One thing to remember about They Live is that, in many ways, the 1980s were a nightmare. It was the era of Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority, when government officials were the unapologetic lapdogs of large corporations, a time of late Cold War paranoia when greed and empty image were king, when civil rights and free speech were under daily threat and mainstream America seemed to swallow it all without question. On the bright side though, as is often the case in an era of control and conformity, this all led to a gut reaction among artists, resulting in the hardcore punk scene and a number of radical, angry films like Brazil.
While some Smart Charlies may have entertained themselves by digging political messages out of the likes of Halloween, Escape From New York, maybe even The Fog, it wasn’t until the end of the Reagan Years that John Carpenter made his first overtly political film. In a way, 1988’s They Live is a reverse mirror image of its own story. On the surface it’s a fast-paced, action-packed, crowd-pleasing sci-fi adventure about an alien invasion, but that’s merely window dressing for a satirical frontal assault on what America had become in the ‘80s. It’s also a film that takes the Cold War paranoia of his 1982 remake of The Thing and turns it on its head.
Interestingly, Carpenter found his primary inspiration for a film about the 1980s in the 1960s. Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story “8 O’Clock in the Morning” concerns a man who takes a hypnotist’s command to “awaken” to extremes and suddenly finds he can see the alien invasion that’s taking place all around him. Unfortunately he’s the only one who can. (Director Matt Reeves is presently at work on a more faithful adaptation of the story.) Carpenter was also clearly influenced by The Situationists (the radical student movement that shut down France in May of 1968) argued that people had become isolated from real life and experience; that we were living through screens and our perception of reality (thanks to TV, advertising and consumerism) had become horribly warped. Twenty years later it truer than ever.
Carpenter has enough respect for the intelligence of his audience to let the story take its time. Hints and fragments of hints creep in around the edges slowly building to the big reveal. As the film opens the economy is in ruins, for most people anyway. The factories are shutting down, people are losing their jobs and homes and the poor population is swelling while the rich are getting richer. Meanwhile, television is awash with ads telling people that being fabulous and glamorous is all that matters.
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the professional wrestler chosen for the lead as a result of his WWF persona, is a drifter who is never named in the film (though in the credits he’s “Nada”—the character’s name in the original story). In spite of everything he sees around him, he still believes in the American Dream: if a man works hard and keeps his nose clean he can make it. He takes a job at a construction site and connects with Frank (Keith David) who’s less enamored with that American Dream business but nevertheless invites Rowdy Roddy to stay at a homeless encampment that offers food and a few amenities.
At the camp, Nada starts to notice some strange things. The camp’s leader spends a lot of time at a nearby church where choir practice seems to be going on 24 hours a day. Weirder still, for a few seconds every night a group of revolutionary hackers breaks into the TV signal to deliver what seems to be an insane and paranoid message. There are forces of some kind controlling the world, they say. By using an electronic transmission sent out with the TV signal, they’re keeping humans hypnotized and blind to the truth: namely that we’re being turned into sedate, complacent livestock for these alien controllers.
Nada is less interested in the message of doom from the tinfoil hat crowd than in what’s happening over at the church. Despite Frank’s warnings he sneaks in one night and learns that it’s the secret headquarters of the same revolutionary group, and that they seem to be running some kind of counterfeit sunglasses operation on the side. Wanting nothing to do with them (he still believes in the promise of America, after all) he backs away.
But after a brutal and unprovoked raid on the camp by well-armed cops equipped with bulldozers and automatic weapons, Nada starts to have second thoughts.
Wandering the city later Nada stumbles upon a box of those bootleg shades and casually tries on a pair. In the most remarkable scene of the film, and one handled beautifully by Carpenter and his effects team, the lenses cut through the alien signal and he sees the world as it really is. What had been a dingy street lined with fading billboards comes into sharp b/w focus as the subliminal messages hidden within those ads are revealed: “Stay Asleep,” “Submit to Authority,” “Shop,” “No Imagination.” “Obey,” “No Independent Thought.” As he continues to wander, he finds the city is overwhelmed with these messages, filling every magazine and plastered on every passing bus.
Beyond that, figures of power and authority (lawyers, businessmen, cops) are revealed to be aliens who resemble rotting corpses. When they discover he can see through the facade, well, the action begins, punctuated by the longest street fight scene this side of Any Which Way But Loose (later recreated blow-by-blow on South Park) and one of the finest lines of dialogue the era had to offer: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…And I’m all out of bubblegum.”
Along the way jabs are taken at Reagan and Siskel & Ebert (all of them aliens), he carjacks a woman who works at a TV station (Meg Foster), joins the revolutionaries and stumbles into the alien headquarters and a human/alien stockholders meeting where he learns that those humans who collaborate with the invaders, who allow them access to positions of power, are rewarded quite handsomely for selling out their own. And that’s where the Cold War paranoia gets turned around, because he’s pointing a finger at Us, not Them. We’re the ones who stayed sedate and asleep, who didn’t notice the world was going to hell around us, and didn’t much care if it did, as long as we could make a cheap buck along the way.
Yes, there’s a bitterness there but, They Live remains an incredibly intelligent, sharp, funny and frightening film (perhaps the best Carpenter ever made) one rich enough to be pondered for a long time afterward and one that’s more pertinent now than it was in ‘88. But I do have to wonder. Given that the world portrayed in the film is still with us, but amplified to such an extreme, would audiences even see messages like “Shop” and “No Independent Thought” as negatives? More disturbing still, a film that celebrates killing cops and taking down the rich and powerful (as well as TV stars, for godsakes!) would likely be attacked for promoting terrorism. If anyone noticed the message at all, that is.