WKU POP 201

Introduction to Popular Culture Studies

A Fun Action Film, a Flawed Social Commentary

Posted by Sean Hull on February 2, 2017

They Live. Though I already had some knowledge of the film’s plot, it amounted to little more than “Rich people are aliens exploiting humanity with mind control.” Having now seen the film, I can unequivocally say that, yes, it’s about rich people who are aliens, exploiting humanity with mind control.

Before I begin my rant in earnest, let me premise it by saying that I do get the broad strokes of the message this film is trying to get across: that the media industry circa 1990 is an impenetrable entity dedicated to a sociopathic quest for profit, and is vital to the continuation of consumerist ideals and the ethically questionable social mores that follow. The film also briefly touches on the individual sociopathy encouraged by a culture obsessed with profit, and the lack of concern for human suffering required to fully embrace such motivations. These social commentaries are all dandy when considered generally, but in execution I find the film’s message to be confused about its opinion on the differences between rich and poor, and the agency allotted to the latter.

My first issue is that of the mysterious broadcast which the aliens use to keep humans “asleep” to reality. This notion of “sleeping” humanity is fought by the protagonists, who desire to send a “wakeup call” to the world, culminating in the destruction of the source of the broadcast, freeing humanity from alien influence. Did the filmmakers think it clever to end their film with a revolutionary “wakeup call?” To end the film with a “wakeup call” implies the pretension on the part of the filmmakers that They Live is some sort of revolutionary “wakeup call” itself. Looking at media today, the idea of the “revolutionary wakeup call” seems absurd. How many times have we learned of atrocities committed by large corporations, or seen the sociopathic behavior of the companies that produce our goods? We may rally against specific wrongs, but never has humanity unanimously united against anything that I can recall. Wakeup calls are not revolutionary. They are sadly mundane, and few of us heed them permanently.

The dichotomy between human and alien is another confusing piece of attempted social commentary. Throughout the film, we see the aliens portrayed as sadistic, inhuman, and therefore acceptable targets for eradication, and yet despite depicting these aliens as utterly detached from humanity due to their businesslike motivations, we also see a cast of human collaborators with similar inclinations, as well as the implication that most humans, when offered the chance for economic betterment, will take advantage of it no matter how morally dubious. To simultaneously compare the rich to an alien species, while at the same time recognizing human potential for ruthless profit-seeking behavior is contradictory. Projecting into the future of the film’s world, I imagine that once all the aliens have been killed off, humans will simply take their places, with no moral improvements whatsoever. Ultimately, the differences between human and alien seem so inconsequential that to create the latter group in the first place seems unnecessary, and perhaps even harmful for social commentary.

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