Face-Off: They Live vs. Society

I'm not sure if you've noticed, but the presidential election was recently held in the United States. It was a long, tumultuous, exhausting build up to election day, and many couldn't wait for it all to be over with. A week later, we are still within that tumultuous time, so this seems like the appropriate week to take a look at John Carpenter's 1988 film THEY LIVE and Brian Yuzna's SOCIETY from 1989. Why put these two up against each other? Because while they take different approaches to the subject matter, they both happen to be films about characters discovering disturbing secrets about the country's wealthy ruling class. Is one approach better than the other? Let's find out.
This isn't fair. John Carpenter cast Roddy Piper as his lead character, making him nearly impossible to beat. Piper plays drifter John Nada, who comes to Los Angeles looking for work and instead ends up blowing the lid off an alien conspiracy. He's a tough guy who always has a one-liner at the ready and will do what he can to help others and stand up to oppression. He is stunningly proactive in that regard; within minutes of realizing something bad is going on, he's toting a shotgun and striking back. By the way, if Nada tells you to do something you damn well better do it, because he is very insistent.
Bill Whitney is the athletic son of a wealthy Beverly Hills family, and he enjoys all the perks that come with that - a nice house, money, high school popularity, cheerleader girlfriend, etc. But he also has a deep, irrational fear that those around him are out to do him harm. His own family included. He doesn't feel like he fits in, and will come to find out that he doesn't. Played by Billy Warlock, Bill is a serviceable but bland hero. There's really nothing all that special about him, we simply care for him because he's the lead character and has stumbled into a very bad, strange situation.
Nada is struggling. He's homeless, he's trying to find good work. Still, he believes in the promise of America and is sure that good things will happen if he plays by the rules. He starts to realize there's something sinister within the system when he sees hacked TV signals that are being sent from a nearby church - a man speaks to the camera, warning that there is a ruling class that are keeping the regular people down. Within that church, Nada finds a box full of sunglasses, and when he puts on a pair they give him the ability to see the subliminal messages that the oppressive rulers have hidden on every sign, and to see members of this ruling class for what they truly are. From that point on, it is his goal to stop them.
Bill has a head start on this awakening stuff, because he's already afraid of almost everyone around him and having nightmares about his family when the film begins. Then he starts seeing some very odd sights - a rippling in someone's skin, people appearing to twist their bodies in impossible ways or having breasts on their back and backwards heads... When he's given an audio tape that seems to be a recording of his parents and sister participating in an orgy, Bill becomes even more determined to figure out what's going on here. With the elite working against him, Bill gathers information very slowly and is only able to find out the complete truth in the film's climactic sequence.
The rulers are humanoid alien invaders that Nada describes as having a "formaldehyde face". If you wear the sunglasses, you can see that they don't look like people, they have strange skull faces. These aliens are everywhere - they are in leadership positions, they are the authorities, they are the rich and famous, they are television newscasters. One-on-one, they're no more dangerous than the average human, but there are a lot of them out there, and they are in powerful positions. They're also getting help from humans who are willing to sell out their own planet and species just to expand their bank accounts.
In public, the elite behave very much like regular people. Unless you see their bodies do something weird, you can't really identify them by sight. Although they are referred to as aliens, they deny that they are from anywhere other than Earth. They're simply another race that have bred and inbred to be the ruling class, and it seems that if someone is an especially rich and/or popular member of high society, there is a good chance that they are also a member of this race that thrives on power and doesn't follow the human moral code. They are doctors, they are judges, they are politicians, they are the 1%.
With a signal being sent through TV sets, the alien overlords are keeping the public in a level of consciousness that resembles sleep, controlling people's minds. They want to destroy the middle class, make people poor, take away human rights, fuel racial inequality. Their goal is to keep people oblivious and fighting amongst each other while draining the Earth of its natural resources and destroying the environment. Once our planet is no longer of any use, they will move on to do the same to another planet.
The members of high society really only let their freak flags fly when they're behind closed doors. Sure, they might exhibit some odd behavior here and there, might make an ominous comment to someone of a lower class, and some of them are even arrogant, condescending douchebags. But when the elite gather for a private party, things get weird and gross. They melt down into a mass of skin and slime, their bodies melding together, and they literally devour their lower class victims by making them just as pliable.
There is a ragtag group of resistance fighters who have seen through the signal, and the aliens have told the public that they're a dangerous bunch of Communists. They're not that much help in the grand scheme of things because they're no match for the might of the aliens. Nada is able to recruit a fellow construction worker to join him in his fight, although he has a hell of a time doing that. If the aliens are going to be stopped, it really all comes down to Nada.
Bill is tipped off to his family's dark secrets by Blanchard, his sister's ex-boyfriend who is persona non grata now that she's officially entering society. A listening device planted by Blanchard helps Bill along his horrific path, and when it comes time for him to attend a party being thrown in his honor he's backed up by his prankster pal Milo and Clarissa, a female member of high society who has fallen for him. Win or lose, they're not a great threat to the ruling class.
The movie that would almost certainly win the popular vote has also won this competition, no Electoral College needed. While SOCIETY is a great take on the concept of the rich feeding off the poor, THEY LIVE goes much deeper into the idea of a ruling class keeping the lower classes down and keeping them distracted from how they're being manipulated. I'm not entirely enamored with the way THEY LIVE plays out, but it has such good ideas that I have to give it the win. Plus it has Roddy Piper.

What do you think of these two movies? Are you glad THEY LIVE won, or would you have voted for SOCIETY? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. Suggestions for future Face-Off pairings can be sent to me at [email protected].



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