programs. Then suddenly a signal comes on that warns people that they are slaves and talks about some mysterious conspirators: “They are safe as long as they are not discovered.” The “Man watching TV” mentioned above is in this scene and he gets annoyed by this transmission: “it must have taken the hackers months to do this.” He is simply writing off anything different in the status quo as a violation or annoyance of some sort. The transmission reappears the next morning calling once again for revolution to the annoyance of the people watching. Nada, however, doesn’t just disregard it, in fact, he looks very curious. This is the first indicator that he will break the status quo.
His curiosity takes off, because soon after Nada starts to suspect something is going on in the church next to the shantytown. When he brings it up to Frank is when he is told to “leave it alone,” but he goes to investigate. There he finds that it is not just a church, but also a lab where sunglasses are made, ones with so called “Hoffman lenses.” An exact spelling of the lens name isn’t given, but it may be a reference to, Albert Hofmann, the creator of LSD. A drug which doesn’t “wake” the user, but alters their perception, makes them “look along a different plane of reality” so to speak, which is akin to what the glasses let the wearer do. The glasses are the central element to the film and once Nada puts them on “seeing is believing” is taken to a whole new level.
The world is not at all what it seems. All billboards, ads, newspapers and signs that make up the corporate-run world contain subliminal commands to be obedient. The glasses allow the wearer to see this, but without them, everything looks normal, “normal” in the sense of how we’ve been conditioned to perceive it.
Some signs Nada sees:
“Marry and Reproduce” is behind an ad about traveling to the Caribbean, which features a woman in a bikini. All in all, with the hidden message it is suggesting hedonism and base-sexual behavior.
“No Independent Thought” is behind a sign for men’s apparel suggesting that all people buy the same clothes, which draws a connection to uniforms, but more precisely, and given the film’s context, prison uniforms.
“Consume” is behind a sign for a “close out sale” which is just fancy capitalist jargon masking very blunt capitalist jargon.
Notice that all the signs are in all capital letters and one font, in other words, as blunt and direct as can be. It is not just ads and billboards, magazines that are usually filled with useless news stories, soft porn and other interruptions have like-minded commands behind them. Even money has “this is your God” on it. One magazine on the street stand Nada visits has “let TV teach you” written on it and this is seen without the glasses, which suggests that the propaganda is so rooted in, it is becoming less and less necessary to disguise. This little detail is visible when Nada sees the real shocker about his world, thus it was most definitely a detail the director wanted the audience to see. The real shocker, however, is that aliens live among us and they’re only seen for what they really are through the glasses, otherwise they appear human. They hold the positions of power and influence and to be blunt, they are the “they” of the title and the “they” the man on the intruding TV signal was talking about.
They are elitist minded creatures claiming to be inherently better than us, using the most elaborate manipulations to herd us, stealing wealth from our planet’s resources, enjoying a life of materialist hedonism as the honest of us suffer, bribing some of our own to help them maintain control and showing perhaps the ultimate example of in-group altruism through their selfish actions. When one of them catches on to the fact that Nada is aware, it immediately calls in the corrupt authorities, “I’ve got one that can see!”
Note how the film’s many political, economic and imperialist references reflect this. And how real-life activists who manage to cut to the core of real-life corruption are ostracized while the controlled opposition or useful idiots just continue to work their distractions and play off of each other.
ARYAN MILITARIST REVOLUTION
Nada, shocked and in some disbelief, tries to figure out what to do. His struggle is reflective of the Aryanist struggle in that he has trouble convincing anyone; partly due to his inarticulate communication, partly due to people’s stubbornness in their comfort, partly due to being hunted by the aliens’ enforcers. The comically over-the-top fight between Nada and Frank is an example of this: Frank is comfortable working (life ain’t easy, but it’s steady) and it takes a lot of convincing to get him to go on the militarist route to actually change the world for the better, hence the fight. What finally gets Frank convinced that Nada is right is when he sees the aliens, Nada puts the glasses on him. Again, the “wake up” notion is totally ignored in this key scene. Seeing the truth is also dangerous, since the minute the aliens know that someone can “see” they call in their enforcers. Nada learns this the hard way during his first walk with the glasses.
Nada and Frank figure that they can’t be the only ones with the glasses and they soon locate some revolutionaries. The group is meager, but well armed and planning a blend-in strategy while they acquire more numbers, however, the aliens enforcers crash their meeting and start to kill everyone. In that moment, Nada and Frank basically realize the situation: we fight now or never.
Holly, who has a subplot with Nada (which I didn’t go into here), helps them determine that the alien signal must be coming from the TV station where she works. The relation between Nada and Holly is interesting in that it avoids almost all cliches. The three sequences that Holly is in all take a drastic unexpected turn. I don’t want to reveal all twists here so as not to spoil the entire movie.
Note that as the film progresses, Nada starts to make more and more calculated moves. This goes back to his first walk with the glasses. First he found the aliens just plain ugly and started to insult them, funny, but it gives him away. He next used a bit of cleverness to get out of being cornered by two cops, but shot up a bank killing several aliens right after. However, he escaped the bank scene using a bit of cunning once again and from that point on all the violence that Nada causes is to serve the goal of revealing the aliens. What starts as a simple-minded revolt takes on traits of an Aryan Militarist Revolution. By the end Nada and Frank willingly go against great odds since as Aryans the only death they’ll let their oppressors exact on them is one in which they were fighting out of oppression.
In trademark Carpenter form, the movie’s ending is a bit open ended, but that’s one of the things that makes it interesting to talk about.
BITS AND PIECES
The opening shot, after fading in, tracks left and we see a freight-train rolling by with sun-wheel designs on the cars and after it passes we see a Nada, which links him to the Aryanism. Also when first at the construction site he says he has his own tools, he is a reasonably self-sufficient worker.
Frank, in turn, is linked to Aryanism when he tells Nada, “you’ll meet some of the folk” when showing him the shantytown.
Right before the police raid, Nada is looking at the church, but then he looks up and sees a helicopter and only then does he hear the engine roaring. Why didn’t he hear it when it first arrived if it’s that loud? Because the world is in a trance and under illusion, things have to be specifically concentrated on to break the spell.
A trash truck “appears” in a similar way to the chopper mentioned above. This is right before Nada fights with Frank, in watching the scene it is plain to see that there is no way Nada could have not seen it unless there was some sort of illusion going on.
The “Man watching TV” and complaining about program being interrupted shows up at the end. Note this key scene.
Holly’s house is located on Circle View Drive… an interesting name considering that the essence of maintaining an illusion is keeping people looking around in circles and away from the source.
Also, something very important in the film is, quite unexpectedly, very fragile. I do not want to give away all the details here and it should be rather obvious once it comes up on the film. Take note of how this relates to the arrogance of the aliens. On how they must have totally counted on it not being discovered. On how seeing the right patterns and taking the right course of action can easily ruin even the most elaborate illusion.
The music in the film is pretty interesting and not a very typical film score. John Carpenter almost always at least co-composes the scores for his films. Thus his ideas and metaphors from his direction of the film as well as his writing of the script are directly linked to the film’s music. The music here is largely composed of bass sounds; low, subtle sounds. This reflects the film’s message of important things being largely hidden and not out right obvious.
This film doesn’t make very many direct references to Zionism and I do consider it more of a broader anti-elitist themed film, though it is interesting to see how well an anti-Zionist interpretation fits here. Henry Ford only started to distribute the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion after he saw how similar the course the world was taking to what was described in the book. Can you, reader, see any parallels with this film and our world?