The movie follows a nameless drifter referred to as “Nada”, who discovers the ruling class are in fact aliens concealing their appearance and manipulating people to spend money, breed and accept the status quo with subliminal messages in mass media. Many consider it the defining film commentating on Reagan-era consumerism and corporate greed.
Unemployed drifter, Nada (wrestling star, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, Hell Comes to Frogtown) lives in 1980’s America, a place where free-thinking is discouraged and those outside the system are forced to make ends meet however they can. After taking a job as a casual labourer on a building site, he befriends the similarly disaffected Frank Armitage (Keith David; The Thing; Pitch Black) but both are soon alerted to the strange loud preaching conducted by a blind man (Raymond St. Jacques, Voodoo Dawn) in a nearby church, along with an unusually attentive night-time helicopter presence.
Nada investigates and finds the church is a front for less savoury activities. The interruption of local television signals and plans to demolish the nearby shanty town where he is staying all seem to be connected and when exploring the building he uncovers a sophisticated scientific set-up and some carefully concealed boxes. His snooping uncovered, he ‘liberates’ one of the boxes to examine at a more convenient time.
When that time comes, he finds what look initially like unassuming sunglasses but upon wearing them finds that they uncover a strange black and white version of his familiar surroundings, unveiling a world packed with totalitarian commands throughout all media and, even more disturbingly, that the average person walking down the street ready to accept this doctrine is a skull-faced alien being.
The aliens soon recognise that Nada has seen through their disguise and with advanced communication systems (which also allow teleportation) in their watches, pursue him, lest their secret is revealed to the other humans who still outnumber them. Escaping, Nada takes local Cable 64 TV executive, Holly Thompson (Meg Foster; Leviathan; Stepfather II) hostage desperate to convince her of his findings and reveal them to the world. Unwilling to believe him, they part when she calls the police, Nada making his way back to the abandoned box of glasses to distribute to the masses. He bumps into Frank and a lengthy fight ensues, after which Nada explains all and the pair attempt to unravel the plot.
They find that members of their demolished shanty town have formed a collective, they too in rebellion against the alien oppressors. Wearing modified alien-revealing contact lenses, they resolve to destroy the transmission signal which is projecting the aliens’ brainwashing messages. The aliens are revealed to be working alongside complicit human industrialists, soaking up the Earth’s resources to enhance their own world, reducing Earthlings to slaves and the planet hobbled by global warming. Can Nada and the activists stop the aliens before the whole world obeys?
They Live comes at the end of John Carpenter’s golden period, signs of fatigue already evident; the love it or hate it Big Trouble in Little China (1986), the moments of brilliance of Prince of Darkness (1987) tempered by clumsy narrative and dubious acting even then not predicting the agony of some of his 90’s output. Fortunately, Carpenter made the film before the curse of the horror director struck; the ham-fisted, elephantine social commentary which blighted film-makers such as George Romero’s latter day zombie films.
The film is based in part on Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story, “8 O’Clock in the Morning” (or even more likely, the 1986 comic book anthology, Alien Encounters), telling not only in the narrative but also in the length – a classic film it may be but it does feel stretched, indeed it’s remarkable that Carpenter managed to keep proceedings on track – we learn quickly what the problem it takes some time for us to be told the solution – as an A-Z, we are certainly taken the scenic route.
It is clear who Carpenter has an issue with socially and we aren’t given any choice as to who we should side with. In interviews since, he has been even more overt, referring to the oppressors in the film as “Republicans” – fortunately, he restrains himself slightly more behind the camera, a breezy sense of humour preventing stagnation by indignation.
As a satire, the film works, even with slightly comic book aliens as the enemy force, the concept of rich individuals and huge corporations controlling how we live our lives is certainly well within the realms of credibility. The glossy win-at-all-costs capitalist city versus a shanty town of rags and tin-can-hat homeless folk (not to mention the hero literally being called ‘nothing’), may jar a little as an extreme comparison but the subliminal messages which proliferate advertising boards, television and all forms of media feel chilling in the climate of yuppies and excess, certainly no less perverse than the attack on greed and superficiality of American Psycho. The subliminal messages themselves have become iconic; “Consume”, “Do Not Question Authority, “Marry and Reproduce” and, of course, “Obey”.
The film was shot in Los Angeles in March 1988, working from Carpenter’s own screenplay, alongside other key crew members who had regularly worked in the genre or with Carpenter; cinematographer Gary B. Kibbe (Halloween II; Misery), producer Larry J. Franco (The Thing; Mars Attacks!) and make-up artist Francisco X. Pérez (Evilspeak; Friday 13th Part III). The make-up effects of the aliens are made from painted latex, be-wigged skulls which are reminiscent of humans but strange enough to reveal their true menace. Perhaps due to the majority of the shots of the aliens being in black and white, they are genuinely unsettling and have become ironic in their own right, a spoof of the infamous Oscars ‘selfie’ soon being digitally altered for, ironically, satirical effect. Towards the end of the film the aliens are shown in colour, the filter device abandoned.
Piper’s casting as Nada is a surprising choice, though is fitting with Carpenter’s love of disposable pop culture, from B-Movies to video games, the actor coming straight from the carnival of Wrestlemania III ring. Something of a blank canvas to work from, Piper’s legacy is two-fold; the line, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum” (a line from his little black book of wrestling bon mots) and the incredibly lengthy fist-fight between Nada and Armitage, which lasts five minutes and twenty seconds. The fight was choreographed by Piper without Carpenter’s knowledge, though the director was so impressed that he elected to keep it in the film uncut.
It almost goes without saying that the soundtrack is the work of Carpenter himself, assisted as he often was around this period by Alan Howarth. It is extremely circular; repeated pulsing beats, clicks and rhythms tell of an ominous threat but rather more of one which really is ever-present and already amongst us – it is certainly one of Carpenter’s least chilling scores.
Rooted less in supernatural groans and synthetic, eyeless threat, the white collar blues-ish harmonica (synthesised) and military percussion suggest a very contemporary landscape as well as the relentlessness of the benign forces in the film, both the aliens and their human collaborators. As a stand-alone piece, it’s not as enjoyable as earlier Carpenter scores but in the context of the film it has improved somewhat with age. The score has seen several releases on CD and a particularly impressive limited coloured vinyl version on Spencer Hickman’s Death Waltz label.
Made on a modest budget of around $3 million, the film opened to largely muted critical response, the majority disappointed in an apparent lack of imagination and the constant return to Carpenter’s beloved B-Movies as a source of influence.
In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Since Mr. Carpenter seems to be trying to make a real point here, the flatness of They Live is doubly disappointing. So is its crazy inconsistency, since the film stops trying to abide even by its own game plan after a while.” Richard Harrington wrote in The Washington Post, “it’s just John Carpenter as usual, trying to dig deep with a toy shovel. The plot for They Live is full of black holes, the acting is wretched, the effects are second-rate. In fact, the whole thing is so preposterous it makes V look like Masterpiece Theatre”.
The paying audience were slightly more forgiving, sending the film to number one at the American box office, grossing $4,827,000 during its opening weekend and ultimately $13,008,928. The film was, however, very fleeting in its residence in the top ten, the irony being that Halloween 4 was deemed such a threat to its takings that it had its release date moved to avoid the competition (they weren’t wrong, it took nearly $18,000,000).
Time has been kind to the film’s reputation, both critics and fans warming to it in the decades since – perhaps the barbed commentary seems more insightful in retrospect or maybe the 80’s are far enough away now for us to be more gently mocking, rather than us thinking it’s us who are the joke. The film’s imagery has been hugely influential, rarely more so than on graffiti artist Shepard Fairey, whose Andre the Giant ‘Obey’ image now adorns t-shirts worldwide as commonplace as Ramones or Motorhead iconography. Nada’s “bubblegum” line has been used in a video game (Duke Nukem 3D) and by Richard Ayoade’s character in Channel 4 comedy The IT Crowd (“I came here to drink milk and kick ass. And I’ve just finished my milk.”), whilst the fight scene has been aped in the long-running adult animation series, South Park.
Daz Lawrence, MOV!ES and MAN!A