An Allegory of the Cave for the age of conspicuous consumption? Or a genre throwback that opens one’s eyes up to little more than the director’s faux-paranoid resentment of the dismissive elite? The terrain mapped out in John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) is broad enough, and politically incoherent enough, to accommodate such seemingly incompatible readings. Its central conceit—that global power is being sneakily usurped by alien creatures Jonathan Lethem, in his excellent monograph on the film, pithily describes as “monsters from the yuppie id,” thanks to a consciousness-altering television signal that blinds us to oppressive subliminal commands and to the usurpers’ carcassy ugliness—might seem far too obvious a metaphor to be “read” at all. But among the many reasons that They Live still lives as a cult film is because that central conceit, along with the director’s peculiar approach to storytelling and social commentary, congeal into thick stew of blurred intentions, mixed conventions and gleefully dumb entertainment, hitting a sweet spot somewhere deep in the collective psyche.
A strapping guy wearing plaid, denim, leather, a backpack and a mullet strides into Los Angeles. He’s looking for work and means business—he even has his own tools. “I believe in America,” he says, though he’s suspicious of its unions, or at least Chicanos. He’s our hero and surrogate, not an American everyman exactly—he’s played by a pro wrestler, after all, and a Canadian to boot—but a neutral, a mind-yer-own-business type, an insignificant—the credits reveal his name to be Nada, Spanish for Nothing—a guy who doesn’t rock the boat. Until the boat rocks him. Nada finds a place to sleep in an inner-city hobo campsite called Justiceville. (These days it would called Occupy Hollywood.) But while the cops barge in and tear Justiceville up, Nada begins to sniff out an underground movement with a pretty wild conspiracy theory. The revolutionaries try to alert others to their claims, but everyone, yuppie and prole alike, is too busy watching lobotomizing TV broadcasts to care. Long story short, Nada comes to see what the underground is on about. He acquires a pair of shades that look like Ray-Ban knockoffs—which look kinda funny with his worker gear—and allow him to see things as they really are: billboards and print media ordering us to OBEY, CONSUME and PROCREATE, and those carcassy creatures, called “ghouls” in the credits, who look like us without the glasses, and are assuming all positions of power and influence. Nada sees the monsters for what they really are—and Nada’s going to take action. “I’ve come here to chew gum and kick ass,” he declares. “And I’m all out of gum.”
But first he has to kick his friend’s ass. The best/worst (but mostly best) scene in the movie, and the most wildly homoerotic: Nada, aka Rowdy Roddy Piper, tries to convince his buddy Frank (Keith David) to don the shades. Frank refuses and refuses and refuses, so… get ready to rumble! The buddies fight in an alleyway, punching, kicking, pile-driving, kneeing in the balls—for six minutes! “Put the glasses on!” Nada demands. And really, why won’t Frank just put the glasses on? Why is he so resistant? Is it because, subconsciously, he already knows, already sees the ghouls? Because the glasses are a mere prop, granting us granting permission to “see” what was always in plain sight, ie: the apparatus of ideology? Is this gloriously ridiculous movie trying to tell us something? Of course it is. But don’t take it at its word. There's more going on than even the movie itself knows. Look deeper. Look long. Seeing is believing—so long as you’re wearing the right glasses.