John Carpenter’s ‘They Live’: A Hard-Hitting Wake-Up Call
In ‘The Loop or the Vortex’, Kader Attia reminds us of a limitation Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace were confronted with as they developed their theory of natural selection.  The Neanderthal’s brain was oversized for its needs and although fully adapted to its environment, the species continued to develop. Yet, this so-called development has brought us to the Industrial Age during which human beings, rather than proving their superiority by adapting to their environment, have been accelerating its ruin. Unpredictability within the evolution is explained by Darwin as ‘chance’ while Wallace’s discovery of humanity’s self-destructive agency has led him towards a mystic path.
Shepard Fairey, They Live, 2011, Mixed Media (Stencil, Silkscreen, and Collage) on Paper, 73.7 x 58.42 cm (Image: https://obeygiant.com)
In his 1988 cult movie They Live, John Carpenter offers yet another explanation. Human beings are controlled by an alien species that brings them to self-destruction for their own benefit. To do so, they use capitalism’s nonpareil tool: consumerism. A drifter, John ‘Nada’, played by the professional wrestler Roddy ‘Rowdy’ Pipper, comes across sunglasses that reveal the subliminal messages embedded by aliens in advertisements to control humankind. The first message seen by Nada, ‘Obey’, has become a core theme for the street artist Shepard Fairey whose criticism of consumerism ironically mimics its propagandistic approach. With Frank, played by Keith David, the two join a rebellious group that wants to show the world the way ‘consumerism and advertising create a culture of alienation’.
An hour into the movie, an astounding scene: Nada asks his friend Frank to wear the glasses: ‘I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can’. Frank refuses, and a six-minute-long fight between the two protagonists ensues, seemingly pointless.
The Information Age is deemed to have shortened our attention span dramatically. If we believe it to be true, it makes exponentially daunting lengthy movie scenes that keep the viewer hypnotised. These scenes do indeed get all the attention they do or do not deserve. Blue Is the Warmest Colour directed by Abdellatif Kechiche, which received the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2013, has been at the centre of many controversies in the context of marriage for all in France. Its seven-minute-long lesbian sex scene was vehemently criticised even by those who had admittedly not watched the movie. Yet, the discovery by Adèle of her homosexuality is fully encompassed in this tender, sensuous and hot moment.
Ruben Östlund’s The Square has reached unforgettable status thanks to its twelve-minute-long museum gala dinner scene where an artist’s performance of an ape shifts from spectacle to uncomfortable reality, confronting the viewers at the dinner and in front of their screen with the unexpected in art.
The sheer violence of the fight in They Live is also a catalyst in the movie. To wear the sunglasses would reveal to Frank the true nature of our world and he spontaneously resists the idea. He has adopted consumerism, its ideology. The struggle we are witnessing is, according to Slavoj Žižek, the liberation from ideology because ‘freedom hurts’. John Carpenter masterfully takes us out of our torpor as we had just started being alienated by our preconceptions over his scenario. They live, we sleep until punched back into being.
Kader Attia, ‘The Loop or the Vortex’, in Kader Attia: Sacrifice and Harmony, Exhibition Catalogue, MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main (Bielefeld, 2016), pp. 225-228.
‘Shepard Fairey Discusses Origins of Obey Icon’, <https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=lGV5C_ZJKJ8>.
Hank Willis Thomas, ‘Curriculum: A List of Favorite Anythings’, in Aperture, No. 223, Vision & Justice (Summer 2016), pp. 20-21.
Slavoj Žižek, They Live, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, <https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=TVwKjGbz60k>.