Let’s put the blame right where it belongs. Straight on John Carpenter’s film They Live. Released back in 1988, it was lambasted by many mainstream critics. Although not exactly spelled out, their antipathy was never about artistic failings or lack of box office appeal. Most likely, it was about appeasing the watchdogs in the Reagan administration. As Gertrude chided her son Hamlet, “Thou hast thy father much offended.”
Desmond Ryan of The Philadelphia Inquirer: “As a movie, They Live is lethargic. As election propaganda, it’s terrific.” Steve Newton of Georgia Straight: “Carpenter should stick to what he’s good at-scaring folks-and leave the political satire to Spitting Image.” Janet Maslin of The New York Times: “Credibility isn’t the problem with John Carpenter’s They Live… but execution is.”
However, its dead-on aim at a reigning culture’s control and manipulation of the population struck deeply with audiences, and soon ensconced it in the sanctuaries of cult favorites and streaming platforms. It’s a story of aliens employing police repression and thought control. Even though it relies on the largely-discredited subliminal message theory, people got the point. They’re being manipulated. And lately, it’s only gotten worse. Could it be that the film is more relevant today than it was in 1988?
Aliens have landed—who knows when? Or where? We see no spaceships. Yet they have penetrated society, having wormed their way into banks, police forces, the mainstream media, and the impenetrable halls of power. “Credible?” Yes, thanks Janet. The opposition devises special sunglasses that reveal these creatures in crude high-contrast black and white. They sort of look like Bizarro from the DC Superman comics. Could these rebels be today’s anti-authoritarian bloggers, scurrying for readers on the Internet? Like the lead character in Ray Nelson’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” (1963), the hero is not a scientist or crusading do-gooder, but an unassuming everyman aptly named Nada (played by Roddy Piper). Nada seems immune from being bought. He starts gunning down every alien he spots and joins up with others in a haphazard (but well attended) resistance. It’s a bloody revolt all right, and it succeeds, although like most revolts, at a heavy cost.
They Live is not a great movie. The gun play scenes are as liberally and evenly spaced as sex scenes in a porn movie. There is a six minute fight scene that seems excessive, until you learn that Piper was a WWF wrestler at the time. Carpenter sure got his money’s worth. And the relationship between Nada and Holly (Meg Foster of the eerie eyes) is sketchy at best. The film’s not even great sci-fi. Its special effects (I count two) are modest, nowhere near as elaborate as those in the Terminator franchise. Yet the makeup and the spooky cityscapes lurking beneath the façade are weirdly memorable. After all, they’ve endured thirty-five years.
Today there are many more special effects available to any amateur videographer with a camera, computer, and the right software. One can easily learn them from today’s documentation medium, YouTube videos. But without a point of view– which Carpenter’s film definitely had– they can offer only dazzlement.
In tribute to Carpenter’s film, I give you this short video, which uses modern special effects. Hopefully its POV delivers a fillip to the snoots of power, maybe even attaches a “kick me” sign to these guardians of American political life.
Because, you know, they live.