History Repeats Itself: On Pod People
Writer Jessica Ferri ponders one of the most terrifyingly close-to-home sub-genres: Pod People. Read on…
Fake news. Authoritarian government. Police state. Subliminal messages. Us versus Them. Big Brother is Watching. You think you know your neighbor… your colleague… even your family… but they’re one of them. Sound familiar? This terrifying laundry list could sum up the 2016 Presidential Election fairly well, but I’m actually describing the plot of John Carpenter’s sci-fi/horror masterpiece They Live.
They Live takes a note from “pod people” classics like The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, in which an alien race replaces people’s loved ones with emotionless, inhuman copies. Your Film History 101 teacher would say that Invasion of the Body Snatchers is an allegory for McCarthyism and the loss of personal autonomy in a Communist society. Given the year it was made—1953—this makes sense. The remake, starring Donald Sutherland, is largely considered one of the finest horror remakes ever made, but while Invasion of the Body Snatchers is drenched in the paranoid frenzy of McCarthyism, They Live offers a very different kind of Big Brother.
Carpenter’s They Live was released in 1988, at the tail end of Ronald Reagan’s second term. The movie tells of a society controlled by a series of subliminal messages supplied by a ruling (and unseen) alien force. A drifter named John Nada—played appropriately by pro-Wrestler and champion of the common man Roddy “Rowdy” Piper—stumbles upon a box of magic sunglasses that allows him to see “they” for who they really are—skeletal looking alien ghouls. It’s telling that the first “they” we see is a white business man, dressed in a fancy suit, who asks, rather aggressively, “what are you looking at?”
The aliens control the human populace through the television. They send a signal of complacency through capitalism. Carpenter himself said of the movie’s inspiration, “I began watching TV again. I quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something… It’s all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money.”
Nada and his cohort Frank are two men, down on their luck, who played by the rules but lost their jobs as a result of these economic policies. Though the movie could certainly go further in terms of its cultural commentary, it does a fantastic job of anticipating the television as the primary source not only of entertainment but of news. “They Live is definitely one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood Left… The sunglasses function like a critique of ideology,” the philosopher Slavoj Zizek wrote. “They allow you to see the real message beneath all the propaganda, glitz, posters and so on… When you put the sunglasses on you see the dictatorship in democracy, the invisible order which sustains your apparent freedom.”
This kind of capitalistic us vs. them ideology has been a frequent talking point in this election cycle. The slogan of “make America great again”—what does it even mean? A return to traditional values. What are “traditional” values, exactly? A return to the ’50s Cold-War era, a time of paranoia and oppression. This reanimation or return of the past is the entire premise behind a zombie movie—films like Night of the Living Dead and the rest of Romero’s series. The dead (what was past) has literally come back to destroy us, bringing on a post-apocalyptic world in which humankind (the new, the progressive) must try and survive. One only has to look at the popularity of a series like “The Walking Dead” to see its all-too-real similarities in reality.
So what do you get when you marry the pod-people of They Live and Invasion of the Body Snatchers and the walking dead, a total denial of the past’s lessons? The idea that what once was must be revived—by one man only—who can lead the people back to greatness? President Obama said in his speech following Election Day that the path that the country has taken has been a zig zag. What happens when the path is a straight line? Fascism.
In 1978’s The Boys from Brazil, a Nazi hunter stumbles upon a group of young boys who all look eerily the same. Their parents are the same age, and all were adopted. In this film we see the idea of pods through clones that aren’t exactly human. But what are they? Well, as it turns out, they are the spawn of evil itself: the clones of Adolf Hitler. As Dr. Mengele, Hitler’s “angel of death” (played by Gregory Peck) explains, the boys are “a Hitler tailor-made for the ’80s… the ’90s… the 2000s!” The allegory of this film, which was undoubtedly inspired by the very real hunt for former Nazis in the thirty years after the war, is that the ideology of Hitler, of white supremacy, lives on. While in Boys from Brazil the Nazi hunter could track down all the clones and destroy each one, he’ll never be able to destroy the ideology, which survives in those who would like to resurrect the past.
In the days following November 8, I didn’t feel much like writing. I told my editor that I honestly couldn’t bring myself to watch the films I needed to write this column because I felt like I was living in a horror movie myself. Then I remembered something Wes Craven said that has stuck with me over the years, and I think it’s relevant to the situation we find ourselves in today. He said, “Horror films don’t create fear. They release it.”
Though it might feel counter-intuitive to watch these films in an uncertain and anxious time, the opposite is actually true: Now is the time to watch or revisit these thought-provoking movies which ask the tough questions about the kind of America we want to live in. The cinematic answer to the Boys From Brazil are historical revision movies like The Dead Zone or Inglorious Basterds—movies that force you to ask yourself, what would you have done, had you been there?
But this time we don’t need those films to ask ourselves that question. Because we are here. History has run up in a straight line again. And we are living it. So the question becomes not what would you have done, but what will you do?