All I expected from They Live was pure 80’s camp and Roddy Pippers promise to chew bubble gum and kick ass. Imagine my delight when I discovered that this underrated John Carpenter movie is one the most subversive critique of the american dream and Reaganomics.
The short story that movie is based on is Eight o’Clock in the Morning, which is about a bunch of aliens watching and controlling people through media. John Carpenter goes a little further and has the aliens be gooey faced capitalists. It weird how the movie can have you unsure if you want to call it genius or cheesy.
This rare product of the Hollywood left features actor Roddy Pippers play a down on his luck day laborer. In the multi-ethnic shanties that lie in the shadows of the richer LA neighborhood the nameless lead naively declares that he believes in America. It’s not long before he finds a church group calming that the world is ruled by a cabal of corrupt, evil ‘others’. It could easily take the route of a story like the Da Vinic Code and start following random mysteries and conspiracies. However it chooses to become an almost satirical but deep critic of America and class inequality.
As the movie likes to put it- “Our impulses are being redirected. We are living in an artificially induced state of consciousness that resembles sleep.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. We have been lulled into a trance. They have made us indifferent to ourselves, to others. We are focused only on our own gain. They are safe as long as they are not discovered. Keep us asleep, keep us selfish, keep us sedated.”
After a brutal police raid that goes noticed by the city, the lead finds a box of sunglasses. He puts them on and finds he can see the “truth” or subliminal messages in ads and media. Every other billboard screams consume, buy, obey or conform, a scantily clad woman on a travel ads say mate and reproduce and a wad of cash proclaims itself your god.
You are reminded that this is a Hollywood movie when the nameless lead beats up two alien cops and starts shooting the crap out of a bank, gunning down every alien that he comes across. But the previous nine minutes of him stumbling across LA now seeing the greed and materialism is truly cathartic. It’s one of the best metaphors for a non-materialistic perspective that I’ve come across.
The film also features a equally long, awkward and almost comical fight between the lead and a friend of his (played by another wrestler). I wonder why Carpenter decided to make the scene so deliberately unnecessary. Maybe he was trying to show us much much time and energy we wasted fighting each other instead of the aliens/ capitalists/ republicans.
This odd gem ends with (spoiler) all the main characters dying after assaulting the mass-media complex that facilitates the alien capitalists to exploit the world. Even during the action packed climax you’ll find a subtle line about the aliens treating America like their third world. These random pot shots at American foreign policy and the very 80’s soundtrack might annoy some but they just make the movie more interesting in my opinion.