They Live

Screenplay by John Carpenter, from Ray Nelson’s short story, “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” (1963).

97 mins., 1988, R.

Director John Carpenter has always been an extremist, having created one of the greatest bogeymen of all time, Jason, in Halloween (1978) and one of the scariest dystopian prison islands of all time, Manhattan, in Escape from New York ( 1981). The Los Angeles of They Live is also scary and its wealthy ruling elite are control freaks and monsters. So what else is new? They enforce their power over the masses using subliminal ads and brainwashing slogans, such as “Obey,” “Consume,” “No Independent Thought,” and, my favorite, printed on the paper money, “This Is Your God.”

This elite is, however, literally out of this world. They are aliens who have colonized the earth as if it were a third world country, using select privileged humans as their neocolonial lackeys. Globalization to them has a special and precise meaning: our blue-green planet is theirs to exploit.

Only the wonderfully named John Nada, i.e. John Nothing (played by Roddy Piper), an unemployed hunk who lucks into a construction job, can see the aliens’ hideous faces and decode their subliminal messages (reminiscent of J.G. Ballard’s classic short story, “The Subliminal Man,” also 1963) by wearing a special pair of sunglasses he finds in what turns out to be a rebel hideout. Although this kind of maneuver is routine for sci-fi, here it joins a social protest agenda perhaps critical of Reaganomics.

Although the film begins with an urban grit mise-en-scene–opening shots of the freight yards, graffiti walls (with “They Live” as one of the tags), and a view of Los Angeles from the bottom up–by the time Nada has discovered the aliens’ secret, we drift into a vigilante film, with the human “terrorists” (as they are called) fighting both the aliens and the “human power elite” allied with them.

Coincidences and shoot-outs abound: Nada kidnaps a producer with the very TV studio that is sending out the signal that makes the aliens appear human. Betrayals both personal and global mark the film’s end, but we suspect that the aliens–or “free enterprisers,” the title they prefer–might have ended up like the steel companies one of Nada’s human friends once worked for: “We gave the steel companies a break when they needed it” and after they took the money they closed the factories.

The film ends metaphorically and brilliantly: an alien having his way with an easy earth girl loses his edge when his cover is blown.

P.S. Even Variety, 1 Jan. 1988, loved it: “Conceived on 1950s B-movie sci-fi terms, They Liveis a fantastically subversive film, a nifty little confection pitting us vs them, the haves vs the have-nots.”




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