Wednesday, November 7, 2007

I'm all outta bubblegum

If you haven't seen it, run, don't walk, to see John Carpenter's "They Live" (1988). I first saw this movie about ten years ago, but it's so much better than I remembered. I had no idea it was so chock full of political messages.

The movie purports to be a low-budget sci-fi thriller, but it's actually one of the most nakedly and delightfully Marxist movies I've ever seen. The movie's hero, Nada, played by former wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper, is an itinerant laborer who lives with other poor workers in a shantytown in downtown LA. He believes in America. He believes if he works hard and plays by the rules, he will be rewarded.

His worldview changes abruptly when he stumbles across a pair of magic sunglasses that allow him to see life as it truly is: Aliens are living among us. They are the wealthy elite. We perceive them as human because they are brainwashing us through our televisions. But they are, in fact, interplanetary capitalists bent on enslaving us and keeping us blind to their rule. They communicate with each other through their Rolex watches. They transmit subliminal messages to us ("Obey," "Marry and reproduce," etc.) through billboards and magazines. A televised speech delivered by an alien politician is taken almost directly from Ronald Reagan quotes.

But the best part is the role that false consciousness plays. The aliens are relatively few in number, but there are lots of poor people who do not want to hear that our society is a false one, and they eagerly buy into the artifice. What's more, they'll fight to defend it. A lengthy fight scene between Nada and his friend Frank (Keith David) seemed gratuitous upon first viewing, but then it made sense. It showed how tenaciously people will resist class consciousness and hold onto the lie.

Another scene that once seemed silly but no longer does was the final one, in which our hero literally stops the rich from screwing the poor.

A lot of these themes are explored in "The Matrix," but somehow "They Live" may even be more effective because it doesn't take itself quite so seriously. And the one-liners are awesome.

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