Political Cinema: ‘They Live’ Predicts Obama Presidency

We’re counting down the hours now to Tuesday’s election. As it stands (or at least, as CNN is reporting), Barack Obama has a huge advantage over Republican John McCain. At this point, McCain could win Florida and Ohio and still fall far short of the electoral votes needed to secure the Presidency. You can check my math by visiting the New York Timesinteractive electoral college map.


You could forget about the math and the swing states, because the outcome of this election was predicted in 1988 by John Carpenter’s film They Live.

The movie is a cult classic today–regarded as one of Carpenter’s best films, parodied on South Park, and ensuring that “Rowdy” Roddy Piper would forever be immortalized on the pages of the Internet Movie Database long after his wrestling career was a distant memory. Unlike many cult movies, however, They Live does not exist as a memoir to its time. Instead, it portrays an America that eerily resembles 2008.

Piper plays Nada, a man who ekes out a living bouncing between construction sites. He overtly states that he believes in the American way, and that he plays by the rules. He is confident success will find him if he just keeps working hard.

He meets up with Frank (Keith David). Frank has moved to a new city to find work, leaving his wife and family behind. “The steel mills were laying people off left and right,” he explains to Nada, “They finally went under. We gave the steel companies a break when they needed it. You know what they gave themselves? Raises.”

The film is abundantly populated with drifters like Nada and Frank–people willing to work, but either unable to find a job, or unable to live off the wages when they do.

One night Frank and Nada are watching television and a man breaks into the broadcast. He’s referred to as a “hacker,” and he is trying to get a message to the American people. He says “we are sleeping while they live.” He talks about the police state that has our country under its jack boot. And he bemoans the economic inequities that have befallen our nation.

“They are dismantling the sleeping middle class,” he says, “More and more people are becoming poor.”

The television viewers dismiss him as a crank, an unwelcome interruption to their regularly scheduled programming. Nada is inclined to agree.

But before long, Nada acquires a pair of special sunglasses. They reveal a world hidden beneath the visible reality. Billboards advertising exotic vacation destinations are exposed as subterfuge for Orwellian slogans: Obey. Conform. Consume. Marry and Reproduce. No Independent Thought. Paper currency bears the slogan, “This is Your God.” But most terrifying of all, members of the upper class, with their coiffed hairstyles and $1,000.00 suits, are revealed to be horrible, bug-eyed aliens. These aliens have infiltrated law enforcement and the highest tiers of government.

The rest of the film follows Nada as he attempts to evade the evil aliens that have taken over the world, and convince anyone who will listen that something is very, very wrong. The latter is no easy task. When Nada tries to get Frank to put on the glasses, Frank is so adamantly opposed to the idea a fist fight ensues. A very long fist fight. A long, punishing, bone-cracking, pile-driving, body-slamming fist fight. (It’s the most famous scene in the movie, and it’s a wonderful piece of camp.)

John Carpenter's They Live

Rewatching They Live over the weekend, it struck me that John Carpenter wasn’t commenting on the America that existed in 1988. At that time, our country was still in the heady days following the economic boom of the Reagan Administration, making the movie an anachronism. Somehow, John Carpenter envisioned an America almost indistinguishable from the one left behind by the Bush Administration. Just like Nada, we are experiencing a time where the rich get richer while the middle class shrinks, and working class Americans are increasingly unable to afford even the barest of necessities.

The entire film is steeped in metaphor, but the aforementioned alley fight scene transcends metaphor and becomes a sort of self-contained social satire. It illustrates how difficult it is to make everyday U.S. citizens see that the American Dream has been subverted by a long stream of self-serving politicians, and the attitude that what’s good for big business is good for America. As the events of the past two months have illustrated vividly, this is not the case. Big business, left unchecked, will seek only to become bigger and more monolithic, stamping out competition, and reducing economic opportunity for the middle class (formerly known as “the backbone of America”).

Meanwhile, the oversized financial entities created by unchecked capitalism receive billions in tax savings, while the middle class, now bearing the largest portion of the country’s tax burden proportionately, gets insulting stipends by way of “economic stimulus payments.” The tragic irony comes when the monolithic entities fail and it falls to the middle class to bail them out with their tax dollars.

Still, many working and middle class Americans believe fervently that Republicans have their best economic interests at heart, even though most of them have seen their quality of life decline over the last eight years. Furthermore, a great number of them believe that all politicians are corrupt, and there’s not much anyone can do about it. And that’s a reality that They Live reflects so well as art. After his awakening to the truth, Nada hardly even seems surprised. Watching a skull-faced politician on the television, he says, “Ha! I figured it’d be something like this!”

Nada proceeds to fight against the aliens. But the hardest-won battle he has to overcome is with Frank, who is not an alien, and just as oppressed as anyone else. Frank watches T.V., reads his magazines, and spends his money oblivious to the reality revealed by the sunglasses because he has been made docile. Facing the truth requires action, because the truth reveals a situation that is utterly untenable. Frank does not want to face this. He is so determined to remain docile, he’ll body slam a mother fucker to stay that way.

But putting the metaphors, and my personal political views aside, They Live could be reshot today without changing a word in the original script and it would probably connect far better with audiences than it did twenty years ago. That bodes ill for John McCain. And he can keep repeating his “redistribution of wealth” buzzwords all he wants. He cannot deny that the past eight years have wreaked havoc on the middle class, redistributing their opportunities to create their own wealth. I don’t think John McCain is the guy to correct that. And I don’t think mine is the minority view.

I could be wrong. Despite my wordy punditry, my purpose here is merely to suggest that everyone forget about watching the election eve news coverage. Tuesday, after you vote, go out and rent They Live. If you’re an Obama supporter, you’ll have a great time. If you’re a McCain supporter…

Well, it’s still a great movie.

“Brother, life’s a bitch. And she’s back in heat.”

Barack Obama