Written and directed by John Carpenter, “They Live” is genre filmmaking at it’s finest. Overtly political and eerily prescient with it’s themes and imagery, this film from Carpenter is one that could (or should) be remade or rebooted (or however you want to phrase it) with today’s issues and politics. Famous Wrestling star “Rowdy” Roddy Piper plays as the lead here, John Nada, a wandering vagrant looking for work. As Nada enters Los Angeles, he’s optimistic about his opportunities despite his standing in life. Eventually he’s hired as a construction worker and one of his fellow homeless workers, Frank (Keith David), offers to show him where he and others in similar situations live, a small community of ramshackle housing just outside of downtown L.A. After he’s accepted by the multiracial and marginalized people, Nada begins to notice a few strange things taking place.
In the homeless community there’s a couple television sets strewn about with a few people aimlessly watching them. Though when alternative programming begins to break through the static, a man’s face appears as he tries to bring the truth to the people. He warns of the ruling class who own us, using humanity as cattle, and taking advantage of our fondness for wealth for the loss of the human race. No, these aren’t Wall Street Executives, Politicians, or Industrial Tycoons- they’re an alien race hiding amongst us and using these positions of power to subjugate the masses. The allegory isn’t subtle, but it sure is a fun concept, and Carpenter squeezes every drop of vile ichor of defiance against his real world targets as he can. Not long after the revolutionary programming is cut from the air, Nada witnesses one of the homeless men hurrying off to a church just on the outskirts of the shantytown. Piquing Nada’s interest, he decides to go check it out. As he enters into the back of the church, he sees cardboard boxes all over the place alongside a chemical lab of some sort. After he accidentally trips into a breakaway wall, he quickly puts the fake wall back into place and heads back to the shantytown. Things rapidly escalate out of control after this with helicopters hovering over the revolutionaries’ church hideout before they get paranoid and escape just before an army of police and SWAT teams descend upon the church. When they don’t find their victims, they turn to the homeless shantytown and swiftly destroy it with brutality and efficiency. The next morning after the demolition, Nada heads back to the church and stumbles across the one cardboard box left inside the fake wall he’d fallen into before. Inside are a bunch of black sunglasses, curiously, he takes the box and heads into downtown L.A. before tying on a pair. The result is a profound awakening for Nada as the sunglasses allow him to see the true meanings of all the advertisements throughout the city in black and white.
As he wanders about the city in sheer awe, he also realizes that the glasses allow him to see which people are disgusting aliens in hiding, and which are simply humans. Notably, most of the upper class and people in positions of privilege are alien impostors enjoying the finer things in life. After he reveals to a few aliens that he can see them, they immediately (and creepily) all turn towards him from across crowds and stores and speak into their watches describing Nada’s appearance and reporting it like a hivemind collective. “We’ve got one that can see“. So after causing a bunch of raucous and gaining a whole lot of attention for himself, Nada takes up arms and openly starts killing any impostor aliens that he can find. After this backfires when he finds a human he (wrongly) thinks he can trust, Holly (Meg Foster) one of the TV executive personalities in L.A., Nada searches for Frank. Which brings me to one of the silliest yet most memorable fight scenes in film to this day. Frank wants nothing to do with the danger and notoriety that Nada’s earned, but Nada desperately wants to convince the only person that’s been a friend to him in the city to see the truth and neither will back down. Thus resulting in a six minute long fight scene in a Los Angeles alley, every time you think it’s over, it just keeps going. Apparently, Roddy Piper and Keith David choreographed the whole fight themselves and mostly fought it out as you saw it onscreen, with the exception of those groin shots and the obvious work that goes into fight scenes in films to avoid actual harm. Finally, when Nada forces the glasses onto Frank’s face and he sees the truth, he is shocked and energized to fight against the system with Nada. The third act gets silly with it’s level of over the top violence and Nada’s one-liners are typical of many 1980’s action stars, but it’s all in good fun. Eventually the two escape using the aliens teleportation to find a hidden bunker of self congratulating aliens and the humans that got rich off of the cooperation and further enslavement of humanity. It’s another on-the-nose commentary about those who help to enable the rich and elite to control the majority of people, and I enjoyed the anti-establishment tone and messaging Carpenter was going for throughout the film.
As the two work their way through the compound, they discover that the aliens are using a broadcasting signal that emits waves that mask their appearance to the masses. So, obviously, they head towards the tower on top of the building to destroy it. On the way there they’re met by one of the men at the homeless encampment who was actually a human mole in the shantytown who congratulates them for being accepted into the big leagues and shows them around. Eventually the two out themselves and make a last ditch effort to scale the skyscraper’s stairwells to the roof. Once there, Holly tries to stop Nada, but he declines and destroys the broadcasting device and is unceremoniously gunned down, but not before he gives the aliens one last middle finger. As the signal fades, the aliens begin to appear in their true forms across the globe and the disgust on the humans’ faces everywhere reveal an optimistic note to end on.
“They Live” is ripe with potential for a sequel in today’s world. If the Reaganomics of the 1980’s had enough potential for cinematic mockery and criticism than the Trump era is perfect for a sequel of this kind. All of the social commentary that made “They Live” work so well could be applied here tenfold. Income inequality has skyrocketed since the 1980’s, Trump himself is the epitome of a stooge impostor that enforces policies and executive orders that pit the middle class against each other based on race and hatred, I mean, the material for this basically writes itself. Just toss John Cena in for the Nada archetype of Middle-America everyman and team him up with Lakeith Stanfield or Daniel Kaluuya and have them end up taking on the elite alien overlords and call it “We Sleep”. You could do so much with this concept in today’s world, just think of the examination of social media and smartphones as tools of the subjugation of the masses- I mean, this needs to happen.
Final Score: Six Minutes of Street Fighting
*A quick note: I don’t usually get too political in my reviews or analysis of films- but as this film is uniquely political in nature, I felt that it was vital to the discussion. Please be kind and courteous if you leave comments, lets have a civil discourse if we must disagree. Hell, disagreeing about politics is about the most American thing you can do, let’s just not turn to name calling or personal attacks- it’s just a movie after all. Thanks for reading!