In an attempt to popularize post-philosophical theory for a mainstream audience, John Carpenter’s action movie They Live functions as a critique of American society and ideology. Main character and everyman Nada discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see through the superficiality of the world and into the truth; humanity is controlled by an alien race enforcing conformity through consumerism. However, due to the constraints of the action genre, They Live ultimately fails in developing an ideological critique of capitalism based in a Marxist tradition that is easily ascertainable for the average action moviegoer. This failure is most apparent in the various attempts at symbolism throughout the movie, as seen in the fight scene between Nada and his bromantic partner Frank, the “human power elite” scene, and the sex scene.
In one scene, after Nada discovers the sunglasses that allow him to see through the propagandistic consumerist veil of humanity’s alien overlords and subsequently embarks on a murderous rampage against said alien overlords, he attempts to show Frank the world through the sunglasses. Frank, who is understandably perturbed by Nada’s actions, refuses to put on Nada’s sunglasses and the two engage in a remarkably long and indulgent fist fight. This fight scene has two purposes; to satisfy the action genre requirement of an epic fight scene, and to symbolize a Marxian understanding of the proletariat. Both Nada and Frank begin the movie as homeless construction workers, and serve as the archetypes for Marx’s definition of the proletariat. Frank and Nada are ultimately in opposition with the alien race controlling the world through consumerism, which comes to symbolize Marx’s definition of the bourgeois. The literal fight between Frank and Nada is meant to symbolize the internal struggle within the proletariat that diverts their energy and resources and thus delays their inevitable revolution. The ridiculous length of Frank and Nada’s fight is meant to reflect the ridiculousness of the proletariat’s internal struggle, but the length also serves to hobble the fight’s symbolism. The audience of They Live, who watch the movie with the same set of assumptions as they would with any other action movie, ultimately interpret the fight as quasi comedy rather than as symbolic of a Marxian concept. The inherent humor of watching two men in an almost slapstick fight over a pair of sunglasses overpowers the fight’s symbolism for the average audience member. Carpenter’s failure to adequately convey the fight scene’s symbolism to his audience reflects the inadequacy of the action movie genre.
In another scene of They Live, after Frank and Nada have fully committed themselves to toppling their alien overlords, both manage to infiltrate the alien underground base and discover a meeting of a group of humans who call themselves the “human power elite.” In the meeting, the humans discuss how their profits have risen dramatically as a result of colluding with the aliens. This meeting is meant to symbolize another facet of Marxism; some members of the proletariat are willing to conspire with the bourgeois, resulting in the willing exasperation of their own conditions of oppression and suffering. The concept of conspiration is most apparent in the character of a homeless drifter who is present at the meeting, now well-dressed and well-off. When Frank and Nada hold the drifter at gunpoint, he implores them to give up on their losing battle and join the alien ranks, to which the duo refuses and continues on their mission to dismantle alien control. Once again, the symbolic significance of the scene is overpowered by the demands of the action genre. Before the audience is able to process the symbolism of the scene, their attention is almost immediately diverted by Frank and Nada heroically shooting and blasting their way through the alien base. Because the action genre demands that action cannot stop once it begins, the static and dialogue-reliant “human power elite” scene does not last long enough for the audience to properly interpret its symbolism. Carpenter’s attempt at discussing the Marxian concept of willing proletariat collusion with the bourgeois ultimately fails because the action genre prevents him from spending enough time to fully elaborate upon his use of symbolism.
In the final scene of the movie, a woman is having sex with a man who is revealed to be an alien after Nada succeeds in destroying the alien technology that masked their presence from humanity. The scene is meant to metaphorize the entire movie and symbolize the most basic premise of Marxism. The human woman is literally being screwed by the alien man, just as humanity has been figuratively screwed by their alien overlords, just as the proletariat is being figuratively screwed by the bourgeois. However, the conventions of the action genre once again come into direct conflict with Carpenter’s attempt at popularizing post-philosophical ideology, as the beautiful blonde with tits bare stares in horror at her alien lover who weakly replies with, “What’s wrong, baby?” The gratuitous sex scene demanded by the action genre, coupled with the humor of the final line completely overshadows the scene’s attempt at metaphorizing both the plot and ideological critique of the movie. Carpenter does manage to create meaningful symbolism and create a coherent argument against ideology in They Live, but the restrains of the action genre causes Carpenter to fail in conveying his argument to his audience.