In Part One of our 80s dystopia podcast, we reveled in Terry Gilliam’s bizarre and beautiful Brazil. If you prefer a more scathing satire of consumerism and media, however, look no further than John Carpenter’s camp classic They Live (1988), discussed in Part Two of this episode. It stars wrestler Roddy Piper as John Nada, a down-on-his-luck drifter who learns that roughly half of America’s population is being brainwashed by television — and the other half are aliens. This cult favorite features magic sunglasses, excessive ass-kicking, and absolutely no bubblegum — and yet feels strangely prescient about the state of the world in 2018.
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While 1985’s Brazil drew heavily from Orwell’s 1984, along with a handful of other 80s sci-fi we mentioned in the episode, They Live goes in the other direction — closer to the post-apocalyptic wasteland depicted in earlier dystopias like Mad Max and Escape From New York, where the fate of the world always rests on the shoulders of a stoic badass with luscious locks. (Or Melanie Griffith, in 1987’s Cherry 2000.)
Technically, there is a “Big Brother” in They Live — but mankind doesn’t even know it, until John Nada starts seeing the truth through his magic sunglasses. This is a subversion of what Orwell imagined, revised for 80s consumer culture, dominated by television. If we willing plop ourselves in front of the TV set to receive endless ads about what we “need” to buy, what other kinds of messages might be delivered to us? Our passivity in front of the TV extends nicely to Carpenter’s allegory about alien brainwashing. And it still feels eerily resonant in 2018, the way a certain audience tends to lap up whatever Fox News dishes out, even if it ultimately sells them out to a caste they can’t even properly see.
November 4, 1988
Domestic Gross: $13 million
If you’re looking for a purely 80s vision of dystopia, you won’t do better than John Carpenter’s They Live, a campy B-movie that alternates between being knowingly bad and brilliant. While Terry Gilliam’s Brazil was set in a timeless, placeless dystopia that owed a heavy debt of gratitude to George Orwell’s 1984, They Live is firmly grounded in Los Angeles in 1987. There’s nothing futuristic about the clothes, hair, or anything else we see her, except Nada’s magic sunglasses (which also look very 80s).
If anything, They Live is a throwback. The roots are found in trashy sci-fi of yesteryear and old Twilight Zone episodes. Its special effects are striking, though not exactly convincing. Honestly, between the ridiculously long wrestling match, the bonehead one-liners, and the chintzy-looking aliens, it’s a miracle that Carpenter’s film still errs on the good side of awful. (Did I mention it stars a pro wrestler?) They Live gets about as hokey and over-the-top as a movie possibly can while still being brilliant. The film’s iconic line, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum,” comes out of nowhere and means nothing. Yet it is a great line.The Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring The Running Man, released a year earlier in 1987, explored a similarly violent totalitarian society manipulated through television. The same year, Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop also satirized media in dystopic fashion, playing like a wiseass cousin to James Cameron’s Terminator. They Live was far from the first or only story to get at these themes through the “TV is evil” angle — Cronenberg’s Videodrome did it especially artfully five years earlier.
Yet Carpenter’s also feels like the purest, most correct vision of our submission to dystopia, maybe because it doesn’t ask us to imagine a future where this might happen. According to They Live, it’s already happening, and we’re just blind to it.