They Live

December 2, 2010

Look around you. People are concerned only with status and wealth. Everyone is busy accruing material goods, but nobody thinks about the less fortunate. Television commercials constantly chirp their inane messages, while politicians tell us how great everything is.

Did you ever wonder who’s behind all this? The culprits are among us. But no, they’re not yuppies. They’re aliens.

At least, that’s what John Carpenter’s They Live explains to us. They Live is Carpenter’s wonderfully wicked blend of social satire and science fiction, an Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the Reagan era.

As the drifter hero (Roddy Piper) of They Live discovers, aliens have infiltrated Earth and assumed human form. They’re incredibly ugly, but the only way to see them in their true state is with special sunglasses. The sunglasses also expose the subliminal messages that the aliens have plastered on every billboard, magazine, and signpost, messages straight out of 1984 that encourage docility: “No Independent Thought,” “Conform,” “Obey.” (We can see through the sunglasses in a nightmare black-and-white that recalls Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.)

The aliens are responsible for the world’s bad stuff, from toxic waste to happy-talk news shows and the colorization of movies. But, as Carpenter and screenwriter Frank Armitage are quick to point out, the human population happily goes along, as long as we get out piece of the action.

Carpenter, doing his best work since Starman, gets all of this spiky commentary into the shape of a foot-stomping action movie. He lets the opening reels play out with the unhurried ease of a pro, and then he starts the fun rolling. The story takes its broad jumps, but Carpenter never stops to apologize; he’s too busy having a good time.

The set-pieces alone are outrageous: the terrific sequence in which Piper first dons the sunglasses, whereupon he promptly guns down as many of the “formaldehyde-faced” aliens as he can; the final trek through the aliens’ underground city beneath Los Angeles, to the tower where they broadcast the signal that becalms the masses; and the cartoon-like, knock-down-drag-out fistfight Piper has with his best friend (Keith David).

Roddy Piper, by the way, may be best known as “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, the professional wrestler who used to show up for his fights wearing a kilt and packing a bagpipe. Piper is no actor, but he’s got a relaxed screen presence and the pronounced musculature that serves him well in this role. As the last best hope of mankind, he’s a pretty laid-back guy.

First published in the Herald, November 4, 1988.

Now that Jonathan Lethem has written a book-length analysis of They Live, I suppose the movie will become all respectable and honored. (Just kidding—that’s never going to happen, because the film is built to circumvent any such impulse.) But it is quite a picture. It opened the weekend before a presidential election, yet did little to dent the Bush-Quayle victory. I wish Carpenter had kept making this kind of movie every year, but it didn’t work out that way. And yes, I know that Frank Armitage is a pseudonym for Carpenter himself, although I didn’t know that in 1988.