They Live (1988)
Written & Directed by John Carpenter
By the end of the 1980s, John Carpenter had grown increasingly furious with how Ronald Reagan had transformed America into a capitalist’s wet dream. Houseless populations were rising while corporate profits skyrocketed. He saw Reaganomics and its acolytes as aliens from another world, harvesting humanity for its labor and resources, leaving a dried, empty husk. Carpenter started to pay closer attention to marketing and saw the embedded consumer propaganda that underlies everything, pushing people to constantly spend money on things they didn’t need. An encounter with a Universal Studios executive who didn’t see a problem with selling out because “everyone does” served as a significant catalyst for Carpenter to make this film. The result is cult classic and science fiction masterwork.
A homeless drifter, whom the script names Nada (Roddy Piper), arrives in Los Angeles searching for work. He encounters a blind street preacher who talks about how “they” have used the wealth & power of this world to crush humanity. He runs into the preacher again after joining an encampment of houseless people. The preacher operates out of a church across the street and seems to be working with members of the encampment. Upon further investigation, Nada discovers they are manufacturing sunglasses out of the holy place. When he puts on the glasses, he can suddenly see a hidden world of subliminal messages that command humanity to consume and obey. Nada also realizes not every person walking around on the street is human and that a race of aliens has taken over positions of power on Earth and is stripping it bare of resources.
The film was based on a pulp science fiction short story titled “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” written by Ray Nelson and first published in 1963. In that story, the protagonist is put into a trance by a stage hypnotist, and when he comes out of it, he can suddenly see a hidden layer of reality. What the main character learns is that alien creatures are in control of mankind. He also finds he only has until eight o’clock in the morning to do something about it before it becomes too late for the planet. As someone who has become very awakened to the overt propaganda in American media & culture in the last few years, this film rings more true than when I first saw it.
Once you begin to read authors who are critical of the United States and are backed by historical data, it’s hard to not see how blatantly we are being lied to daily. There is definitely a hard authoritarian slant to American media by constantly praising “the troops,” which serves as a code for support of brutal military action. We also are bombarded with “reminders” of how great our system of “law & order” is while we watch in real-time as BIPOC are brutalized and murdered in our communities. I would say The People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn is a great starter to begin to lift the veil, seeing American history through the eyes of the oppressed.
I can’t say I am a massive fan of John Carpenter’s entire body of work, but some pictures stand out for me as nearly perfect. I don’t think They Live is one of them because it definitely goes off the rails in the third act. There are many shortcuts happening in the story to get characters to set pieces that Carpenter wants in the film for thematic reasons. This leads to some narrative inconsistency that does hurt the overall plot, which is disappointing because, ideologically, I am right on board with what Carpenter is doing. I would say this meets the criteria for a remake in that you have an okay movie with a fantastic premise that fails to realize it. If I were to pick a director for a new version of They Live, it would be Adam McKay, who has already shown an inclination to make satirical films that speak truth to power.
Aesthetically there are some wonderful moments in They Live. The decision to make the POV through the sunglasses, not just black & white but filmed in a way that mimics classic 1950s B-movie science fiction, was genius. The film’s whole plot hearkens back to Invasion of the Body Snatchers, another story that uses the genre as a metaphor for social injustice and mob rule. It’s not surprising to me that philosopher Slavoj Zizek loves They Live, seeing it as a perfect metaphor for having the blinders taken away and beginning to see the underlying dictatorship that tells us we are accessible without ever clarifying what freedoms that entails. It’s not the most eloquent statement on these ideas, and there were moments I felt it drug on a little too long. However, it’s a perfect encapsulation of a lot of anxiety felt during the Reagan era and underlines that the shiny aesthetics of the 1980s had darkness beneath them.