John Carpenter's They Live: The Orwellian '1984' of 1988


New to Netflix on 1st April is John Carpenter's They Live from 1988, a movie that not only delivers one of the greatest one-liners in movie history but also the use of subliminal messaging in the mass media to control society and brainwash them into submission. Sound familiar? Of course it does, it's the very same message presented in George Orwell's 1984.

They Live is directed by John Carpenter, famed for directing horror icons like Halloween and The Thing. So we're off to a promising start.

The movie stars ex-pro wrestler Ronny Piper as a wanderer without meaning in his life who discovers a pair of sunglasses that show him the world as it truly is. It's controlled by malevolent aliens who control humanity via the media and, with the help of Keith David's Frank, they seek to end this living nightmare for humanity.

Now, while George Orwell's aim in 1984 was to inform the world that "Big Brother is watching you", John Carpenter's aim was to oust the rampant commercialisation of Ronald Reagan's presidency. He tells audiences that they're all being subliminally coerced by an ominous and well financially supported "they", taking our ability for truly free thought. As described in his own words: "[They Live] is a documentary. It’s not science fiction".

Although Carpenter's cult classic is chiefly a metaphor for the far-right “greed is good” movement that many on the political left felt gripping the US during the 80s, it also serves as an eerie premonition of how today's social media and internet generation is subtly controlled by our reliance on gadgets and entertainment. Much like in Orwell's 1984, here we have a warning about the control that not only print media has over us, but digital too.

Carpenter was just reiterating Orwell's message with what was happening in the 1980s and what may potentially continue to happen beyond. They Live may as well have been called "George Orwell was right". And it's relevance hasn't subsided today...

Let's look at Carpenter's concept of 'the sunglasses' that help you see, maybe an allegory for the iphones, laptops and X-Box's that keep us from the harsh realities of the world around us today? Once you turn them off (or put on the sunglasses) you strip away the bright colours of our fabricated digital reality and the black-and-white truth reveals itself. Instead of seeing the glossy adverts aimed at pleasing us we can see it's all a mere attempt to sell something, keep us sedate, make us "obey".

Just like 1984, They Live proves that any totalitarian government can prosper if it provides the illusion of freedom, material or even hierarchical wealth. And where does it all stem from? The broadcast news, sent via a TV signal. Everything that shapes our society is transmitted via an intangible signal. Remind you of any society you're familiar with?

I won't spoil the end of They Live in any way, but when that fact is realised and the truth is out, do we think human society will prosper in any other way? Will society be happy without their alien overlords? Maybe our trendy 80s sunglasses are comfier than the truth?

In the end, They Live is just a bit of high octane fun. Yes it's still a relevant and timely reminder to look up and smell the roses every once in a while, but really it's about chewing bubblegum and kicking ass. It's a cult movie that pokes fun at the social structures that hold us all together. It's not going to get you to hate capitalism and politically charge you to distrust those at the top of the 'ladder', but ensuring you maintain control of your own life, time and influence isn't necessarily a bad idea.

Is They Live Any Good? It's a fun, cheesy and over-the-top 80s horror movie; the overarching themes are what'll terrify you.

They Live is available to stream on Netflix from 1st April