Look again… Life isn’t always what it seems…
FACT volunteer Hannah Lea introduces John Carpenters 80's B-movie classic, They Live, which is showing as part of our Science Fiction season
6 June 2014
I first discovered John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live in a university seminar on capitalism and ideology (probably not the first place you think of watching clips from sci-fi films) but hey. I watched a clip of the film when theorist Slavoj Zizek explored a variety of films in his documentary, to understand how ideology is built into society. This was good for me as it made me look at sci-fi in a different way, where I could appreciate the complexities of each narrative and think about how science fiction influences our lives.
The story of They Live follows a man called ‘Nada’, down on his luck and out of work, when he finds a box full of sunglasses. These special sunglasses allow Nada to see the real messages behind products and adverts. Soon he discovers (with the aid of the sunglasses) that the people in control of these messages are in fact aliens using TV and advertising to keep humans docile and ignorant to reality. When the aliens realise that Nada can see them for what they really are, they are keen to stop him exposing their secret.
Sci-fi films usually portray the dangerous nature of knowledge, providing a grim outlook of the world, a kind of dystopia, if you will. As Slavoj Zizek puts it, the glasses can be seen as a critique of ideology, putting them on allows you to see the world for what it really is and more importantly challenge that. Nada definitely finds out that knowledge can be dangerous, as the police and aliens go on the hunt for him. But is it more dangerous for the characters in the film to not know? And remain oblivious to the aliens masquerading as humans?
So lets talk about one of the classic elements of sci-fi narrative, aliens. There are definitely believers of the existence of aliens and people who are unsure but think there might be ‘something out there’. So what’s probably more common is the understanding that if they do exist, they live somewhere in our galaxy and occasionally visit earth, making crop circles or other extra-terrestrial activity to try and communicate with humankind. But what if they lived among us? And were often in a higher, more important position is society than us? Would we embrace alien leadership, thinking that was working out for us? Or would there be some kind of ‘down with the aliens’ revolution?
One other thing that I can’t help but be intrigued by in They Live is the image of the billboard’s true message of ‘OBEY’. The artist and designer Shepard Fairley, created the Obey clothing line giving a clear nod to Carpenter’s film, using the same image of ‘OBEY’ on sweatshirts and t-shirts. But what does this say about our society? Is the world more science fiction than reality? Do we wear Nada’s sunglasses all the time? Or what if we put the sunglasses on and we saw ‘REVOLT’ on a passer-by’s shirt?
I think that Carpenter’s They Live is one of the more curious and definitely overlooked sci-fi films as it raises a lot of questions and gives a certainly interesting critique of our sci-fi world. It’s a brilliant example of how science fiction can connect with so many different themes and question life, as we know it. Balancing sci-fi with realism, uncomfortably long action scenes and tension is something that Carpenter does in a really influential way, making They Live a classic sci-fi film.
John Carpenter’s They Live will be showing on Monday 9 June as part of the Science Fiction: New Death Exhibition, which is running until 15 June
Tickets for They Live are available from the box office, by phone on 0151 902 5737 and online. For more information about Science Fiction: New Death and all the linked events, please visit the exhibition project page.