<p>They Live is a decidedly heavy-handed take on consumerism and conformity – you can feel the likes of Banksy and Shepard Fairey milking it for inspiration</p>
“The world needs a wake-up call… we’re gonna phone it in.”
Ever wondered who the “they” in “that’s what they say!” are? You might’ve, if you’ve ever read a Larson cartoon, but if you’ve seen John Carpenter’s 1988 classic They Live, you know that they are blue skull-faced aliens hiding among us and controlling Earth’s citizens by making them buy things.
“Sometimes when I watch TV, I stop being myself,” says a woman (on TV) in the film’s opening scenes – and isn’t there something of that in the dressing up, the queuing up outside midnight cinemas, the yelling of perfectly memorised lines of dialogue in unison with a crowd of strangers seated in rows?1 John Carpenter would probably have you think so.
Following very closely in the footsteps of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, pre-Matrix Cartesian sci-fi counter-culture-satire-action-horror They Live opened at number one in the box office but rapidly declined thereafter. Its eventual profit was a relatively modest $10 million. Writer-Director Carpenter humbly offered the explanation that “People who go to the movies in vast numbers these days don’t want to be enlightened,” an attitude keenly felt throughout the film.
It’s “the golden rule”, this film pointedly tells us: “He who has the gold makes the rules.” Set in an America where “the poor and the underclass are growing, racial justice and human rights are non-existent” (so, pretty much whenever), They Live follows John Nada, known only by his not-at-all-symbolic surname, an untrusting drifter just trying to make a buck in this godforsaken world. After falling in with Frank, an inhabitant of the local shantytown, Nada observes a series of suspicious goings-on in the neighbouring church. When the area is violently evacuated (read: bulldozed) by police, Nada escapes with the contents of the church’s fake walls: a box of really fly sunglasses. He puts them on – and watch out, you’re about to get woken up! While wearing the sunnies, Nada sees the world as it really is: full of “reaaaal fuckin’ ugly” aliens posing as humans and hypnotising the entire populace with commercialist, dictatorial messages translated subliminally through advertising.
They Live is a decidedly heavy-handed take on consumerism and conformity – you can feel the likes of Banksy and Shepard Fairey milking it for inspiration – but its campy visuals, over-the-top dialogue (“mama don’t like tattle-tales!”) and the occasional actual joke save this film from mere pretentious pessimism. By managing not to take itself quite as seriously as its now-rabid conspiracy-lovin’ reddit-postin’ followers do (exemplified by the fact that for its Serious Action Hero, producers hired “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the most Canadian wrestling star you can envisage)2, what could easily have been preachy and depressing pans out to a thoroughly enjoyable 94 minutes.
Nevertheless, the message and political metaphor is clear and quite literally plastered all over the film: OBEY. NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT. CONSUME. MARRY AND REPRODUCE. CONFORM. WATCH TV. SLEEP. BUY. OBEY. OBEY. OBEY.
The more nuanced commentary takes place when we’re barely paying attention, in the quieter moments of the film. After a climactic alien police chase, Nada forces a (human) cop who apprehends him to put down his weapon and flee.
How? He’s got the bigger gun. After a narrow escape, Nada implores his reluctant getaway driver Holly that They are controlling everyone, as she finds herself a hostage in her own home, unable to disagree with him because he is a much larger male with two firearms. When Nada tells her to “have it [her] way,” she reminds him, “It’s not. It’s your way.” “You’re in charge.”3
In another scene (counted on more than one ‘Top Best Fight Scenes’ listicles), Nada tells Frank, “I’m giving you a choice”: do what he says and try on the alien-tinted glasses, or Nada will beat him up and/or down. Money, social conformity and commercialism are equalled in coercive power only by violence in this film; take the skinless aliens out of the equation and human beings still have plenty of ways to peel away each other’s agency.
Sadly, the film makes sure this interesting subtext bubbles up to the surface and points a big, alien finger at it: “Maybe they’ve always been with us, those things out there. Maybe they love it, seeing us hate each other. Watching us kill each other off. Feeding on our own cold hearts.”
Subtlety isn’t this film’s point. What very well could be the point is that there are ways now, three decades on, to find even more frightening parallels to the world in which They Live. There’s something eerily timeless in one of the opening scenes in which a black preacher, warning a crowd about the “masters” controlling and monitoring them, is approached by white cops; the same cops (aliens) who later tell Nada, “It would be easier if we don’t have to splatter your brains.”4
Featuring other Modern Day Horrors™ as drones (you don’t know they’re there, but they know you are), climate change and the One Percent, They Live is a film that will continue to spur YouTube comments along the lines of “this is a documentary!” for as long as we’re a predominantly capitalist world.
This is the film’s legacy, along with one of the best, most ridiculous (and most frequently emulated) lines of action cinema history: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m aaaall outta bubblegum.”
“Hey, what’s wrong, baby?” goes the film’s famous final line.
— Oh, just everything in the world. But at least They Live ends with a sex joke instead of a mournful fade-to-black, whereupon we’d be left, staring at our own newly-visible reflections in the glossy MacBook (CONSUME) screen, wondering: how much of that was Independent Thought?
1 Y’all haters corny with that illuminati mess.
2 “Sawry!” he manages to pipe out once every hundred machine-gun rounds.
3 Later, they share an unreasonably sexually charged exchange (unreasonable because Holly – ostensibly the main female character – has at this point had about
one full minute of screentime; she doesn’t get much more, either) which is interrupted by an explosion and a barrage of gunfire, all of which is bright pink. Pink explosions, pink smoke – I’m forced to conclude that either everything in the ’80s was pink, or it’s the aliens’ favourite colour. I’ve misplaced my point.
4 “You look just as shitty to us as we do to you,” one of the aliens tells him, a neat little metaphor for cop-populace antagonism.