They Live (1988)

Directed by John Carpenter

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They Live both mocks and decries capitalism, effectively, which might have been a surprise considering how much of a B movie this is.  It stars a professional wrestler, Roddy Piper, features a five minute long fight sequence between Piper and Keith David over a pair of sunglasses, and well yeah, it’s about a guy who finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the world for what it really is, overrun with aliens.

These aliens look human to the average person thanks to radio signals sent out over television sets.  When the homeless hero of the film (Piper) stumbles upon a pair of sunglasses, he can see the aliens in their natural form, which is aliens who wear suits and wigs.  This clues him into a mystery which had been teased up until this point, with the main character (unnamed, though he’s credited as Nada) observing a blind preacher venting about capitalism and strange interference on the television set through which a man does much the same, telling us we’re being controlled.

When he realizes what’s going on he must first fight for his life, but soon he tries to convince a friend, Frank (Keith David) to put on the sunglasses so he can see what’s out there.  Frank won’t, like he won’t even consider it, and then we have an absurd fight sequence which follows.  It’s all quite silly, but the length of the scene fits in with the theme, about people who resist opening their eyes, unable to see what’s right in front of them.  It’s about people being controlled by not just greater forces but by themselves too.

And you see this everywhere.  I’m sure I’m doing it to myself right now.  Whether it’s certain habits, even addictions, or subconscious modes of thinking, we’re all a product of our environment, and for me it’s America.  Every movie that’s ever been made which is said to be about America, is one about greed, at least as I see it.  Many of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies, for example, are allegedly about America, perhaps none more than There Will Be Blood.

Many of these movies, not just his, feature a sh*t ton of excess.  The idea is that the characters constantly strive for more and more and more until they burn out or are backstabbed or simply have nowhere else to go, cornered by their own greed.  You see it too in gangster movies like Goodfellas or basically any story in which someone accomplishes all the American dreams they set out to do.  Then you get that whole wave of movies that start with a character losing it all or having lost it all, now crawling back home on their hands and feet.  Two examples of these are Elizabethtown and Lonesome Jim, among many others.

But to be American is to be told you can have it all, so long as you try.  As discussed very candidly in They Live, this means you’re out for yourself, and such a way of thinking turns everyone else into a competitor to be vanquished.  Looking at it a certain way, maybe the only way, it seems so negative, so harsh.  How can anyone be happy in the end if you’re constantly fighting a battle that someone else has to lose?  All we’re doing is competing, and eventually we’ll all lose.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot in terms of sports, perhaps the easiest example of such a thing.  I’m a Golden State Warriors fan, and the Warriors are very good, at least at the moment I write this (mid March 2019).  They are almost a parody of a championship team, having been to four straight NBA Finals and winning three of them.  They have two of the best players in the league, and they’re currently first in their conference right now, with the season drawing to a close.

Having been good for so long at this point, you get used to it, you even expect it.  Suddenly winning by a point or two isn’t enough.  Winning 70% of your games may not even be enough, and with all of that comes the expectations of winning the whole thing.  Anything less than being the best is unacceptable.

And one day they won’t be the best.  One day Steph Curry, 31 currently, will follow the familiar aging curve of every athlete, so will Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and all the rest.  Steve Kerr will retire someday, and any advantages the team has in scouting and developing players will vanish too as employees bounce around the league with other teams and information is shared and re-evaluated.  What was once an inefficiency (like the three point shot) no longer is.

And that’s okay, but it’s kind of frightening, depending on how much of yourself you invest in something like this.  It’s a pretty apt microcosm of life.  There’s a lot of bragging and ego that comes with winning, but in the end you will be forcibly humbled.  It can’t go on forever.

So you’ve got to enjoy the journey, of course, and in terms of being a Warriors fan it’s been quite nice.  Maybe knowing that it will end makes it nicer, y’know, like life.

They Live sets its sights on a system that encourages spending and thoughtlessness.  Every problem in your life, this system says, can be solved by buying something new.  It also says you can climb that ladder and achieve the same level of success, but it has to be the system’s idea of success, not your own.  The system fails if you begin to neglect it, en masse.  If you and your friends and millions of other people decide you don’t actually need any of what’s sold to you, well then the system shrivels up and dies.  But that probably won’t happen.

I’m not sure where I stand on that system.  I grew up thinking capitalism was great because it reflected the way people already are.  I’m not sure where these thoughts came from, what I read or was told and at what age, but I distinctly remember thinking that communism is bad because though it’s a nice idea, it inevitably leads to corruption.  People aren’t made to settle, to not strive for more, and so forcing everyone to share the same lot in life just won’t work.

But capitalism is no different.  It’s a different structure, but there will always be those who try to and are able to take advantage of the system.  So is capitalism good or bad, or is communism the same?  I still don’t know.

I don’t think about the ‘system’ very often.  I certainly partake in it, I buy things here and there, but I also own two pairs of pants, one riddled with holes.  I haven’t bought a new iPhone in six years (granted my friend gave me his old one two and a half years back), my car remains dented from being rear ended and kicked (not sure how), and I eat probably the same three meals with no end in sight.

Maybe I should be thinking about this more.

Up Next: Halloween (1978), The Conjuring (2013), The Lost Boys (1987)

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