For conservatives, every expansion of government power pushes the country closer to Big Brother’s surveillance state in “1984,” while for liberals even the slightest restriction on abortion means that the theocracy depicted in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is poised to take power. Truly, comparing America’s current political climate to some dystopian work of fiction has been a favorite among commentators.
But few pundits draw attention to John Carpenter’s 1988 cult classic “They Live” — perhaps because the message of the film hits a little too close to home.
In the movie, a drifter finds a unique pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the real world. Disgusting, skeleton-looking aliens have disguised themselves as humans and taken control of the media, the financial system and politics. Without the sunglasses, billboards, magazines, books, TV shows and other media seem normal, but the glasses reveal that those flashy ads actually display messages like “OBEY,” “CONSUME” and “NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT” to keep the human population docile and unaware of of the aliens’ control.
Carpenter, an avowed leftist, intended for the movie to act as a critique of Reagan-era corporate greed and consumer culture. Though it’s an adequate commentary on the excesses of the ’80s, “They Live” is actually a more accurate prediction of the socio-cultural climate we’re seeing in the 2020s.
The subliminal messages used by the aliens in the film, created to influence certain behaviors in the population — most notably compliance and consumption, aren’t so different from the carefully-designed algorithms on social media sites that promote certain types of content to get a particular result from its audience.
True, emotionally manipulative media is as old as media itself, but it’s never been this pervasive. Americans are constantly bombarded with media that is designed to divide Americans as much as possible.
The recent revelations about Facebook are a clear illustration of this phenomenon. A whistleblower at the company – her motivations for coming forward are another story – revealed that Facebook deliberately promoted more divisive content in order to get more engagement from users. The angrier the content, the more engagement it got, and the more money it made Facebook.
Disgust and rage rule the day in America’s political discourse. Media companies, social media sites, political parties, advocacy groups and other assorted grifters have molded their business models around making Americans hate each other. And they’ve gotten obscenely rich in doing so.
Pundits and politicians carefully craft buzzwords and talking points to elicit an emotional response from the audience — admiration for the speaker and hate for the target.
The leadership of both parties have dismal approval ratings, but they continue to hang onto power because they are masters at turning Americans against each other. They’ll blame their neighbors for the nation’s ills long before they hold their elected leaders accountable, the U.S. House had a 91% incumbency rate in 2018, or boycott a corporation for its complicity in human rights abuses.
Like the aliens in the movie fear those who can “see” their true forms, those in the media, politics and business fear that the American people might wake up and think about who is really responsible for the country’s problems and kick them out of power. So, they promote rage-bait headlines that keep regular Americans angry at “the libs” or “the cons” rather than those in power.
Corporations take a slightly different approach. They are more than willing to indulge leftists in their obsession with the newest social justice fad as long as it diverts attention away from serious issues the company may have, such as how they treat their workers or their tacit support for Chinese concentration camps.
“They Live” is an enjoyable film beyond the social commentary. After all, it has awesome lines like “I’m here to kick ass and chew bubble gum … and I’m all out of bubble gum.” It also provides a clear, if exaggerated, glimpse at how the mass media shapes our perceptions and affects our behavior. It’s streaming for free on Peacock at the moment, so if you want to watch a smart horror movie that is socially relevant, but not too preachy about it, this is a pretty good pick.
Hayden Daniel is the opinion editor of the Daily Caller.