“‘They Live’ was a movie made in direct response to my horror at the Reagan years. Nobody had made a movie about that or like that. Nobody. And everything had been going in the other direction, and I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
-John Carpenter at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood, January 25, 2002.
I was in the audience during this interview, and his quote always stayed with me. The Reagan years may have seemed like a great time for many, but that’s only if you were only invested in your own self-interest, or if you had your head shoved up your ass. So many people bought into, and still buy into, the lie of Reganomics which was designed to make you believe that anybody could become filthy rich. But in the end, all it served to do was widen the gap between the rich and the poor.
“They Live” is on the surface, a action packed B-movie with good guys defeating the bad guys, but it is really one of the most politically subversive movies that has ever been made. What makes it scary is that even today, these type of politics are still in effect, and not much has changed.
I got to see John Carpenter again when he was at a special screening at Arclight Cinemas of another of his big cult hits, “Big Trouble In Little China” (the print of the movie was incredible). They gave us postcards to write down questions, and I could resist writing down the one below:
“You had said that ‘The Live’ was written in response to your horror at the Reagan years. With the (George W.) Bush administration currently wreaking havoc around the globe, don’t you think that this would be the perfect time for a sequel?”
This got a huge laugh out of the audience, and understandibly so. John answered the question very simply,
“The 80s never left us.”
How true. I guess that makes watching “They Live” even more interesting today than when it first came out. Much of what’s going on today is ever present in this film. The gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen exponentially, and greed is just as bad as it ever was. The forces of fear are even more powerful and even more influential than ever before. Even worse, you can’t help but feel that everything in this world is utterly and irrevocably corrupt. You keep searching for that one thing in the world that isn’t corrupt, wondering if you will ever find it.
Thematically speaking, many of Carpenter’s films are usually ahead of their time. “They Live,” from what I understand, was at best a minor hit when it first came out. But like many of Carpenter’s movies, it has gained a huge cult following that remains huge to this very day.
I got to catch it for the first time ever on the big screen last night at the New Beverly Cinema, one of the last standing repertory theaters in the United States. it was being shown as part of a midnight movie series at the theater, sponsored in part by Amoeba Records. It was great watching it with an audience, even if this audience has seen the move several billion times. We all dug those one-liners!
The movie stars WWF wrestler Roddy Pipper, who was a chief enemy of Hulk Hogan in the wrestling world. That I remember clearly, and I despised him for that. Then this movie came out, and I never saw him in the same light ever again. He is perfectly cast here as a man with no name. His character is listed as “Nada” in the end credits, but I guess that shows that this character is meant to represent one of the many nameless faces struggling to make it in America despite their dire financial situation.
Carpenter has always been interested in those rugged characters whose body and face speak many stories of a rough life. He is also interested in characters who refuse to compromise their own values and beliefs, and who struggle to remain the individual that they are in a society that wants to mold them into a barely conscious consumer of society. Nada is definetly in a long line of those Carpenter characters.
Anyway, the movie opens with Nada arriving in a big city (which could really be any big city since it is never named) looking for work. He is clearly broke and homeless, trying to survive in a world that appears to have no real use for him anymore. He ends up finding work at a construction worker and meets up with a fellow struggling american played by the always reliable Keith David. He Keith’s character represents the one who is furious at the world, but continues to play it safe because he doesn’t want to make things worse for himself than they already are. Nada is the contrasting character here, always curious about what is going on around him, and slowly waking up to the truth that surrounds everyone. It’a all shown in the dialogue:
Frank: I’ve walked a white line my entire life, I’m not about to screw that up.
Nada: White line’s in the middle of the road, that’s the worst place to drive.
Nada ends up coming into a possession of a pair of sunglasses that shows him what is underneath what is in front of his eyes. Advertisements, magazines, and even cars have subliminal messages such as:
“DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY”
“NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT”
Then he sees that we are not alone when he spots a rich white guy who, when he sees him through the sunglasses, is anything but human. The makeup effects may be cheap, but they get across the fact that hideous looking aliens are in control of the planet, and that they have been here for longer than anybody knows. Most of these aliens seem to be in control of mostly white people who have the appearance of being wealthy and Republican. Of course, if the movie were made today, it wouldn’t matter which party they come from.
The movie then kicks into high action mode as Nada seeks to rid the town, if not the world, of these hideous creatures who have controlled us with subliminal messages for far too long. This leads to a collection of awesome one liners that are never ending and are ever so memorable:
“I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum.”
That above quote was actually adlibbed by Roddy Piper, who had taken the line from a list of things he planned to say in wrestling interviews.
Plus, who can forget:
“Life’s a bitch, and she’s back in heat!”
“Mama don’t like tattletales!”
“I’m giving you a choice: either put on these glasses or start eatin’ that trash can.”
The movie also has one of the best and rawest dropdown kick ass fights between Roddy Piper and Keith David. It was originally supposed to be a short 30-second fight, but it ended up being over 5 minutes. These two really succeeded in kicking the crap out of each other. This isn’t just some Hollywood choreographed battle with some pussy-whipped bitches. This is a true mano-a-mano battle with Keith David showing you just how bad ass he is, and it gives Roddy a chance to practice some of his monster wrestling moves where the opponent ends up on the concrete pavement instead of the wrestling mat. Roddy’s motivation in the scene is to make Keith wear those sunglasses so he can wake up to what’s going on around him, and he comes on like Ray-Ban salesman going mad and desperate to make a sale. After the fight is over and the two men check into a hotel, Nada sums it up perfectly:
“Ain’t love grand?”
We never get a clear idea of who these aliens are or where they come from, which really makes them all the more dangerous because no one can ever be really sure how to defeat them. I like the fact that we don’t everything about these guys. In movies these days, everybody wants EVERYTHING explained to them so that they won’t feel more stupid than they already are. Being ambiguous about the aliens gets your imagination rolling, forcing you to come up with your worst fears of what these ugly looking things can do. The more you know about them, the less threatening they become.
Carpenter’s vision of this world is of the rich having all the power, and others being forced to submit to their will. People end up giving into the aliens by “selling out,” or compromising their values so that they can be as rich and wealthy as they want. You may come out alright with having the material goods we always longed for, but what about your soul? Do you really have to put a price tag in it? Is it really worth it to sell out your friends and your own kind so that you can feel better about yourself? These are the important questions that Carpenter asks the audience with this movie.
There’s a lot of reference to the problems in the world when this movie was made. I somehow get the feeling that things have not changed all that much since when this movie was first released. Look at this dialogue and let me know what you think:
“Some are being recruited. The creatures are trading wealth and power. Most of us just sell out right away. All of a sudden we get promoted. Our bank accounts get bigger. We start buying new houses, cars. Perfect isn’t it? We’ll do anything to be rich!”
Part of this is personified in the character of Drifter played by George “Buck” Flower. His character starts off as your typical middle-aged bum with nothing to his name. We see him again towards the end of the movie as a man dressed in a tuxedo as though he just won the lottery. Things end up turning around for him. But it has not come as easy as he thinks it has. You can understand his motivation for getting out of his situation in life, but what about morally? His explanation for what he did and what the aliens are doing is hardly excusable:
“What’s the threat? We all sell out everyday! Might as well be on the winning team!”
His preceeding speech in the movie gets at the problem more with the world than with extra terrestrials, hence the big lie of Reaganomics:
“It’s business, that’s all it is! You still don’t get it, do you boys? There ain’t no countries anymore! No more good guys! They’re runnin’ the whole show! They own everything, the whole godamn planet! They can do whatever they want! What’s wrong with havin’ it good for a change? Now they’re gonna let us have it good if we just help them! They’re gonna leave us alone! Let’s make some money! You can have a little taste of the good life too! I know you want it, everybody does!”
Oh yes! Everybody does! There’s a reason we always buy those lottery tickets, and it’s not just to help schools (assuming that ever has).
What about Carpenter’s take on the environment?
“Look around at the environment we live in. Carbon dioxide, flourocarbons, and methane have increased since 1958. Earth is being aclimatized. They are turning our atmosphere into their atmosphere.”
Have things changed at all? With Al Gore’s Oscar winning documentary “An Inconvinient Truth” being as popular as it is, no one can deny the dangerous power of global warming, and of how long it has been a problem for us. “They Live” is full of piercing analogies that are easy to see and hard to deny. The aliens are basically the government, the ones with the most power, who turn a blind eye to the sufferings of the working class and the poor. A big problem during the Reagan years, and just as big a problem now. Maybe even more than before. In addition to making us live in a culture of fear, we have those raising gas prices.
The movie climaxes in typical Carpenter western fashion, with a shoot out between the heroes and the masquerading aliens. Many say the movie “degenerates” into a shootout. I just think that Carpenter is playing into his fantasies of us fighting back and saving the day. We all want to see the working man get back at the government that considers them irrelevant.
The real heroes of the movie are Nada and Frank, two men who refuse to sell out and compromise their own values. They stay true to who they are and kick ass and refuse to be as selfishly motivated as the aliens are. They are prepared to give up their own lives to wake up the world around them. That seems to be John Carpenter’s definition of a hero in many of his movies. It’s also about the individual who does not march around with the rest of the crowd, and who thinks for him or herself. We need those people in society, desperately.
Stylistically, this movie may be dated, but not thematically. Watching this now 20-year old movie, it’s almost frightening how things have not really changed. Yet after all this time, there are some out there determined to kick some extra terrestrial butt!
This movie was done on a low budget, which explains some of the makeup and special effects here. But this way, Carpenter managed to final cut, and it allowed him to make the movie his own way, and that is the only way it would have worked. Imagine a studio doing a big budgeted remake of this movie. They would have allowed certain characters to live and win the day, and come out alright and to win the day without much cost to themselves. That could have been living happily ever after. Such an ending to this story would be utterly contradictive to what Carpenter came up with, and would suck away all of it’s subversive energy.
If Hollywood is to remake this movie (and they are remaking a lot of Carpenter’s movies these days), they need to make it even more subversive than this one. That’s the only way it can ever work.
I’m not sure what has happened to Roddy Piper after all these years. He may just be stuck in the hellish world of direct-to-video movies. Shame. This was his first big movie, and he was really good. He may not be a great actor, but he sells the role completely, and we can believe him as the down on his luck man who still believes in the opportunities that America has to offer.
What is there to say about Keith David that hasn’t already been said? The man is brilliant and such an amazing presence in anything he acts in. He never lets us down, and he is still around doing great work. I don’t see him ever disappearing. And after watching his big smackdown in the movie with Roddy Piper, can you picture any other actor going up against Roddy that way? They wouldn’t stand a chance next to Keith!
There’s also Meg Foster, who has the strangest set of eyes of any actor ever on this planet. All the movies I have seen her in, she looks like she is from another planet and inhabiting human form. Was she wearing contacts all the time? Was she born with those eyes. Someone has to explain that to me because she looks like no one else. She has this etheral presence around her, even if her acting is a bit forced here and there.
You also have the typical John Carpenter players with Peter Jason who is in every other of his movies, and he is always dependable. Carpenter may not always pick the best actors in each of his films, but he is very smart in casting those whose appearance helps to establish the world his movie takes place in. He doesn’t cast models and good looking types that don’t belong in this sort of thing.
Even on a low budget, John Carpenter succeeds brilliantly in creating an atmosphere of suffocating doom. We can never see outside of the city this movie takes place in, but you come out of it believing that the city is not the only place the aliens have infiltrated. The walls keep closing in on Nada, and there always seem to be no escape. The media ends up portraying his character as a psychotic nut, and it would be impossible for anyone to not believe that since they don’t know him. There’s no rest for the man who doesn’t conform and who knows more than he should.
I am a huge Carpenter fan of his movies and his music. His score to this one definetly has a western feel to it when Nada first comes into town, and it captures the mood of suppression as the police come in to lay waste to where the homeless sleep. This was back when John worked a lot with Alan Howarth who provides many of the great sound effects in here.
This remains one of Carpenter’s best, and one of the few movies of the 80s to take shots at an administration that led this country astray (it wasn’t the last administration to do that, unfortunetly). I would love to see Carpenter make another movie on the big screen again, if we can take him away just long enough for the terrific work he’s done on Showtime’s “Masters Of Horror.” He can’t still be licking his wounds over “Ghosts Of Mars” now, can’t he?
Big thinks to Amoeba Records for helping to put this together as a midnight showing, and for Universal Pictures for lending out a very nice print of the movie that has not been done in by the ravages of time. Big thanks to New Beverley Cinema which continues to be a big influence in my education of film. Our thought’s and prayers remain with the family of the theater’s owner, Sherman, who passed away unexpectedly passed away a few weeks ago. If you are ever in the LA area, be sure to check out this theater which is on the corner of La Brea and Beverly. You support will be much appreciated, and you can see a double feature for only $7.
Long live John Carpenter!
**** out of ****