It's often said that the world feels like a dystopia at the moment. In MONTAG's Today's Dystopia series, our writers take a sideways look at fictional dystopias, compares them to reality, and ask: how close are we to living in tomorrow's dystopias today?
Pop culture allegories don’t get much more “pop” than They Live. Its main star is a pro wrestler, it’s directed like a low-budget 80s MTV video, the script is curt, unfussy and full of holes. There’s a lengthy, seemingly gratuitous and unintentionally hilarious six minute street fight - over a pair of sunglasses - in the middle of it all.
And yet with each year that passes since its 1988 release, They Live reveals itself more and more to be a stiletto-sharp appraisal of the consumerism, capitalism, and inequality that saturates society – and how it is slowly, silently strangling us, right under our noses.
They Live is as much of a horror movie as director John Carpenter’s other more famous films, The Thing and Halloween. But instead of supernatural shocks and spills – and despite the bad guys being aliens – the allegory is so crystal clear that viewers will be in shock as they experience creeping dread.
Because, the viewer might reasonably conclude: in They Live, the horrorshow is real, and not only are we living in it every day, but we’re helping it consume us.
The premise is as stupendously silly as it is simple: a homeless, jobless man played by wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper searches for employment in LA. He’s at the bottom of the heap, as his surname, Nada – meaning “Nothing” in Spanish – makes clear, and his struggle to find work is juxtaposed with the wealth and rampant consumerism of Reagan’s 1980s.
Having broken into a closed church to find a place to stay (here sounds the first of many ALLEGORY KLAXONS), John finds an unmarked cardboard box full of sunglasses. In the glaring Los Angeles sunshine, he slips a pair on – and to his horror, they reveal the real world to him for the very first time.
A gigantic wealth gap between the gilded top 10% and a vast population of people who don’t know when they’ll be paid next? A bloated middle class who believe that ultra-wealth is just within their grasp if only they keep working themselves into the ground?
Bombardment of multimedia messaging seducing us to part with cash for products that’ll get us that bit closer to the elite? A corrupt ruling class that promises us everything is better than ever?
Anything sound familiar to you?
Slip on your sunglasses as we peer into the cold heart of 2017 and compare how close today is to the dystopia of They Live. We’ll mark each scenario out of five sunglasses (🕶), in honour of John Nada’s iconic shades.
Hyper-commerciality and persuasion to conform and spend: 🕶 🕶 🕶 🕶
The glasses in They Live reveal the real message of billboards: the stark command OBEY. Ads featuring bikini-clad babes are a front for MARRY AND REPRODUCE; lifestyle magazine covers reveal CONFORM; radio transmitters drone the message SLEEP…. SLEEP… 24 hours a day.
John Carpenter said that They Live sprung from a realisation that the apparently bubbling economy and positive messaging from politicians had a distantly-connected fit side: he was constantly being pitched products.
"I began watching TV again. I quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something... It's all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money.”
Nearly 30 years after They Live was filmed, what do 2017’s creative minds think about the persuasively commercial nature of media today?
Edgar Wright, director of hit movies Baby Driver and Shaun of the Dead, tweeted, “If you remade They Live now, the twist would be that you don’t even need the glasses.”
If you remade 'They Live' now, the twist could be that you don't even need the sunglasses.— edgarwright (@edgarwright) February 23, 2017
But why? Maybe it's because the tools we use to interact with the world are so blatantly manipulative and the people that use them are so blatant in their manipulation.
Facebook’s “Data God” was Jeffrey Hammerbacher. He figured out how to slice up all the data they have on you, whih then helped the social media giant make more money than all the gods combined.
He left Facebook because he was tired of seeing, in part, creativity drained from the most gifted people. His off-the-cuff observation - “the best minds of my generation… are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” - has become a defining comment on our digital age.
There's an icky amorality to the work of these brightest minds, working at social media apps, dating apps, video apps, indeed, any app that values your time; which is to say, all of them.
By eagerly copying the technology that keeps punters gambling on video slot machines, they literally want to make you addicted to their app.
Why? To see more adverts, mainly.
And Banksy, whose brash people-pleasing work uses the public sloganeering of They Live to put anti-authority messages in front of millions, has some thoughts on advertising:
“The thing I hate the most about advertising is that it attracts all the bright, creative and ambitious young people, leaving us mainly with the slow and self-obsessed to become our artists. Modern art is a disaster area. Never in the field of human history has so much been used by so many to say so little.”
A super-elite using technology to enslave humanity: 🕶 🕶 🕶
“They've Recruited the rich and the powerful - they’re running the whole show!”
Every time They Live’s hero pops on his magic sunglasses, he can see that the wealthy people around him are actually aliens who have secretly assimilated society, assumed wealthy positions of authority, and put in place a scheme to control the other 90%.
This majority – the humans – are told what to do, and what to ignore, through media, advertising and branding.
So far, so preposterous – although these out-there ideas are fairly well-worn IRL, too.
Ex-Coventry City goalkeeper, ex-BBC broadcaster, self-proclaimed “son of God” and conspiracy theorist supremo David Icke believes that the world’s elite - notably, Queen Elizabeth II – are part of a shape-shifting reptilian race who enslave the rest of us.
Except – wake up sheeple: it’s actually our celebs who are in charge, and apparently it’s mainly female music stars. Beyonce is Satan; Rihanna, Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Nicki Minaj and Shakira are lizards; meanwhile, there must be a lot of evenings put aside for world-domination planning in the Knowles-Carter household, as Jay-Z is also an Illuminati puppet.
OK, this is all ludicrous.
But if the powerful, wealthy, and hyper-influential cabal of celebrity family empires like the Kardashians or the Hadids could be considered to be our social “super elite,” then it’s not a wild leap to consider that their mastery of social media is – in a small way - “controlling” the hundreds of millions that elect to follow their idols.
And whenever one of these elite convinces a follower to buy the now-ubiquitous fitness teas, waist trainers and teeth whiteners, they trap one more puny, working-class human into a cycle of financial dependance.
Magic glasses that reveal the truth of the world around you: 🕶 🕶 🕶
The magic glasses part of They Live is the biggest reality-leap of all, and in 2017 the most insight a pair of glasses will give you about the ultra-elite is an indication of how much Silicon Valley’s tech zillionaires are splashing on their shades (SPOILER: it’s at least $150).
However, there is already technology to rival the most iconic of They Live’s props.
When the viewer finds out that billboards are duping our hero, the most striking realisation – after taking on board the huge plot twist – is an understanding of just how surrounded we are by adverts, billboards, images, and signage imploring us to buy... stuff.
If you slip on an augmented reality headset created by Brand Killer, you will experience the same revelation. The Brand Killer team trained their software to recognise any brand logos that stray into the wearer’s field of vision – and then blur them out.
Brand Killer is ad-blocker for real life, and it answers an utterly compelling question: what would your world be like if it was completely unsullied by brand logos and adverts? If you got access to Brand Killer’s tech, you could have your own John Nada moment: pop 'em on and find out for yourself.
However - and here, please do not adjust your aluminium foil hat - Brand Killer suggests how our tech overlords could grab a little more control over us.
Pretty soon, AR glasses will be everyday tech. So what if clever code like Brand Killer was used nefariously, and instead of spotting ads and blocking them, it replaced them with ads tailored specifically to us instead? You couldn't escape. And why would you want to?
In total: 3.5 sunglasses.
In summation: They do, indeed, Live! (Kind of.)
OK, maybe there aren’t aliens enslaving us (sorry, David Icke) but we certainly do seem to be our own worst enemies with regards to allowing our intentions to be "influenced" by those we follow online.
Maybe, then, the 2017 version of popping on John Nada’s glasses is to voluntarily switch on flight mode, and step away from the internet for a few days: only then can we truly OBEY ourselves.
In the meantime, enjoy the fight for acceptance of your real-reality, as allegorically thumped home in They Live's preposterous fight scene...