by Frank Olson
American B-movies have a long and distinguished history of smuggling subversive sociopolitical commentary into crowd-pleasingly tawdry scenarios. Eagle-eyed viewers can get an extra level of enjoyment out of certain cult classics by, for example, following the homoerotic subtext of The Bride of Frankenstein or taking note of the various ways that Night of the Living Dead reflects the turmoil of its time. They Live upends the usual priorities of the politically-minded midnight movie. Rather than hiding its criticisms of ‘80s social values, the film’s plot literally revolves around exposing the subtextual messages that reinforce the prevailing ideologies of our culture.
Director: John Carpenter
Producer: Larry Franco
Writers: John Carpenter (as Frank Armitage), Ray Nelson (story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning")
Cinematographer: Gary B. Kibbe
Editors: Gib Jaffe, Frank E. Jimenez
Music: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth
Cast: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George "Buck" Flower, Peter Jason, Raymond St. Jacques
US Theatrical Release: November 4, 1988
US Distributor: Universal Pictures
Our window into the film’s world is a drifter named John Nada who discovers a special pair of glasses that allow him to see the conformist messages hidden in media. The subliminal messages in advertisements and political speeches are laid bare whenever Nada puts the glasses on. It’s as if he has found an x-ray into our culture. What looks to the naked eye like a generic travel billboard featuring a woman in a bikini is revealed with the glasses to be a message bluntly reading MARRY AND REPRODUCE. Dollar bills are revealed to be strips of paper bearing the message THIS IS YOUR GOD. The glasses also allow our hero to see the horrifically rotting skeletal faces of the wealthy yuppie elite, who it turns out are an alien race using their control of the media to keep the population docile as they deplete the Earth’s resources.
Much of They Live’s satirical point is that many humans are eager to go along with this sinister alien plot as long as they can benefit from it financially, while others are indifferent to it as long as it doesn’t disrupt their daily routine. Nada’s construction worker friend Frank so badly wants to avoid the life-altering revelations that the protagonist has discovered that he would rather engage in a comically protracted fight scene with Nada and preserve his ignorance than put on the glasses and learn the truth. If we are being honest, Frank is a stand-in for most of us, who have accepted the morally problematic order of things because change is inconvenient.
Writer/director/composer John Carpenter, who made They Live at the tail end of his ‘70s-‘80s heyday, was bluntly reacting to the Reagonomics culture of his time, but most of the satirical details still ring true today. Certain aspects of the film are perhaps even more relevant now than they were in 1988. The flying surveillance vehicles that periodically pop up to track Nada’s movements were probably nothing more than a goofy sci-fi detail in Carpenter’s original conception, but they now play as a prescient reference to drone warfare.
Carpenter’s concept is clever but in some ways They Live functions better as an idea than it does as an actual movie. The entire lengthy sequence in which Nada first puts the glasses on is brilliant – and the image of one of the aliens giving a political speech behind a podium reading OBEY is as iconic a moment of ‘80s sci-fi horror as the head blowing up in Scanners – but the scenario never develops much past this point. As the protagonist’s resolve to fight back against his conformist culture increases, the film (somewhat ironically) devolves into generic low-budget action pyrotechnics. It feels as if Carpenter was in such a rush to share his great premise that he hurried the first draft of his script into production. The film is rambunctious enough to remain enjoyable even during its rough patches, but it’s hard to shake the sense that the plot and the characters weren’t very carefully thought out.
Fortunately “Rowdy” Roddy Piper enlivens the film with a raucous charisma that turns his stock lead role into one of the more vibrant action heroes of his era. Considering that their job requires them to act, improvise, and perform stunts, professional wrestlers are arguably underutilized in campy genre movies, and since Piper was one of the most charismatic men in the field at the time he was a perfect fit for this role. Piper’s legacy in wrestling had more to do with his fiery, non sequitur-laced promo interviews than with his actual in-ring work, and a number of the ridiculous one-liners that he delivers in They Live were reportedly adlibbed. The film’s most famous line is “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum,” but Nada’s comment to a skull-headed alien “you look like your head fell in the cheese dip in 1957” is perhaps even better.
It is They Live’s playful sense of humor that ultimately saves it from the potential pitfalls of being sloppy or overly didactic. Compare the tone of this film to the recent Purge series, which boasts an equally outrageous central premise but treats it with a grim solemnity that makes it hard to stomach its blunt political commentary. They Live certainly presents its social arguments in a simplistic, comic-strip style, but it delivers its message in a coherent, entertaining and non-preachy manner. Whatever the film’s flaws, it is undeniably a standout in the pantheon of subversive B-movies.