All Out of Bubblegum

Despite what you may have been led to believe, John Carpenter’s They Live was not a box office flop. This isn’t a case of a disastrous release finding an audience slowly years later. They Live debuted at number one at the box office. It had a short run, but grossed more than three times its production budget domestically.  It was a small hit. Critics, on the other hand, did not care for it at all. 

Richard Harrington in the Washington Post wrote: "it's just John Carpenter as usual, trying to dig deep with a toy shovel. The plot for They Live is full of black holes, the acting is wretched, the effects are second-rate. In fact, the whole thing is so preposterous it makes  V look like Masterpiece Theatre."

That sentiment was about par for the course. The critics, however, were wrong. They needed a set of the glasses featured in the film to allow them to see past what they were being fed; to see past the political speeches and the GDP numbers. With that kind of vison they might have understood what Carpenter was on about.

Carpenter was no neophyte when it came to political satire in film.  His Escape from New York was a savage rebuke of governmental failures, corrupt politicians, the quagmire of war, and economic inequality.  With They Live he would use a more subtle blade.

Professional wrestler Roddy Piper stars as a character that is never called by name onscreen, but is credited as Nada. He’s a homeless drifter looking for work. We see Nada arrive at a camp that calls to mind the Hoovervilles of the great depression. At a an employment bureau office he says that he left Denver after losing his job. Everything is in free fall, he says, they lost fourteen banks in one day. The homeless people, the poor, the tales of economic woe we see and hear contrast to the rich people on the streets. Men in fancy three piece suits climb from limousines. Lots of older women are seen in furs. There are clearly two entirely different societies existing side by side.  What we are being shown are the effects of “Supply Side” economics (also known as Reaganomics, Trickle Down, and Voodoo Economics). It may seem extreme, but in the 1980s the class divide really exploded. The policies pushed by Reagan and his enablers built the new gilded age that we are living in today.

Nada makes a friend  in the camp. Frank, played by Keith David. The role was written for David after he had appeared in Carpenter’s The Thing several years earlier.  Frank helps Nada find a job and for a bit it seems like things are going well for him. Well enough, anyway.

Near the homeless camp a small church sits. Peopl go in and out. It’s just there in the background and we don’t think too much about it. Sometimes on the TV broadcasts are interrupted by some crazy guy ranting about how everyone is brainwashed, but then static and we return to our regularly scheduled programming. 

Things continue like this until Nada discovers what’s going on in the church. There’s a resistance group behind the broadcasts. They are manufacturing sunglasses that, Nada will learn, allow the wearer to see through the hypnosis and obfuscation blocking the truth.  Nada finds, when wearing the glasses, that there are subliminal messages everywhere. People are told to Obey, consume, reproduce, work. That’s not the real shocker, though. The rea shocker is that many of the rich people, and the politicians, are in fact aliens that look like half rotted corpses.

Nada and Frank team up (after a six minute fist fight in an alley that is maybe the best fight scene ever filmed. It’s sloppy, and brutal, and doesn’t look staged or choreographed at all. It just looks like two big tough guys whomping on each other until they are exhausted) and fight back. They discover that the aliens are supported by human quislings who have traded their own species autonomy for some wealth and power. They are terraforming the Earth, making it warmer to better support the alien overlords.

Frank and Nada set out to find and destroy a transmitter that sends out the alien signal. Without that transmission, everyone will be able to see the aliens clearly, and see the subliminal messages that are guiding people’s behavior.

This is satire, not fairy tale. It isn’t going to end well for our heroes but it will end with a glimmer of hope for the rest of humanity.

They Live has grown into a genuine cult classic since its initial release.  As mentioned above, it was a minor hit at the start but it has gown into something that everyone seems to at least know about.  It’s a great film with a lot to say. Its politics seem to grow ever more relevant as we slide toward extinction at the hands of capitalist power structures designed to benefit the very wealthy and the largest corporations. 

Maybe don’t think about that, though. Instead just 



- Nathan Tyree


This is John Carpenter Month at Couch Thing. See more tasty John Carpenter Content here, here, here, and here.