Last night I watched John Carpenter’s 1988 cult smash They Live, which explains (along with a couple of hours of Civilization VI) why today’s post is late. I’ve been eager to catch this flick for awhile, and a fortuitous chain-combo of RedBox coupons and special promotions had me streaming it digitally. What a glorious age for instant gratification.
The basic plot of the film is as follows: out-of-work drifter Nada (played by wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper; the character is named only in the film’s credits) arrives in Los Angeles looking for work. After landing a job on a construction site (the site manager says it’s a “union job,” but Nada lands the gig after asking if the Spanish-speaking crew is in the union, too), Nada meets Frank Armitage (Carpenter veteran Keith David), a black construction worker from Detroit, trying to earn a living for his wife and children back home. Frank takes Nada under his wing, and they head to a soup kitchen shanty town.
While at the town, Nada notices suspicious activity in a nearby church; upon further investigation, he stumbles upon a box of sunglasses that allow him to see the world for how it really is: a black-and-white world filled with subliminal messages like “OBEY” and “MARRY AND REPRODUCE,” as well as constant messages to “BUY” and “CONSUME.” Money reads simply “THIS IS YOUR GOD.”
More shockingly, some humans appear to be fleshless, bulging-eyed aliens, akin to zombies. Piper figures out quickly that the horrifying creatures are not friendly, and he embarks on a shooting spree—which, of course, appears like a random shooting to everyone else.
It unfolds from there: Nada convinces Frank—after a nearly-six-minute alleyway brawl—to try the glasses on for himself. Seeing the world for what it is, the two join up with the small resistance, which is quickly smashed by the fleshless invaders and their human collaborators (which enjoy support from the media and law enforcement). The film ends with the disruption of the device that keeps everyone “asleep” regarding reality, with terrifying (and humorous) consequences.
Much has been written about this film, as its not-so-subtle message of anti-commercialism is low-hanging fruit. No less a scholar than Slovene philosopher Slavoj Žižek cites They Live as an influence on his understanding of ideology. The film inspired street artist Shepard Fairey‘s famous “OBEY” stickers (another fascinating bit of pop culture detritus).
As such, there’s not much I can add, but I have some general reflections. In the age of attempted Deep State coups and a political and media establishment at odds with the common man, They Live contains a certain relevance to culture in 2019 (if there really are subliminal messages in advertising, I wish there were some encouraging people to “MARRY AND REPRODUCE”; the message today is exactly the opposite).
The alien invaders manage to take control because they cut a deal with America’s elites: give us access to your resources and cheap labor, and we’ll make you fabulously wealthy. At a swanky dinner near the end of the film, aliens and humans toast their 39% return-on-investment. Frank Armitage, disgusted, tells one human collaborator that he “sold out his own kind”; the collaborator says, “What’s the threat? It’s just business.”
That scene seems particularly relevant to 2016: globalist elites were eager to serve up a deeply corrupt Hillary Clinton to continue to advance their goals of cheap labor and monochromatic global conformity.
Piper’s character, on the other hand, states his optimism early in the film: “I believe in America.” Even as a homeless drifter, Piper believes he can succeed if he just keeps working hard. But he’s a man of principle—once he realizes the rigged game that’s afoot, he decides to beat them rather than join them.
Consider: the latter option would be so much easier. Betray your own people—humans, or, in the context of the 2016 election, Americans—for a distant, indifferent, self-aggrandizing elite, and reap the rewards. But Piper—a loud-mouthed wrestler—fights back. He wants a fair shake for himself and his countrymen, not a rigged system at the expense of his fellow humans.
His methods are comedic and clumsy (a hallmark of another Carpenter classic, Big Trouble in Little China), but he manages—against all odds—to make it to the top of the alien-collaborator hierarchy, ultimately bringing the whole thing down. One can be forgiven for seeing in Nada President Trump’s historic, unlikely rise to the presidency in 2016.
That said, I shouldn’t take that metaphor too far. Carpenter had no inkling in 1988 that Donald Trump would become president amid the crushing dominance of a politically-correct, Davos Man elite (although Trump discussed the possibility of a run at the time). Carpenter’s message is a more heavy-handed cautionary tale about excessive consumerism and materialism.
There, however, some compelling fruits that have come from ignoring those warnings. While globalization and capitalism have reaped huge financial rewards, they’ve come at the expense of Americans. Frank’s line about betraying “your own kind” resonated heavily with me: just as the human collaborators sold out their people to the aliens, our elites have sold out their countrymen and culture for cheap labor and cheap plastic crap from China.
We will always engage with art and culture in terms of our own experiences, though I would caution against excessive “current year” interpretations. The film is a product of the 1980s. That its message still seems so fresh is, perhaps, an indication of our culture’s stagnation since that glorious decade.
Nevertheless, They Live presents a timeless warning against sacrificing our patrimony for wealth. Judas betrayed Christ for thirty pieces of silver; was that “just business”?
So, is They Live worth watching? Absolutely. I had a blast even before Nada discovered the glasses (which is nearly half-an-hour into the film, or so it felt—it spends a lot of time showing his struggles to find a job). The film contains the iconic line, “I came here to chew bubblegum and kick ass—and I’ll all out of bubblegum.”
Roddy Piper acts the way wrestlers in 1980s films act, which is badly, but it’s perfect for his character, a man who is principled but driven by his id (and libido, with lethal consequences). Keith David’s performance as Frank Armitage steals the show—he just wants to make money to support his family without any hassle, but is drawn into a fight he never wanted.
You’ll see some of the plot twists coming from a mile away, but the film is fun and thought-provoking. I highly recommend you check it out. Of course, I’m a big fan of John Carpenter (Big Trouble in Little China is one of my favorite movies), so your mileage may very. For $2.99, though, it’s worth the rental.