By Brendan Nagle
Like so much of director John Carpenter’s work since 1978’s “Halloween,” “They Live” performed meagerly at the box office. Yet it has managed to endure as a cult film, and its pop cultural influence and Trump Era prescience make it exceedingly relevant 30 years after its release.
Professional wrestler Roddy Piper stars as mullet-sporting drifter John Nada, a former construction worker who has trekked from Denver to Los Angeles in search of a job. “I worked there for 10 years,” he tells a disinterested employment agency attendant, “Things just seemed to dry up.” The Los Angeles we see here is a far cry from the sunny Hollywood paradise one expects to encounter on screen. As the opening credits roll we see John wandering grimy, destitute streets, an overcast sky looming above him. He eventually finds work at a construction site and meets Frank (Keith David), another worker, who shows him a local homeless camp where he can find a place to sleep. Frank, too, is a victim of the economic climate. “We gave the steel companies a break when they needed it,” he remarks to John. “You know what they gave themselves? Raises.” Released in 1988, “They Live” came just at the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidential reign, and his figure looms over the film. A tongue-in-cheek reference to the famous “Morning in America” ad campaign makes it explicit that “They Live” is a reaction to what Carpenter sees as the degradation of the lower classes at the hands of the Reagan administration. Here we see a populace in shambles, devastated by corporate greed and an ever-expanding wealth gap. “The golden rule,” Frank calls it. “He who has the gold makes the rules.”
John, somehow, remains optimistic. “I believe in America, I follow the rules. Everybody’s got their own hard times these days.” He has faith in the American Dream, that as long as he works hard, his day will come. But that all changes when he finds a mysterious box of sunglasses. He is shocked to find that upon looking through the lenses he no longer sees color. But that is not all that has changed. Where before there were billboards and magazines and various advertisements, now John sees only plain black text bearing authoritative messages — “Obey,” “Consume,” “Stay Asleep.” You may recognize some of these slogans from street artist Shepard Fairey’s OBEY sticker campaign and (ironically commercialized) clothing line, both of which were inspired directly by “They Live.” What John sees is, in fact, the work of a secret race of aliens masterminding a worldwide conspiracy. The glasses counteract a mind-controlling satellite, allowing him to see not only their subliminal methods of control, but also the grotesque aliens themselves, who are masquerading as humans.
If this all sounds rather campy, that is because, well, it is. The unabashedly ’80s sci-fi aesthetics and Piper’s endless stockpile of one-liners (“I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum”) are all part of the charm. Carpenter has never been one to take himself too seriously, and he has fun here. But the goofier aspects of the film should not distract from its acute anti-capitalist message. Carpenter (who wrote the screenplay under a pseudonym in addition to directing and composing the score) represents the wealthy elite as fascist, autocratic aliens whose tool of control is, essentially, capitalism. The film is dripping with resentment towards America’s plutocratic state.
Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) scene is a fight sequence between John and Frank that lasts for over five minutes. Carpenter and cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe manage to capture the beautiful choreography with an impressively small number of cuts, but the fight is almost comical in its excess; the two men beat each other absolutely senseless. Perhaps what makes it so ridiculous, and so shocking, is that it feels almost inconsequential. The dispute is set off by John asking Frank to try on the sunglasses. Frank resists and things quickly escalate. The fight, however, is not simply a shameless appeal to Piper’s WWF fanbase as some critics at the time posited, but rather a physical manifestation of the struggle to revolutionize the masses. Carpenter is calling attention to greater society’s refusal to confront radical ideas and to challenge the power of the upper class elite. Frank is fighting not just to fight, but to maintain his ignorance. With this in mind the brutality and absurd length of the fight makes sense. Eventually John manages to wrestle the glasses onto Frank’s face, and Frank finally understands. But this happens only after what feels like an unreasonably strenuous battle that leaves both men exhausted and physically broken. At various points the film calls out the complicit proletariat, shaming those who “sell out” and turn on their own people, giving in to the temptation of wealth and power. But here it also acknowledges the supreme difficulty of fighting those capitalist powers. Philosopher Slavoj Žižek put it simply in his own analysis of the scene: “freedom hurts.”
The most disturbing moments, however, come during the film’s coda. Ostensibly, things conclude on an optimistic note, as John heroically sacrifices himself to destroy the mind-controlling satellite, thereby allowing everyone to see the aliens unobscured. But the movie cuts off rather quickly; we see a few scenes of people “waking up” and recognizing the aliens, but we do not witness what comes after this awakening. In an alternate universe (one where, say, Donald Trump was not elected president), a viewer might be able to comfortably assume that humanity would rise up against the unveiled aliens, but watching the film now, I’m not so sure. With the onslaught of increasingly ludicrous political scandals that dominate the news, it sometimes feels as if, to use the film’s metaphor, we already have the sunglasses. Corruption, plutocracy and political injustice lie out in the open for all to see, yet little changes. In an era obsessed with being “woke,” the film’s ambiguous ending is particularly resonant. It contends that maybe being awake — seeing the aliens, i.e. having awareness — may not be enough. Viewed through a contemporary lens, “They Live” posits that to fully dismantle the corrupt systems controlling our world we need to do more than merely expose them, we need to take action.