“They Live” is a science fiction film the main character of which is an out of work vagabond. He stumbles into a group of working-class people who live in a big camp–they don’t have homes. The viewer gets the impression of a tremendous social inequity–people who work long hours for little pay, and a wealthy elite enjoying themselves at the expense of the workers. Our main character struggles along, but is observant enough to pick up on some odd occurrences in his environment. There are two people who are trying to spread a bizarre message. One is a priest who has this paranoid message of a group of individuals trying to control the minds of people to subjugate and take advantage of them. Another individual advancing a similar message is this nerdy guy who interrupts regular programming on the television and starts warning people of mental enslavement. There is a dominant class who is trying to put the mind of people to sleep. All this is vague and confusing, so our vagabond hero becomes more inquisitive. There is a church near the camp, and one day he enters to see what is going on within. The church is the target of a police raid, and in the aftermath of the raid, our hero pries open one of the wallboards of the church and pulls out a sealed cardboard box.
Once away from the church, our hero opens the box only to find, oddly, a ton of sunglasses piled inside of it. He takes a pair out and puts it on. Immediately, he starts seeing the reality underlying the appearances that deceived him before he put on the sunglasses. Without the sunglasses, there is a simple billboard with some mundane advertisement. With the glasses, the hero can see the word, OBEY. Also, some people walking by have hideous faces when he wears the sunglasses. One example is in the picture above. These faces are truly hideous, and I think the cinematographers for this film did a great job. Anyway, the vagabond starts to panic, and eventually he verbally attacks one of the weird-looking beings, calling her hideous. When he does so, all of the other beings with hideous faces communicate with one another through their watches. They warn others that they have found someone who can see.
The central motif of this film, then, is that aliens are controlling the population of the earth so that they can exploit the earth’s resources. The people with hideous faces are aliens. The aliens gain the cooperation of certain humans by promising them wealth. There is a mental blinder placed over all the humans through a television signal. People are lulled into thinking that there are no aliens, since they appear human without special sunglasses, when in fact the aliens are multiplying in their midst.
Any more plot information would amount to a spoiler. So, I will close with a word on the larger significance of this film. I don’t think we are being overrun by aliens, but I do think there is a group of powerful people trying to keep the larger population at bay so that they can accumulate money. They use the media to try to redirect the minds of people. An example of this might be the conversation surrounding the taking in of refugees. In the media, we hear this issue framed as a humanitarian one–i.e. we should take in refugees because it’s the humane thing to do. But, if you think more deeply, it becomes possible to see how the presence of refugees could help powerful business interests by providing cheap labor and also votes for politicians who are in league with big business. The refugees like the politicians that let them move to the new country freely, and so they vote for these politicians. In the meantime, big business rewards the politicians for providing them with a source of cheap labor.