A commerce-crazy America with a widening gap between rich and poor is the backdrop of John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi action movie They Live. John Nada (Roddy Piper) is a homeless labourer who, amid mass economic disenchantment, discovers an alien conspiracy to use Americans as commodities while they live off the fat of the land masquerading as humans.
While following a group of people posing as religious preachers, Nada finds some specially-designed sunglasses that allow him to see subliminal messages such as ‘obey’, ‘marry and reproduce’ and ‘this is your god’ embedded into advertising, television broadcasts and on money itself. More importantly, the glasses interfere with electric rays that disguise the skeletal-like aliens as humans, enabling him to tell the imposters from real people. As it happens, some people are in on the conspiracy, notably the police and the rich, and they are suitably rewarded for aiding the status quo with inflated bank balances, promotions and other material elements of the American Dream.
After a lengthy, yet stripped down, fight scene, Nada convinces his buddy John Armitage (Keith David) to try on the glasses too, and together they find others who have also been enlightened and attempt to beat the system. The film’s high point comes with Nada and Armitage’s trip to the other side, when they pose as alien sympathisers and stumble upon an underworld of decadence and indoctrination. The ideas are simple enough, but they bear a resemblance to the methods used by repressive societies the world over – systems which Carpenter felt were beginning to take over his own country.
The thinly-veiled social commentary of the piece seems a little heavy-handed by today’s standards, with lines such as ‘We all sell out every day, we might as well be on the winning team’ delivered by those whose acquiescence to the aliens has served them well. But this camp dialogue is part of the film’s charm. Even at the beginning of They Live, when Nada looks out over his impoverished surroundings to the skyscrapers that lie beyond and declares, ‘I believe in America, I follow the rules’ – a faith soon tested by his world-shattering discovery – we believe him.
The B-movie aesthetic is used as a vehicle for the social commentary, and black comedy penetrates the film throughout. In fact, Carpenter sweeps aside political preaching to allow the film to finish on a note of humour when the aliens are finally revealed for what they are.
The DVD features a short ‘making-of’ documentary, also made in 1988, which
is worth watching for the hilarious sequence about Piper, a professional wrestler who Carpenter cast after meeting him at a wrestling convention. Piper tells the interviewer: ‘I’ve been electrocuted, I’ve been stabbed three times, I’ve been in a plane crash, I don’t know how many car crashes.’ Carpenter muses: ‘He seems to have lived life…’
The John Carpenter Collection, including Halloween, The Thing, The Fog, Assault on Precinct 13, They Live, Escape from New York and Prince of Darkness, is out on Oct 6. They Live is available from September 22.