They Live. 1988. Directed & Written by John Carpenter. Based on the short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson.
Starring Rowdy Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George ‘Buck’ Flower, Peter Jason, Raymond St. Jacques, Jason Robards III, Sy Richardson, & Norman Alden.
Alive Films/Larry Franco Productions
Rated R. 94 minutes.
John Carpenter is king of genre cinema. His work transcends any type of value judgements people try placing on horror movies or science fiction. He imbues his screenplays with very real, often times prescient social themes and commentary, even in the stories of his you might not expect to find them. In They Live, those themes are painfully apparent, though done in a way Carpenter doesn’t feel like he’s hammering us over the head with sociopolitical imagery. He makes the whole thing tongue-in-cheek, rather than going entirely into a spectacle of horror with his sci-fi madness. He uses a well-known wrestler, the late Rowdy Roddy Piper as his central character, John Nada, whose literal and figurative journey through the Los Angeles urban landscape becomes our own experience with modernity.
Using the premise of the short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, Carpenter eviscerates American consumerism and materialism, Reaganomics, as well as questions the vast class divide which exists in most American cities. The best part about They Lives is it could genuinely have been made this year and it’d barely need updating. It’s so relevant to the state we’re in today. Given Carpenter made this in 1988, his and Nelson’s respective prescience about American society is downright stunning.
“Our owners, they have us, they control us.”
There’s another world beneath our own— one of class differences, economic divide, racism. It’s not even particularly hidden deep, just below the surface. Carpenter opens the movie with the title, then superimposes it onto a mural of graffiti in Los Angeles. We’re embedded in the city. Moreover, we immediately step into a world of duality. We also see the decay of the urban landscape. Parts of the city are clean, other parts— ones occupied by the homeless, immigrants, various people of colour and economic situations— are in a process of decay.
It’s fitting our lead, John Nada, is revealed behind a passing train coming over the tracks into the city. He’s a man without a home. An itinerant worker coming to L.A. so he might find work. He left Denver, which “lost 14 banks in one week,” letting us in on the economic decline of 1980s USA. He later meets Frank (Keith David), another character symbolic of the socioeconomic situation many tradespeople found themselves in during the era, taken advantage of by Ronald Reagan’s terrible policies and a general uptick in capitalist greed across the country.
Both men sleep in shelters by night, work on a construction site during the day. Their little bit of time in between work/sleep is taken up wandering the city, or being a part of the homeless community. They’re both part of a transient work economy— separated from themselves, their families, and their homes. However, Frank and Nada are completely in different in terms of race. Whereas John believes everyone’s got “their own hard times these days,” Frank can’t afford to be so understanding as a black man. He tells his friend later: “I‘m walking a white line all the time.” Nada is a white guy, so no matter his circumstances he doesn’t have to worry about his race and what that means socially/economically/politically. In opposition, Frank’s blackness forces him to live under a Panopticon of whiteness. For this reason, he has a harder time letting go of the ideological control in the city later in the movie.
“It really boils down to our ability to accept. We don’t need pessimism. There are no limits.”
Eventually, Nada stumbles onto the truth of the city, discovering an entirely other existence right behind the Los Angeles he and Frank and other lower class citizens know. He finds a pair of glasses allowing him to see through what amounts to the ideology of the upper class: capitalism, consumption, and materialism. The glasses also help Nada see the bourgeois ruling class as they truly are: predatory and decaying aliens. They’re “free enterprisers“— intergalactic capitalists monetising modern planets. Suddenly he sees the city stripped of its advertisements/media, revealing subliminal messages. Such as an ad for a transparent computer, basically selling a lack of privacy + erasure of personal barriers, revealed through the glasses only to read OBEY. Also interesting that the ideological world of media is colourised while, after putting on the glasses and cutting through the state control, the subliminal messages display in basic black and white on top of a grey city background.
This is what Kanishka Goonewardena calls “mediation of ideology by urban space,” the adverts and media serving to collectivise “the patterns of consumption,” in turn acting as a measure of social control (Urban Space & Political Consciousness). The movie shows L.A. as built around the rich and powerful— all those ads are mainly aimed at the lower classes, to entice them into becoming agents of consumption and keeping them focused on material culture.
The famous fight in They Live is important for more than just getting to see Piper and David duke it out— they famously choreographed it themselves, fighting for real except for the groin stuff. It’s also significant because Frank’s blackness – controlled by the American economy’s whiteness specifically – has forced him into a space of self-preservation, and the ideology of that economy’s imprinted on his mind. Then there’s Nada— his last name = Spanish for ‘nothing’— who comes into L.A. as a vagrant, though one privileged to be white, so he’s, essentially, a blank slate— a tabula rasa, onto which everything is written, nothing’s been pre-imprinted. He hasn’t been controlled by whiteness in the way Frank has, nor does he have a home like Frank, who hopes to go back one day when financially feasible, so he’s not been indoctrinated in the same way. This means it’s easier for him to wear the sunglasses and let ideology go. Not the case for Frank, which is why Nada has to physically fight him.
In The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Slavoj Žižek discusses this scene particularly in regards to how it represents the process of leaving ideology behind and that to “step out of ideology, it hurts, it‘s a painful experience.” Eventually, after Nada beats Frank enough, he forces the glasses on him and his friend finally sees the real world without all the ideological influence on the city, erasing the “invisible order” influencing him.
“They are dismantling the sleeping middle class”
Another important part of the movie involves the concept of ideological and repressive state apparatuses (ISA + RSA), best exemplified by how the bourgeois aliens all communicate in a horde through the use of “two–way radios” built into fancy watches. The watches are class symbols, serving a dual function as a way of communication about class: in one sense, the watch tells others the wearer is upper class, and in the other, the watch allows the upper class to communicate amongst themselves, plus those who aren’t wearing them become subject to further state control.
At one point, Nada is caught ‘seeing’ through the veil, so an alien calls for backup. Around the corner in an alley he’s confronted with cops, who happen to be bourgeois aliens themselves (even the human cops are turned against human citizens via fear of the dreaded American boogeyman: Communism!). The connection between ideological state apparatus— a “material force of ideology” (Žižek) represented by the watches— and repressive state apparatus— law enforcement— is evident, a direct line between ideology controlling the city v. physical force of law and order controlling the city.
All brings to mind the numerous idiot white people in America as of late calling the cops on black people for simply existing. Then there’s the idea of the two-way watch, conjuring 2018 issues of Facebook spying on our calls through the smartphone app, Alexa listening to all your conversations even while it’s off, and other similar postmodern tech predicaments. Again, an eerie Carpenter prescience rears its head.
“I believe in America. I follow the rules.”
Several Carpenter movies are on my all-time favourites list. His entire filmography, even the couple lesser entries, is a dream. He’s touched on so many different issues, stories, and themes there’s something for every kind of viewer, so long as you dig genre movies. They Live is Carpenter the Master at the top of his game. Because each time you watch this one, there are different things to take away, and the movie’s power grows stronger all the time.
This is a condemnation of America consumerism and materialism, attacking an economy which was a result of Ronald Reagan’s horrible policy decisions. The media, the bourgeois owners of production, the government, and the police are all criticised throughout, more often than not with tongue firmly planted in cheek. We see all the cogs of capitalism and all the destruction its left in its wake across American cities. Carpenter, through Nada, strips advertising and media of all its creative, devious nuance and lays bare its function as a tactic of social control through consumer culture.
They Live is decidedly a story of the USA, rather than the Western world as a whole. While there are extremely similar struggles all over the postmodern world, America’s struggle is so glaringly obvious, and painful, due to the fact it’s a country based specifically on a dream. Carpenter dismantles it in many ways. He also warns the American Dream is named as such because it’s an illusion, a method of manipulation by the ruling class. There’s no more American Dream— only citizens caught in a waking economic/social/political nightmares.