They Live (1988) – Analysis

John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) is one of the greatest conspiratorial science-fiction movies in existence. Following a vagabond, John Nada (based on the comic of the same name) played by Roddy Piper, we explore the deepest corners of society and I’ll be damned if a movie that’s 30 years old still doesn’t hold up today. Joining a secret cult of sorts, John learns of the true secrets of life around us and it pushes him just a tad bit over the edge. The rich keep getting richer, and the poor keep getting poorer, all while the skull-faced-aliens laugh about it and hold secret meetings. They live, we sleep.

After watching the Blu-ray released by Shout Factory, I thought it would be fun to dig a little deeper into the special features and I stumbled across Carpenter’s development of the film and what the film meant to him in a social-political sense. He basically was equating the society in the film, to Reagan’s society in the age the movie was released. To him, America seemed to relish in the division being created between the upper and lower classes, with the president, who came from a rich background, being in on some sort of shitty joke. The ‘aliens’ (which presumably are Republican) took control of all of politics and wealth distribution and in turn, crafted a society built to serve themselves.

Obviously, the film isn’t just a hive mind of democratic ideologies throughout. I mean, it’s John Carpenter for god’s sake. So obviously, there is a massive element of apocalypse woven into the film as well as a fight scene that is six minutes long. I do think we can draw allegories to the political climate of then and now though, and though the movie is self-fulfilling in it’s message, there may be some more nuanced messages that could pass by the average viewer.

The skull-faced aliens are definitely human. I know, they look like aliens and are literally from another planet, but that’s only because our world in their view is somewhat of a third-world. They take advantage of those beneath them and create a slave class, as seen in the film, whilst promoting themselves to higher positions in the social hierarchy and capitalist complex. This is comparative to Reaganomics at the time, where the conservative initiative was to give more money to the rich ‘hoping’ it would trickle down to the poor. Taxes were cut, the military boomed, and markets were deregulated.

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Unfortunately, this is still the case in todays society. That is not the only message that Carpenter is trying to get across though. It’s obvious that he thinks we are a slave to the system in itself as well, not just the socio-economic aspect. Obey, Stay Asleep, and similar signage is seen throughout the sunglasses imagery in the film, and I think by this Carpenter is making a connection to what predicament we have put ourselves in. We don’t allow ourselves to live outside of normalcy and when someone breaks through those barriers, they are still trapped in the society in which they helped create.

Though John Nada is a drifter at the start of the film, and he obviously isn’t conforming to the normal nine-to-five lifestyle, he still has to make ends meet just like the rest of us. Later in the film, when Nada is trying to help others see the things that he has been seeing for the majority of the runtime, they deny any pushes he makes in that direction. The six-minute fight scene previously spoken about is a direct conflict that arises from Nada trying to get his former coworker to see what he sees through his sunglasses. In this way, it seems as if Carpenter is showing a deliberate struggle that he is going through to get people to open their eyes, and even when the information is as easy as putting on a pair of sunglasses to swallow, people are still going to fight their hearts out to stay enslaved to a broken system.  

In a simple story, Carpenter is trying to say a lot. It never comes across as forced though or unintelligible. Carpenter does an excellent job through both theme and imagery to set the tone of what this movie is about and in any case, succeeds to convey what he was trying to convey from the beginning of the movie. To the average person, I believe this movie can provide an interesting perspective of what the world is like and allow us to see through a lens, though they may be UV-protected and tinted, that we may not have normally been destined to look through. At the time of release, the movie is criticizing Reagan’s administration, but I think, allegorically, we can also use the film to criticize Trump’s. There is an otherworldly obsession with greed and power in this country, and unfortunately, a lot of people don’t want, or refuse to recognize it.  

They Live may not be the best acted or most engaging film of all time, but it does draw a lot of attention for its beautiful imagery and amazing dialogue. “I’m here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of gum” may very well be the best line every uttered in a film, and unbeknownst to me, it’s actually an improve by Roddy Piper as well. Whether revealing a new layer of society to us, or simply entertaining us with street-brawls and gun fights, They Live has a place in my heart, and it should hold some weight in yours too, regardless of political ideologies. We all live on the same planet, and we all learn the same lessons, some more important than others.

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