(1988) Directed by John Carpenter; Written by Frank Armitage (aka: John Carpenter); Based on the short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” by Ray Faraday Nelson; Starring: Roddy Piper; Keith David, Meg Foster, Peter Jason and George “Buck” Flower; Available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
“I believe that the ‘80s have never ended. They’re still with us today. We’ve never repudiated this Reaganomics idea. Everything is trickle down. They’re still here. They’re making more money than ever. They’re still among us.” – John Carpenter
“The name of the game is ‘make it through life,’ although everyone’s out for themselves, and looking to do you in at the same time.” – Frank (Keith David)
Science fiction has consistently been one of John Carpenter’s favorite genres, creating an ideal playpen for examining social issues. Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live, based on Ray Faraday Nelson’s 1963 short (and I mean short) story, “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” is a vitriolic Trojan horse, under the auspices of a grade-B action movie. In the original story, the protagonist George Nada is commanded to “awake” during a hypnotism demonstration, which changes his perception of reality. He discovers humanity has been hypnotized to accept our masters, an alien race known as the Fascinators, who are bombarding us with a constant barrage of subliminal messages. They Live updates the story to address the Reagan years and the growing divide between rich and poor. It exemplifies how knowledge is power, but also how the mere possession of that knowledge can be dangerous.
Writer/director Carpenter expands on Nelson’s story, depicting Nada (meaning “nothing” in Spanish) as a homeless man who stumbles onto the truth, thanks to a pair of special sunglasses. He discovers that an alien invasion has covertly taken place, and humans blindly serve their new masters. They transmit a signal that keeps us blind and deaf to what’s going on under our noses, influencing us at every turn about what to buy, what to think and how to live. Hidden messages are peppered throughout the city, reinforcing the aliens’ message of compliance, including: “Consume,” “No Independent Thought,” and “Marry and Reproduce.” Money and mass-consumerism become the opiate of the masses, keeping the human populace distracted from the real issues at hand. Tranquilized by mindless television shows, magazines and a lack of critical thinking skills, people go about their daily lives, guided like rats in a Skinner box. When police demolish a homeless camp, it’s just another example of an eyesore that needed to be eradicated, better kept out of sight and out of mind.
Pro-wrestler Roddy Piper seems an unlikely choice for the disenfranchised everyman Nada, but he pulls it off with credibility, humor and pathos. His character is aptly named, as marginalized individual living on the fringes of society, lacking the political clout or social wherewithal to evoke change. Status and worth are determined by the size of your bank account. Nada belongs to a growing population of working poor – he’s employed, finding a job at a construction site, but can’t afford to keep a roof over his head.
Frank (Keith David) is Nada’s nominal, albeit skeptical companion, who works at the same construction site. Things aren’t exactly amicable between the two after Nada becomes a fugitive from the police. When Nada attempts to convince Frank to don the glasses that enabled him to view the aliens, things fall apart in a hurry. What ensues is one of the longest fight sequences* on record. About halfway through, you’ll wonder why Frank didn’t just humor his buddy and put on the damn glasses, but of course, we wouldn’t have the elaborate, protracted scuffle. This self-indulgent nod to The Quiet Man by Carpenter is undeniably excessive, but memorable.
* Depending on whose version you believe (Carpenter, Piper, or David), the fight scene took anywhere from two weeks to two months to plan in Carpenter’s back yard.
The third principal character in this cautionary tale is Holly, a successful television producer played by Meg Foster. Unlike Nada and the other individuals involved in the alien resistance effort, her motives are more ambiguous. She’s obviously profited from the current arrangement, and seems to be okay with being manipulated. This raises the question: Is it more disturbing to be deaf and blind to what’s going on, or aware of everything, and complicit? No matter how repressive a society is, there will always be those who will buy into it, favoring personal comfort over the suffering of others. Carpenter argues it’s an easier decision to make if you’re one of the “haves.” even if they know they’re being manipulated.
Considering the film’s modest $4 million budget, Carpenter really got his money’s worth. The bug-eyed, skull-faced aliens,*/** courtesy of Francisco X. Pérez (listed as Frank Carrisosa in the film), are among cinema’s most recognizable movie monsters. Jim Danforth provided the matte paintings for the hidden messages, which are depicted in black and white, along with the aliens themselves. The filmmakers created a homeless camp, hiring many actual homeless individuals as extras. For one of the key scenes, Carpenter and crew filmed in subterranean access tunnels underneath Los Angeles municipal buildings, providing a believable center of operations for the aliens.
* Fun Fact: Stunt Coordinator Jeff Imada played most of the aliens (known as “ghouls” during the production).
** Bonus Fun Fact: Carpenter’s wife Sandy King (who also served as associate producer and script supervisor) designed the alien faces.
They Live proudly wears its B-movie lineage on its working-class sleeve, with its fair share of crazy stunts, gunplay and corny one-liners (courtesy of Mr. Piper). These low-brow, but endearing elements make the socio-political commentary easier to swallow. On the other hand, some elements don’t work quite as well. Nada and Frank appear a little too well-toned and nourished for people living on the streets. Also, I’m not sure how the glasses affect the ability to hear subliminal messages, but these are moments when it’s best to suspend disbelief.
They Live is Carpenter at his subversive best, reminding us how little society has changed in nearly 30 years. Unlike some more disposable movies from the dayglow decade, the film remains as relevant now (if not more so) as it was then. As with so many of Carpenter’s movies, They Live wasn’t an enormous hit, but it’s gained a fervent, well-deserved following. This could be Carpenter’s scariest film, from an ideological perspective, since the war was already lost before it started. Along with Escape from L.A., it’s one of Carpenter’s most political films, a call to wake up and see what’s going on. Whether or not we choose to heed the call is up to us. The sad truth is, however, it doesn’t take aliens to produce an anesthetized society, void of conscience or independent thought. Or maybe that’s exactly what the aliens wanted us to think all along.