They Live (1988)
Directed by: John Carpenter
Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George ‘Buck’ Flower, Peter Jason, Raymond St. Jacques, Jason Robards III, John Lawrence, Susan Barnes, Sy Richardson, Wendy Brainard
1/2 (out of 4)
“White line’s in the middle of the road. That’s the worst place to drive.”
– Robert Frost
– Roddy Piper
“They want benign indifference. they want us drugged. we could be pets, we could be food, but all we really are is livestock.”
– TV Hacker (John Lawrence)
My God! It’s Horrible! Her hairstyle!
Confession time: politically, I lean libertarian. The short story is that I believe in some of the philosophy of the left and some of the right. But John Carpenter’s They Live does not straddle the fence – it’s an anti-Reagan, anti-capitalist polemic through and through. Now, if you’re a right-leaning Republican who feels like the 1980s truly was morning in America and that Reaganomics was the best thing since the microwave, you will probably feel much antipathy towards They Live. Not without reason – this movie literally paints you as the Other, taking the point of view that this is a real class war and if you’re the elite, you are the enemy. Whatever its politics, I think the film is great; it has the courage of its convictions and has a lot of fun with its high concept premise. It believes in itself so much, no matter how ridiculous the story, that I respect it. Hell, I’m almost converted.
Another episode of Piper’s Pit!
The opening, backed by a mopey bluesy score, follows Roddy Piper’s character John Nada (!) coming off the train, with everything he owns in his backpack. Still believing in the American dream, he finds work at a nearby construction site and some meager food and shelter at a makeshift Hooverville. It’s basically a tent city, where the homeless gather on old couches watching television, which sometimes gets hacked by some dude (the late John Lawrence) who complains that we are all suffering from an artificially induced state of consciousness that resembles “sleep.” John observes strange goings on at the nearby church, but before he can figure things out, the whole place is raided by cops at night and the tent city is razed to the ground. John manages to get away with nothing but a box filled with sunglasses. This being the 80s, he puts one on, and it changes his whole worldview.
A real American who chews Bazooka Joe
As John’s female hostage (turned love interest later) Holly (Meg Foster) patronizes him: “You’re fighting the forces of evil, that no one can see without sunglasses.” The sunglasses, besides giving him a splitting headache, allow him to see the world as it “really” is. In this case, a signal being beamed worldwide has been subliminally suggesting that we should all “obey,” “sleep,” “watch TV,” and “not question authority.” Billboards, magazines, and television broadcasts hide evil intentions – that sale sign in the window really reads “Consume,” the men’s apparel sign suggests “No Independent Thought,” the greenbacks in your hand really say “This is your God.” The kicker – some people (the rich and powerful) aren’t human at all, but ghoulish aliens from another planet (or maybe another universe, as one of them later thanks the cooperating humans for helping them conquer multi-dimensional realms). (As Nada deadpans “Well, they ain’t from Cleveland.”) An amusing touch – the sunglasses not only allow him to see the “real world” but everything is shown in black-and-white! This kind of clarity drives Nada a little mad, and he goes on a short alien killing spree – a scene in a bank contains his most famous line: “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum.”
Egon Spengler will need that back when you’re done.
Nada’s attempt to convince his friend Frank (Keith David) about the aliens in our midst is hard work – it leads to one of the longest, most brutal, and most hilarious fight scenes in movie history (the fight leaves such an impression that it was spoofed in South Park). John and Frank must then join up with the resistance who have been trying to trace the source of the signal that has been keeping everybody asleep. The resistance has discovered what most of us have suspected all along – the world is run by a rich elite who keep us docile while they plunder us for our resources. The middle class is shrinking and the poor is growing. This should sound very familiar to you, even if you haven’t been following the 2012 elections closely. It’s a testament to how relevant They Live still is, some 24 years later. Maybe this stuff will always be with us.
The T-1000 malfunctions.
Our heroes express surprise that human collaborators are helping the aliens in exchange for money and power. “Most of us just sell out right away,” says a resistance leader (played by Peter Jason). But doesn’t everybody want a piece of the good life? Don’t we all want to be on the winning team, as Buck Flower’s character asks? It makes sense for the alien signal to be sent out of the television, right? That idiot box has been keeping the American populace asleep for years. Carpenter has some great ideas in this film, about breaking chains and seeing reality. They Live is anti-authoritarian, raging against the machine, and the heroes who help free humanity from the world that is pulled over their eyes will do it wearing sunglasses – a full decade before The Matrix.
I don’t always sell out humanity to capitalist aliens for wealth and power, but when I do…
Both Piper and David are great in this. I don’t know why Piper hasn’t done more films – he has a tough screen presence only outmatched by Kurt Russell. The cinematography and score are both very good – basically what we have come to expect from Carpenter at this point in his career. And while this is still a B-movie at heart, somewhat weighed down by an overlong (and redundant) shoot-out in the hallways of a TV station, They Live‘s brand of satire hits more than it misses. One thing I liked about movies in the 80s is that they never tried to please everyone by watering down their messages. Did Rambo or Delta Force apologize for their rah-rah patriotism? Why should Carpenter apologize for his scathing assault on the GOP, crony capitalism, and consumerism? He even throws in a nod to global warming before it was in fashion. “Maybe they’ve always been with us,” says Frank. “Maybe they love it — seeing us hate each other, watching us kill each other off, feeding on our own cold fuckin’ hearts.” Look, you don’t have to be a Marxist to enjoy They Live – you just have to have an appreciation for good satire, good sci-fi, and a desire to break those invisible chains that we all wear just a little bit, even if we don’t want to admit it. They Live is cathartic in that sense, and while it’s not Carpenter’s best, it remains rewatchable and relevant in 2012.
– Bill Gordon
Buy They Live Collector’s Edition on Blu-ray
Buy They Live on DVD
I already have a subscription to NO IDEAS magazine.
The new Blu-ray release of They Live is everything I hoped for. The HD transfer alone makes it worth the upgrade from the DVD, and you also get audio commentary with John Carpenter and Roddy Piper, which is an amusing listen (in the same manner as the Carpenter/Russell commentaries). Extras include:
- Independent Thoughts: An Interview with Writer/Director John Carpenter
- Woman of Mystery: An Interview with Actress Meg Foster
- Watch, Look, Listen: The Sights and Sounds of They Live
- Man vs. Aliens: An Interview with Actor Keith David (who also talks about his work on The Thing)
- Original EPK: The Making of They Live
- A collection of rare fake television clips made for the film.
- TV Spots, Still Gallery, original theatrical trailer
Interested in reading more about They Live? Try Dissident Voice, Bright Lights Film Journal, or the book They Live (Deep Focus) by author Jonathan Lethem.
Livin’ the dream!
“Live!” Yuppie Scum!