"They Live" lives! Not all political films are set within the corridors of power or feature politicians as the focus of the story. It is worth remembering that the political decision that takes place at the highest level, inside the most expensive building, immediately after an expensive seven-course state dinner trickles down to affect even that homeless guy on the corner holding up a sign that he is a veteran.
The most visionary and subversive political movie in American cinematic history took place mainly in the areas of Los Angeles, where politicians spend as little time as possible if they have to spend any time there at all.
"They Live" was made on a budget of just $4 million back in 1988. Director John Carpenter was famous for essentially creating the slasher film genre with his "Halloween" and a few subsequent movies, but the film featured no acting stars. In fact, the main character, who has no name, is played by a man famous to a relatively small number of people due to his status as a professional wrestler, Rowdy Roddy Piper.
The decision to forego recognizable names is integral to the political message of the movie as a whole. The revolution will be televised, but those in charge will not be the familiar faces whose job it is to lull society into a contented mass easily distracted so they will not recognize the inequality and oppression keeping them down.
Piper plays a union man recently out of a job thanks to the economic policies of President Ronald Reagan. He is surrounded by the other disenfranchised members of American society not fortunate enough to be a part of the elite who thrived under Reaganomics. In the homeless shelter in which these people live can be found a blind minister preaching the word to the underprivileged that they need to wake up and recognize the masters and owners who control everything around them.
The political component of "They Live" is based on the Althusserian concept of ideological state apparatuses as the means of reproducing an imaginary representation of their real conditions of existence by reinforcing the dominant political ideology rather than explicit coercion through force. A system of beliefs that benefits those in charge is instilled not through gulags, death camps, and reeducation centers, but through a constant stream of images replicated by all authoritarian institutions.
Piper's character achieves that classic moment of awakening to political consciousness by having his eyes opened courtesy of the accidental procurement of a special set of sunglasses that reveal the way things really are: money that says "This Is Your God," billboards emblazoned with "Obey" and "Do Not Question Authority."
What's more, the glasses reveal that what appear to be humans are actually aliens from another world. These aliens are the ones in charge and they are manipulating and exploiting humanity for their own purposes with the assistance of human collaborators in charge of the media, the financial industry, the police, and the government.
The masses not fortunate enough to come across these sunglasses -- which in the real world means those not fortunate enough to see through the ideological veil draped over everything from the school system to restaurants -- remain ignorant and even stubbornly committed to reproducing the very system that is oppressing them. This control is accomplished through a television signal that transmits from a satellite around the world a method for conditioning humans into passive acceptance of the lies that are openly situated around them if only they had the power to see through to them.
Pretty heavy stuff for a science fiction flick starring a wrestler. "They Live" is not just an example of how political films can exist outside the corridors of power, but how it has usually been up to the low-budget genre movies banished from serious contemplation to introduce subversive political subjects to mass audiences.
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