As I’m writing this I’m wondering what can be said about They Live that hasn’t already been said. I’m also wondering what’s really been said to begin with. The film wasn’t exactly a commercial success, even though it’s another low-budget John Carpenter film that provided a profit for Universal. Personally, I think it’s one of Carpenter’s best pieces, even if it’s not as complex or big as Escape From New York or The Thing. Every time I finish They Live (I’ve seen it about six times in my life now) I feel like I’ve watched a great short story. The film’s only about 90 minutes long, which is the perfect length for Carpenter’s exploration of Baudrillard’s notion of hyper-reality and Marxist class separation.
They Live is about a drifter named George Nada, a blue collar vagrant looking for work in Los Angeles. Times are tough, unemployment is up, and the opening scene features Nada crossing the train tracks with a backpack and nothing else. His name, Nada, is an interesting choice, since his status as an unemployed hobo illustrates what he is to the ruling class: nothing of value. Job placement offices can’t help him and he lands a job doing construction where he meets Frank (Keith David), another blue collar guy in the same position who leads him to a homeless camp. Nada starts noticing weird things happening around the camp: television signals are scrambled, showing images of an old man talking about somebody oppressing humanity; the church across the street houses a blind preacher that stands outside in the middle of the night holding an antenna and reciting the exact words on the television screen; choir practice going on into the wee hours of the evening. Eventually a riot squad comes in, storms the church, demolishes the homeless camp, and displaces everybody. The next day Nada returns to the church and finds a box of sunglasses hiding inside and this is where the film gets good.
The sunglasses allow the wearer to see the world as it really is – a world filled with subliminal slogans and sounds, whose purpose is subduing humanity. Billboards advertising vacation getaways really tell people to “marry and reproduce,” and American currency states, “this is your god.” The sunglasses also reveal who’s behind this: a group of ugly aliens only visible when wearing the sunglasses. Waking up from his sleeping life, Nada goes on a violent rampage, killing a good deal of aliens and becoming public enemy #1. He eventually teams up with Frank again and the two embark on a quest to save the world from the imperialistic invaders.
As stated earlier, Carpenter’s film obviously explores Marxist ideas, but I’m also convinced it is discussing ideas proposed by Jean Baudrillard. Personally I found Baudrillard’s book Simulacrum and Simulation to be very difficult reading, but I believe I grasp the basic concepts. Baudrillard argues that the world we live in is dictated by the images presented to us by various media sources, creating a version of reality that isn’t based on our own perceptions – hyper-reality. The world around us is charged by those various images and symbols, creating our worldview. If there is an objective version of our society, Baudrillard doesn’t believe it really exists. In regards to They Live, I find Baudrillard’s theories to be relevant. The world of They Live is created by the manufactured images everywhere in our civilization and only when we put on a pair of magic sunglasses do we see the world for what it really is and the façade used to exploit and conquer us is lifted. We are able to see things for how they really are; a world manufactured just like the one we see without the sunglasses. It’s kind of like The Matrix, which was heavily influenced by Baudrillard. The world we experience, at least on the surface, is a fabrication meant to subdue us. Carpenter’s irony, unlike The Matrix, is that he places the general statement of everything containing a subliminal message in blunt terms, terms that whittle everything down to a few words. It’s a compact way of saying things, which gets his point across.
The other theorist that comes to mind when watching They Live is Karl Marx. The world of They Live is filled with Marx’s two classes: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The workers have their labor to sell; the owners have their items that need manufacturing. The inhabitants of the homeless camp are mostly blue collar workers, displaced by a change in industry. Workers are laid-off, production is shipped overseas – the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Although Carpenter uses science fiction to tell his story, ultimately he’s discussing class issues, especially issues pertaining to the earlier days of outsourcing (a good example of outsourcing in the 1980s is Michael Moore’s first film, Roger and Me). Neil Postman’s discussion of the proletariat and bourgeoisie in his book Technopoly fits They Live quite well. Postman calls those with the power, “the winners,” and those without power, “the losers.” He points out that even though the winners control things, the losers will defend the usurpation of power by the winners. In They Live, Nada and Frank are the bad guys, while they’re actually fighting against oppressive aliens, which are nothing more than a metaphor for corporations and politicians, taking advantage of the average citizen.
By giving people creature comforts and disguising their endeavors in fancy advertisements, the bourgeoisie disguise their exploitation. This rings true in our world, where corporations (which are nothing more than a group of people acting under the banner of a fictional entity, complete with the same rights as an individual) use their wealth and influence to accrue more power. It’s not necessarily about money, it’s about control.
I should probably stop talking about They Live in such an academic sense. More than trying to come across as intelligent, I’m trying to flesh out ideas for future ventures. Carpenter’s film is a great example of what good science fiction does: it creates a fictional world, based on our own, used to discuss current events and usually social ills. Films like Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, Planet of the Apes and books like Dune, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Virtual Light are prime examples of good science fiction at work, presenting the world around us in ways that wouldn’t be accepted otherwise. Although They Live wasn’t a commercial success, it did pull a profit. It cost around $3 million to produce and earned about $13 million dollars worldwide. Picking actors that aren’t traditional attractive, such as professional wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper, the film was able to pull off a realistic feel. Blue collar workers don’t look like Brad Pitt or Tom Cruise; they have flaws, blemishes, and aren’t professionally styled. It was also intelligent from a production standpoint because it kept the budget low. Even though Carpenter used a professional wrestler for his lead, the acting is great. Piper delivers his lines with sincerity and when he’s being comedic it’s amazing. “I came here to chew bubble gum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubble gum,” is a standout line. When Piper sees an alien fixing her hair in a store window and states, “that’s like putting perfume on a pig,” I couldn’t stop laughing. David’s performance is exceptional and is only surpassed by his performance in The Thing.
The one complaint I have about the movie is the soundtrack. Normally Carpenter’s scores, using analog synthesizers, are incredible (listen to the soundtracks from Dark Star, Escape From New York, Christine, and Assault of Precinct 13 for a good example of Carpenter’s compositions), but They Live, composed with longtime collaborator Alan Howarth, is awful. It’s a cheap blues score, implementing analog synthesizers that just doesn’t work. I understand Carpenter was trying to demonstrate the “blue” nature of the unemployed and disenfranchised worker in Reagan’s America, but it just didn’t work. Thankfully, the score isn’t featured that much in the movie. The horrible score is made up for by the amazing fight scene between Piper and David in the middle of the film. It’s one of the most ridiculous fights I can think of in film history. It’s probably around ten minutes long and just doesn’t stop. In an interview Carpenter discussed his fascination with professional wrestling in the late ‘80s, which explains this long fight and the wrestling moves performed, such as a body slam and a back suplex. Even if the subtext of the film isn’t of interest, this fight scene alone is a good reason to see They Live.
On a final note, Meg Foster, who plays Holly, was great as the program director at a prominent television station. She’s quite stunning, but her eyes are very pale, appearing creepy at times. It works very well for the film. Also, the film’s screenplay is credited to Frank Armitage even though it’s actually written by Carpenter.
I’m sure I’ll write more about They Live in the future and I welcome any criticism of my exploration. Below is the trailer.