John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live is one of the most anarchic movies to ever be given a big studio budget. Filled with incisive commentary on politics, media, and big business, it’s a movie whose very message is a rallying call against the establishment. A vehement urgent to burn down the system no matter the cost and in the process free yourself and your fellow man. It’s a message that was crafted in response to the height of Reagan-era America, but it’s vision of a world quietly and totally ruled by the select few in power is more appropriate than ever today. In a time of government cover-ups, widespread corruption, the ever-growing influence of big business, and the movement to “stay woke” and fight back against the system, They Live feels like the refreshing, empowering piece of anarchy needed today.
Whatever your feelings on the “stay woke” movement may be, Carpenter’s sci-fi actioner is the forerunner and epitome of the message. The ideas are not just a literal part of the film’s narrative, it’s the central metaphor of They Live.
Based on the 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, Carpenter’s film follows John Nada, a drifter played by the late Roddy Piper, who arrives in Los Angeles looking for work while living out of a homeless encampment. Nada eventually stumbles upon a resistance movement and a pair of sunglasses that shows him the true world – a world in which aliens have secretly taken over, filling positions in the media, government, and any other area of power in order to subjugate humanity. Awoken to the truth, Nada unleashes hell to break apart the system and open the eyes of everyone around him.
Biting Commentary Meets B-Movie Thrills
The brilliance of They Live is that Carpenter’s film is a wild, fun ride that is informed by its political messages every step of the way. Carpenter never shies away from the very clear allegory of his story, but also makes sure that loads of action and plenty of twists stay at the forefront. They Live is an unrepentant B-movie. Its budget light ($3 million), its acting stiff at times, its violence gratuitous, Carpenter’s film is meant to entertain at a base level while its driving themes push viewers to criticize the world around them.
They Live is of a strong political mind, but its ideas of activism never overshadow its purpose as entertainment. In doing so, Carpenter’s film is all the more subversive and successful in its message. Led by Piper’s charismatic everyman performance and committed to a workmanlike tone that reflects the idea of a normal man discovering the most horrifying truth possible, They Live isn’t about a chosen one or a remarkable man. Nada is anyone (or no one, as evidenced by his name) and when a man of the people understands that his fellow man is being taken advantage of, action must be taken.
That action largely involves lots of guns, the occasional explosion, and numerous bursts of mayhem that would seem incredibly troubling to all who cannot see the truth. It’s story in which its central characters act in ways almost too similar to countless shooting sprees seen today and whose reasoning would most certainly be taken as severe psychosis were it not for the film’s literal interpretation of its alien invasion. Carpenter avoids uncomfortable similarities and instead makes his heroes’ acts of violence cheer-worthy by establishing the truth of his film’s world and quickly casting such actions in an unwaveringly heroic light.
The Anarchy of They Live
In the world of They Live, no excuses are made for the alien overlords who have taken over the Earth. No reasoning, no tragic backstory, no twisted sense of morality. The aliens, who looking like rotting perversions of humans, have taken over and are enjoying every moment of exerting their authority over humanity and reaping the benefits of money, sex, and power. Carpenter provides no sympathy for their cause and makes a clear distinction in showing that Nada only kills those that are shown to be aliens through his sunglasses. But it’s not just aliens who have chosen to take advantage of humanity. They Live shows that there are many people who have become aware of the invasion and decided to take part in order to share in the power and wealth. Traitors to their own planet, these humans may be more sickening than the aliens themselves.
But it’s not just the aliens that actively subjugate humanity; it is the media they disseminate. Nada’s sunglasses allow him to see the subliminal messages behind the countless magazines, television shows, billboards, and more that inundate mankind at every step of the way. Newscasters speak in front of the giant word “OBEY” (a direct influence on street artist Shepherd Fairey’s later work). Magazines and newspapers are littered with commands like “STAY ASLEEP” and “DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY.” A billboard featuring a bikini-clad model, in reality, says “MARRY AND REPRODUCE.” Money is labeled with “THIS IS YOUR GOD.” The messages in and of themselves lack all manner of subtlety, but their method of conveyance to the human race lets them go unnoticed. These messages all focus on consuming, obeying, and believing, allowing those in charge to profit from those they control.
It’s no coincidence that the world seen through the sunglasses is black and white. This is the crystal clear truth about the world, rendered without complications and unencumbered by the constant barrage of messages thrown at us by the media. For Nada, a man who isn’t tied down by jobs, friends, or family, the revelations show him the truth about a system he has never been part of, yet is still ruining his life and the lives of billions every day.
For Carpenter, being awoken to the truth is something that must be acted on with conviction and immediacy. The dizzying revelation brought upon Nada spurs him to action, first killing every alien in sight (preceded by the classic line “I have come to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”), followed by waking up his friend Frank (which involves a prolonged and brutal fistfight in the name of getting Frank (Keith David) to wear the glasses), and finally by joining up with others who have been awoken. Strength and the possibility for change are possible in numbers, but an individual who has been convicted by the truth and moved to take action will not give up, no matter the odds.
A Modern Rallying Cry to Wake Up
While They Live was born out of Carpenter’s growing disgust with the corporatism and greed that flourished during the 1980s in America, the only thing that has aged about his film are the clothes, and even those are coming back into style. In They Live, the powerful white businessmen who control the majority of wealth, the cops who brutalize anyone that questions their authority, the news anchors that smile while they report on the latest tragedies, and the companies that push the latest trends aren’t just the byproducts of greed, they are the agents of it. In a world as justly paranoid as that of Carpenter’s film, there’s a reason that it seems like the world is out to keep you down. It’s because it actually is.
If there is one thing that has truly changed between the debut of They Live in 1988 and 2016, it’s that the idea that you are being watched by the government isn’t just a conspiracy theory; it’s a widely known fact. The ideas of governmental control of the media, messages of greed and consumption being pushed through advertising, and culture being bent to the will of those in the very heights of power seem more present than ever in today’s society.
Some are subjected to the whims of those in power without ever knowing it. Others allow themselves to be controlled out of pure malaise. Many collude with power in an attempt to get a taste for themselves. And a growing number pursue independent thought and work to bring awareness to others.
They Live asks, what will you be?
For more John Carpenter anarchy, read “Snake Plissken: The Antiestablishment Hero the World Needs.”