Watching They Live, I couldn't help but be reminded of William Gibson's recent remark on his blog about arriving in the "capital F-future" and discovering, invariably, nothing but the "lower-case now." They Live, of course, tantalisingly offers the reverse prospect: To discover all of a sudden that your humdrum quotidian lower-case now, is, and has been for some time, that big capital F-future from the sci-fi films. The film starts off in what appears to be ordinary everyday contemporary (for the late 80's) Los Angeles (actually, it looks much the same now), but when Nada (played by WWF wrestler Roddy Piper!) puts on his sunglasses, all of a sudden it's a Metropolis of towering skyscrapers, Orwellian slogans and little flying saucers buzzing about - and in black and white, no less.
What makes They Live so appealing, of course, is that the dystopian 'truth' revealed by the glasses resembles so closely what we in fact already know of our own present. The world's wealth really is controlled by an elite of "free-enterprisers" (as the aliens are referred to at one point) for whom "there are no countries anymore". This elite really are strip-mining the earth of its resource and really are backed up by the force of the police and the military. Many television programmes and magazines really do tell us nothing but to consume and go back to sleep. And the levels of methane and carbon dioxide in our air really are rising as if to prepare the atmosphere for some colonising alien species.
There is another way to read They Live, following the time-honoured and Zizek-approved method of reading science fiction by reconstructing the plot without any of its fantastic elements. In this version, the country is in the midst of a depression, heavy industry is collapsing and the workers are left broke, living in jerry-rigged shanty towns. A poor working class man, under the stress of his uncertain future, suffers a (possibly drug-induced) psychotic episode on Main Street and starts randomly shooting at strangers, after which he is taken in and manipulated by a paranoid militia intent on taking down the government. At one point, the ostensible leader of the group says that the ordinary police think they are communists, but in fact the group resembles more the kind of right wing conspiracy theorists, raving about Big Media and Big Government, that make up a large part of the right wing Tea Party movement in America. Some support for this reading is lent by Nada's line about the glasses being "like a drug", as well as the obvious fictionality of using black and white for the 'real' sequences.
I suspect, however, that Carpenter's sympathies lie with the conspirators and our first reading. The clue is in the music. There is very little diegetic music in They Live, but there is a short scene in the shanty town where we see one of its inhabitants kicking back and playing the harmonica. The plangeant tones, lilting rhythms, and pentatonic scales of this diegetic harmonica playing, clearly associated here with the poor inhabitants of the slums, are then taken up by the non-diegetic score, transferred to synthesizers and electronic drums. Following Richard Dyer's telling comparison of music in the films of Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini, in which he contrasts the gulf between diegetic popular music and classical non-diegetic score in Rossellini to the close thematic connections between the two in Fellini's films, implying almost a certain aloof contempt on the part of Rossellini for the working class culture he is supposed to be celebrating; we might argue that this harmony between the musical 'voice' of the poor and the authorial voice of the score provides the key to Carpenter's intentions.
Might we venture still a third possible interpretation though - reading, perhaps, against Carpenter's intentions. And suggest that, far from the obvious leftist reading in which the glasses represent the power of Marxist science to cut through the false consciousness peddled by the media, it is the glasses themselves which represent ideology - rather like the old joke about the man smuggling bicycles. The very idea of a simple gizmo which will immediately enlighten you to the (capital T-) truth hidden behind appearances is the true ideological trick. We do not need magic glasses, presumably purchased with tokens from a comic, in order to see the aliens controlling our society. What we know already, and what Nada's friend, Frank know from the beginning of the film. "Steel mills were laying people off left, right and centre. They finally went under... Do you know what the bosses gave themselves? A raise." The effects of capitalist exploitation are everywhere to be seen - even, as the old Cinemascope posters used to say, without glasses.