They Live is one of those unfortunately good movies that cannot be adequately analyzed without betraying the very elements designed to entrance first time viewers and inspire the unfettered love that those of us who’ve seen the movie far too many times still hold. As such, standard Spoiler Warnings apply. All bastards unfortunate enough to have never experience a context-free viewing of this picture are hereby placed On Notice. You’ve been warned. They Live, We Sleep.
The movie also served as my introduction to the oeuvre of one John Carpenter, last seen around these parts when…my god, has it been as long as all that? (Note from behind the fourth wall: I’d meant to examine his sophomore effort, Assault on Precinct 13, neigh on a year ago. Anyone reading this site can properly tell where that little effort went.) Made twelve years after a little bit of paranoid schizophrenia called Assault on Precinct 13 and two years after the apocalyptic, artist vs. studio row over Big Trouble in Little China, They Live presents a portrait of the artist as a not-so-young man, no longer trusting the authoritarian forces that served as Assault‘s protagonists. Here we find Big JC making no bones about his distasteful distrust, not only of the entertainment industry, but the whole of capitalist society. No surprise, really. A decade living and working inside the studio system could do that to anyone…but just imagine doing it in (buh-dun-*cymbal crash*) the ’80s.
According to legend, Carpenter was so miffed over the manhandling of Big Trouble (that bullshit cliffhanger ending, for one thing) he threatened and cajoled his way into a multi-picture deal, complete with total creative control and all the fresh squeezed human blood a man can drink. Prince of Darkness is the first love child of this sweetheart scenario. They Live is the second.
Like any second child worth the time and effort They Live manages to upstage its elder brother with fewer resources and sheer attention grabbing pluck. Apart from Keith David, there are no reliable stalwarts from the Carpenter cannon to supply the ubiquitous name-above-the-title. There’s no Donald Pleasence here, no Victor Wong to explain this movie’s metaphysics and no Kurt Russell to jam a boomstick up its ass once Victor’s identified which other-worldly hole serves that particular biological function. Here, the fate of our world rests in the hands of a wrestler with a mullet and decidedly ’80s physique. Indeed, God help us all.
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper stars as a nameless working man from Denver, a man with no name that Clint Eastwood would never stoop to play, whom I’ll refer to simply as Our Hero, or Roddy. He begins the movie rail-riding into the smog-choked canyons of Los Angeles. Nothing’s changed there in twenty years, except for the worse. Lot like the government. And it’s not as if things are looking up for Roddy either. Sent away by the unemployment office, he spends a night camping out in a back alley before visiting a construction site. “This is a union job,” the foreman says with undisguised get-the-hell-away-from-me. Without missing a a beat Our Hero inquires, “Then can I please speak to the shop steward…sir?”
Roddy’s powers of Hockey Hair secure him a job and a friend in Frank (Keith David) who directs him to “Justiceville,” a shanty-dotted Hoverville on a desolate urban plain across the street from a Spanish Deco church. There, Frank introduces Our Hero to Gilbert (Peter Jason), the man who nominally runs things. Now, Frank begins the movie as the voice of outrage, mad as hell. As he guides Roddy through the wasteland he mentions his “wife and two kids back in Detroit…I haven’t seen ‘um in six years,” and offers a critique of modern capitalism (call it Reganomics or globalization…though I prefer George H.W. Bush’s “voodoo economics”) scathing in its clear-sighted bitterness. “The whole deal’s like some kinda crazy game…and the name of the game is ‘make it through life,…only everyone’s out for themselves and lookin’ to do you in at the same time.'”
Rowdy Roddy will have none of that vulgar Marxist claptrap. He begins the movie down on his luck but still very much into the system that has obviously done so well by him. “You oughtta have a little more patience in life,” he says to Frank. “I believe in America.” He sees these waning years of Regan-Bush as a time to lie in wait for opportunity that will surely one day come. Roddy, then, begins the movie a complete fool: a fit, mulleted Michael Moore, always crawling back to the slut country that keeps leaving him for other, better looking and much more corrupt men. His is the story of a quick and brutal education.
Because there is something going on in the church across the street. Men (Gilbert included) come and go in a hatchback, loading and unloading anonymous boxes. A police helicopter seems unnaturally interested in circling overhead. And when Roddy goes inside for a casual snoop (the door’s unlocked) he finds the singing congregation is nothing more than a tape recorder wired to a serviceable (for it’s time) sound system. There’s a lab in the back room with rows and rows of…sunglasses. Not the biggest moneymaker outside a certain alley in Shanghai I may or may not know about…but nevertheless a helicopter is circling…and there’s that cryptic writing on the wall: “They Live, We Sleep.”
Then night falls and a (budgetarily constrained) army of SWAT cops descends upon the church and its adjoining shanty town, bringing their own brand of old school, nineteenth century “justice” to Justiceville, via special truncheon delivery. Our Hero saves a kid, and that’s something, but what’s a working man to do in the face of cops with bulldozers? Go all Tienanmen Square?
The next day, the surviving already-homeless pick through the remains of their lives. The church sits scorched, wide open to Roddy. Lab’s gone. So’s the sound system. Everything’s gone save a box of sunglasses. Roddy stashes the box in an anonymous-looking trash can and tries a pair on.
The literally black-and-white world revealed to him is They Live’s big shock, its central conceit, and the only element of the movie worth rambling on about like this for…god only knows how many words this’ll end up being. Behind the shades, Roddy perceives the world as it truly is for the first time in his sorry, Coloradoan life. Through the glasses, colorful vacation billboards read simply, “Obey.” Instead of listing ingredients, cans of soup order him to, “Consume.” Posters, cigarette boxes, magazines, and every bit of signage in every advertising space in the bleak, urban dystopia of Los Angeles…perhaps (the movie whispers) the entire world. “Sleep,” “Watch TV,” “Marry and Reproduce,” “Doubt Humanity,” “Do Not Question Authority.”
This isn’t even half the problem. The rest arrives when a “man” walks up to a newsstand as Our Hero reads the paperback rack (“Surrender,” “Follow”). Roddy raises his eyes from a magazine (“No Independent Thought”) and realizes the man is no man. Instead he sees a lipless monster with glowing, 1950s-bug eyes, dressed in a suit and tie, conversing with the magazine stand’s proprietor.
These…whatever-They-are seem to be everywhere, mingling freely, unseen. They are the woman in line ahead of you at the bank and the teller behind the counter. They are the cop on the beat and the low life on the corner. They are all around us, from the supermarket to the political podium on the supermarket’s TV screen. “It figures it’d be something like this,” Roddy chuckles in a quiet, Nerdy desperation, immediately winning my heart. Because, really, it does.
From this point on, They Live becomes an unapologetic sci-fi action film, paying off all those in the audience patient enough to sit through it’s sedately creeping first half. Because what’s a man to do in a situation such as this? Or let me rephrase: What’s a white, hetero man in an Action Movie from the late 80s to do in a situation like this? Obviously, seize the nearest gun and begin to wreak bloody vengeance in the name of the human race and our eventual freedom. At least the films saves Roddy from becoming a true action psychopath (see also, Commando, Rambo, Die Hard, and/or their plethora of imitators…or better yet, don’t) by admitting what other Action heroes only tacitly acknowledge: that those he kills “weren’t people.”
This little bit of reality, enshrined in old-school sci-fi paranoia, saves the film from becoming anything more than a gutless wonder, a nice dig at Reganomics (“Don’t Question Authority”). A cheesey sci-fi action relic from the 1980s. (“Sleep”) It’s not even a very good movie by any stretch of the imagination. There are no particular acting jobs of note and the movie’s one memorable line (having to do with the absence of bubblegum) was apparently ad libbed, telling you all about the dialogue. There’s no sweeping, epic story about rings or Forces, save those that control us. They who Live while We unhappy apes scurry around or Sleep. It’s certainly not an uplifting, feel-good film. Things do not work out well and there are no easy outs…save one…but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Were I a conquering alien race bent on the total control of the human race, this is exactly the kind of movie I would make. It paints a picture of the invading They as simultaneously all-powerful in their technical sophistication and bumbling in the extreme, so ill-prepared their operation is stymied by an unemployed wrestler and his Gargoyle-voiced Black Friend. As my roommate, Action, queried: “Why are they using all this crappy human technology?” A better question, one that’s always haunts me whenever I’m faced with a vision of humans-as-slaves, might be: Why are they using us the first place? Particularly if we are, as the Scientist of this picture says, “like a natural resource to Them. Deplete the planet, move on to another.” If that’s your conquering horde’s preferred modus operandi, why not go all Independence Day on our species’ sorry ass, wiping us from the planet in one triumphant go? We make it so easy, hording together in our death camp cities…
This is no Independence Day. Thank all the gods. They Live is a relic that would not, under any circumstances, be made today. For one thing, no one in this movie is even close to beautiful enough by today’s standards. Even sociopathic monsters have to look like Gap billboards (“Consume”). That’s another thing: everyone knows the world can only be saved by heroes or experts. Certainly not out-of-work construction workers.
The absurdity of it all has contributed mightily to this film’s condemnation, and in this age of CGI malfeasance They Live has been relegated to late night viewings on Ted Turner’s cable channels, regularly appearing on Joe Bob Briggs’ old program. (“Watch TV’) It’s even made its way onto DVD, from thence to my shelves, and from thence through another television into my brain. One could say I’ve “consumed” the film and am now spitting it back up for and onto you. Always knew I’d end up like Seth Brundle.
So. Its a cheap, late-80s sci-fi/action extravaganza suitable for an afternoon’s enjoyment with friends and relatives who share your (and my) cinematic tastes. There are no great Truths on display in They Live, save this: every frame of this movie is true.
Consider the warnings of a blind priest early in the film:
“They have taken the hearts and minds of our leaders. They have recruited the rich and the powerful and they have blinded us to the truth. The human spirit is corrupted. Why do we worship greed? Because outside of the limit of our sight, feeding off us, perched on top of us from birth to death are our owners, our owners. They have us. They control us. They are our masters. Wake up! They’re all about you, all around you!“
Later, the unnamed Scientist (himself a talking head on a pirated TV station) notes,
“The poor and the underclass are growing. Racial justice and human rights are nonexistent. They have created a repressive society and we are Their unwitting accomplices…Their intention to rule rests with the annihilation of consciousness.” [Doc Psy’s note: shades of the Ingsoc Party from 1984.] “We have been lulled into a trance. They have made us indifferent to ourselves, to others. We are focused only on our own gain…Please, understand: They are safe so long as They are not discovered. That is Their primary method of survival. Keep us asleep, keep us selfish, keep us sedated…”
Forget the aliens for a moment. They’re an obvious metaphor, and a modicum of thought reveals them as the wish-fulfilling, adolescent projection that they really are. John Carpenter only wishes (as do I) it were this simple. He wishes that the virulent, psychopathic, death-mongering destructiveness of modern civilization could be lain at the feet of alien invaders. It would “figure,” wouldn’t it? And wouldn’t that make things so much easier? A computer virus in their mothership, a real virus in their bodies, or a single bullet in just the right place at just the right time and poof, done. Like a video game.
Much simpler than the real work of changing our world and making it a better place for ourselves and those unlucky enough to come after us. Much better than the wretched Truth. There are no aliens among us…only broken, fractured human beings with no conception of the consequences of their actions. Don’t let their lack of glowing bug-eyes fool you: They exist, as surely as We do, and while We Sleep, They do indeed Live.
“They want benign indifference, they want us drugged. We could be pets. We could be food. But all we really are is livestock.”
Numbers on a ledger. Replaceable parts. There’s no need for them to be aliens unless you (like most of us) require some form of psychological displacement to get yourself through the day and absolve humanity of any and all responsibility its many crimes against the planet. In his review of this (written a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) Nathan called it a “guilt displacing fairy tale” and he was only right to do so. If I were a money-mongering bug-eyed monster with (say) a movie studio under my belt, They Live is exactly kind of flick I’d want recalcitrant filmmakers to churn out. It manages to perfectly describe the problems of our modern world while flattening their causes and offering no good solutions. It’s the kind of TV We are meant to watch while We Sleep.
They Live is also a textbook case of cult success. Its cinematic and storytelling soft spots have kept it off the radar of mainstream audiences; the people who are helping Spider-Man 3 break records as I write this. Instead, it’s captured those of us who recognize it for what it is and are as entranced by what it does right as much as what it does wrong. For whatever it is worth, We Think as We Sleep and that gives us a rare and special species of hope. I hope that They do not exist, though I’m sure They do, and that They are very human. They manufacture plutonium by the pound and sell depleted uranium by the ton. They release mercury into streams and carbon monoxide into our air. They build dams to destroy any water lucky enough to escape Their toxins. They are what this movie describes as the “human power elite.” I used to hope that this knowledge would pass from me, like a nightmare before the breaking day, or a bad movie once you’ve ejected the disc. Now I only hope that I will be able to counter Their actions – which are also our actions, our destructiveness – in some way, and that I will not have to apologize to my non-existent future children for the poisoned, add-cluttered, acid rain-soaked world I leave them.
I also hope that when the time comes to oppose Them we will be able to do it ourselves, and that We will Wake Up. The Power of Hockey Hair will not save us. Didactic, paranoid, cynical, violent, and just the side of trashy exploitation, They Live is perhaps my favorite ’80s film, and in my personal pantheon, it ranks right up there with the best of all time. If you find yourself scratching your head at that statement, here…I’ve got a pair of glasses you might just want to slip on…