Surfacing during a time when Regan’s politics were powerbombing the American working class through the announcer’s table of poverty, John Carpenter’s They Live is quite possibly the most socially relevant genre film ever made about the class system.
Loping into L.A. looking for a job, John Nada (a magnificent “Rowdy” Roddy Piper somehow convincing as an everyman despite having the ability to gutwrench suplex a man onto concrete) has hit hard times. Moving from city to city, building site to building site, all he has to his name is the contents of his back pack and a set of tools. Settling into a shanty town of men and women enduring similarly hard times all he wants to do is make an honest day’s living for an honest day’s pay. Everyone’s going through hard times, he reasons, but he still believes in America.
Well, John’s about to have a wake up call, literally. Nosing around the shanty town’s makeshift chapel and stumbling on a pair of bargain basement, unremarkable sunglasses, he uncovers a life altering conspiracy.
When he put’s the sunglasses on it reveals the world how it actually is. We are all under the thrall of materialistic, skull faced aliens who have infiltrated and are controlling the upper classes. This is no invasion that has to be stopped before it’s too late, in many ways it’s already too late. Selling out their own species for a taste of the comfortable life, many humans, knowingly and unknowingly, work along side the aliens, making sure the bug-eyed, space-yuppies have total control of government, police and media.
Upon making this staggering discovery, Nada goes from hopeful optimist to blunt instrument of rage, indulging in the sort of shooting spree you’d see sensationalized on Fox News. Can Nada, with the aid of a few friends halt this occupation or will we all remain asleep and remain enslaved to the all mighty space-dollar?
John Carpenter, due to some misadventures while delving into Hollywood politics, has always been somewhat anti-establishment, his mistrust in authority rising to the forefront of other movies in his back catalogue such as Assault On Precinct 13, Escape From New York and The Thing, all of which feature prominent anti-heroes gleefully bucking the system. John Nada (who’s name literally means nothing) may be the most obvious example of this but he’s oddly also the most relatable. You see simplicity is the key to a film as deceptively complex as They Live, and Carpenter, shrewd bugger that he is, knows that none of the satire will land unless he contains it within a compelling story.
And that he reliably does, grounding his downbeat tale with solid storytelling (the carefully laid out scene where Nada first puts on the glasses is textbook on how to lay out a concept quickly and completely) and a measured pace. His leads are fun to hang out too with genre favourite Keith David lending more than able support as Piper’s reluctant wing man.
And then there’s the fight… Oh Jesus, that fight.
The scene where Nada and Frank brawl for nine and a half exhausting minutes just simply because the latter refuses to put on those life changing glasses is meant as a metaphor for how tough it can be for someone to get up off their duff and actually try and change the world around them. But it’s also funny as fuck.
In fact, the whole film swaggers with a dark spiteful humour, dishing out a cruel and brutal, darkly hilarious main course with it’s side order of hope. Nothing in this film goes like it’s supposed to, there’s no kind hand to assure you everyone’s gonna be ok and everyone is a righteous white hat. Those expecting a straight ahead action thriller (as I did at aged twelve) will be confused and downright frustrated but this is exactly They Live’s point. Sometimes opposing will get you killed, sometimes losing may be easier, sometimes traitors get away with it and just because you are fighting for a just cause, it doesn’t mean you’re ever going to see the fruits of your labour. Delighting in these hard to swallow facts, Carpenter wraps his movie not in his usual electronic beats but goes for a more blues led theme that underscore the film perfectly.
Generally regarded as Carpenter’s truly last great film it’s remarkably telling that even now he referers to it in interviews as “a documentary”. When you flick on the news these days, it’s somewhat hard to disagree…
So stock up on bubblegum and prepare to kick ass. We sleep. They Live. It rules.