They Live (1988) — Secret Aliens, Street Brawls, and Leftist Talking Points in Plain Sight!
Hey hey, it’s Anticipating the Registry, a new Patreon-sponsored feature where I sit down once a month and babble about movies I think oughta be in the National Film Registry! Less formal than Registering, no less thoughtful! This month, we’re looking back to when John Carpenter tried to warn everyone about the horrendous exploitative quasi-human invaders who live among us: capitalists. It’s 1988’s They Live! Let’s get into it!
In advocating for They Live as a potential entrant into the National Film Registry, there’s a few tacts we might adopt for summarizing its virtues. Top level is easily the film’s exemplary usage of a professional wrestler turned actor, probably the best of the 20th century outside André the Giant in The Princess Bride. Rowdy Roddy Piper gives everything you could want out’ve a man of his stature and skills turned drifter radical action hero: the soft bemusement in the early going as he blows into town and finds community amongst the hard-lucked and downtrodden, the pounding race for survival in face of police crackdowns, bewilderment when he first discovers the hidden truth through the lens of those sunglasses, and the emergence of a wrestler’s ring persona when the absurdity of mankind’s subjugation beneath a world-spanning alien conspiracy drives him to an instinctive semi-nihilistic rampage. The full emergence takes time as Piper remains cucumber cool for a goodly while, expected of someone who’s been asleep his entire life, but once his minor tendency to poke his nose where others would rather it don’t belong pushes him past the edge — WHAMMO! You’ve a man who paid his bills playing the audience-stirring heel turning that mouth on yuppies and crooked cops and all the snooty authority figures you wish someone would dress down with a well-placed one-liner, and backing the insults with shotgun blasts when mere words prove insufficient. They’re all great, and even if John Carpenter partially intended the film as heightened parody of the decade’s action conventions, you just know, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m ALL outta bubblegum,” sits pretty as THE best action line of the decade. And for a little cherry atop this, Piper manages something affecting when he’s sat down start of the third act beat all to hell, remembering how his father used to knock him about, and resolving by the end to give a little bit’ve that lifetime of shit back to the aliens in kind, grim determination elevated by the confidence he absolutely can kick their collective asses.
Of course, I can’t say, “They Live is an iconic American movie for putting Rowdy Roddy Piper’s skills to good use in the moviehouse,” without mentioning The Fight as a principle reason for the picture’s greatness. Not only is it a well-positioned metaphorical passage, taking a character for whom discovering the truth and accepting the consequences came easy given his detachment from conventional societal obligations and forcing drawn-out, exhaustive confrontation with someone for whom going against the grain means putting family and security on the line… it’s also just a really good fight scene. All the best thematic intent in the world would go to waste if Piper and Keith David’s seven-minute alleyway brawl actually proved exhaustive in the watching, this big second-act closing sequence expending a huge chunka runtime on something laborious or lumbering. Far from, thankfully, for a scene outlined in the script as “fight continues” across pages on end and left precise choreography to the performers moves with the convincing playfight intensity you only get from a top performer working closely with a dedicated partner and coordinators to tell a story amidst the face smashing and 2x4 bashing. Piper and David grapple, pound, take cheap shots, smash, hurl, suplex, go too far and realize it and back down and open themselves for another blow, frequently pausing to process pain or pull some decisive psychological theatrics over the other, exchanging dominant positions something like ten times in seven minutes, yet never to a point of slogging the pace or making the fight feel uncomfortable. Disbelief and admiration take over instead, the remarkability of these two pushing themselves beyond their limits, the sheer dedication and hardness of body and spirit necessary to make someone open their eyes when they want more than anything to keep ’em screwed shut. The theming inspires excellent fighting and the fighting feeds into solid theming, ideal synchronization of form and function.
Carpenter’s contributions to the common symbolic language also make a worthwhile argument towards the film’s merits, and indeed stand as a major reason I chose to champion this film for our maiden voyage on this series rather than The Thing. Phenomenal as Rob Bottin’s creature effects are, the larger cultural conversation around the film typically praises his work as exemplary of itself, a masterstroke of special effects wizardry divorced from its usage in the film to embody and enhance paranoia, mistrust, violation, otherness as literalized abstraction. They Live hits its mark a little clearer in how we memetically spread its visuals, probably because the film presents its high concept ideas in pure black-and-white. Through the special sunglasses (and later the less-remembered special contact lenses), all forms of mass market product and advertisement wear their real conformist messages in big all-caps block text plain as day, from magazines to billboards to every can of soup and carton of milk at the supermarket. It’s a punch to the face so obvious and stinging you’d wonder why you never noticed before, before you realize you probably DID idly consider the possibility and simply pushed it out’ve mind as absurd. An idea only a crazy person would entertain absent proof, yet once you see with your own eyes you can’t stop wondering how you never put two ’n’ two together. The alien infiltrators courtesy makeup artist Francisco X. Pérez push this idea further, corrupted inverted faces with sickly bulging eyes and barely articulate half-muscled toothy maws sat atop otherwise ordinary bodies, engaged in the most banal everyday activities amongst the very people they’ve subverted against their best interests. Of course the greedy mind-numbing parasites would walk about yakking about the same bullshit as you and I, getting their hair done and standing in line at the bank and buying the clothes they condition you to want with all your heart; it’s like unleashing console command havoc in The Sims and wandering about as your avatar watching the chaos unfold. There’s something deeply sick and wrong about what you’re doing to the logic of those trapped in the simulation, but they’ll never see through your disguise and they’re all programmed to think of this as perfectly normal. The vapidity of everyday existence can only be explained to satisfaction if you consider something so glaringly monstrous and yet perfectly disguised turns the wheels.
What we have to understand is such powerful and memorable iconography is worth jack-squat (with Jack rode out’ve town) if not paired with a proper ideological perspective. As noted, the Thing becomes all the better when you consider the myriad emotional states and societal fears it represents. If They Live were a truly apolitical film and all those latter-day right-wing attempts to reclaim the NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT signs and nightmare-faced aliens as stand-ins for the Jews or the Satanists or whatever held any water, I wouldn’t be here recommending it as one of the essential American films. Being an explicitly leftist work is vital to They Live’s identity, and not just in the commonly-observed fact of the film retweaking the invasion from Ray Nelson’s original short story into an overt capitalist invasion force using sedative pleasures and a good enough life to distract the lower classes from for-profit environmental exploitation and wealth consolidation amongst those who want more simply for the pleasure of having more while paying off anyone who questions too much. They Live wears its leftist influences loud and proud in how it depicts Piper dealing with the problem, going from a terrified lone visionary to waking up his friend to finding resistance cells to realizing those cells are completely ineffectual so long as they advocate through gradual reform. The threat is here right now, its architects have the social order in a stranglehold, their enforcers won’t hesitate to burst down our walls and imprison or kill us by the dozens, and when push comes to shove the only real answer is, as Piper so eloquently puts it when forced between a rock and a hard place, “fuck it.” Fuck incrementalism, fuck one head at a time revolution, fuck playing the game according to the rules of those who’ll make up new rules and stomp your face for not cottoning on quick enough. Direct action is the way to go, aimed squarely at doing as much damage as possible not through empty martyrdom, but getting the word out to as many people as possible, exponentially growing awareness of oppression and trusting the collective will do what’s right when they discover the enemy are shaping your tastes on TV and literally sleeping in your bed. When backed into a corner, “fuck it” is basically all you have.
Now, this is an action movie, and as already stated a heightened pisstake on the action mores of its day at that, so the fullest expression of these ideas takes the form of Piper gunning down Meg Foster’s alien sympathizer and letting himself get blown sky high while taking down an alien mind-control satellite dish. One oughtn’t read what makes the coolest, highest-impact method of illustrating gradual reform as unhelpful self-destructive nonsense and think it an actual call to commit domestic terrorism against whoever you think is ruining the world. Big gunfights and huge explosions make good action movie leftism; what’s really important in both the fictional sci-fi story and our real life experiences is tools to make a body see the truth, and a body needs not high-tech sunglasses to see and understand what’s really going on when capitalist propaganda pushes the masses into complacency. For all the black-and-white visions of money saying THIS IS YOUR GOD and the sight of Piper making Keith David eat trashcan so he can see the formaldehyde faces all around, the important takeaway from They Live should be the sunglasses, or rather what the sunglasses represent. The work cannot begin in earnest until enough of the population sees and understands and accepts that the powerful and monied are not their friends, that sucking up to and chasing after a bigger piece of the pie only makes you conspirator to your own destitution. Within the movie, the situation had progressed to the point where only Rowdy Roddy Piper’s explosive sacrifice could get the word out, but we’ve still our tools and hopefully the time to keep pushing to get the truth to the masses. If you educate, reach out, engage, keep your eyes open and keep helping others open theirs, work to advance awareness of the true exploitative intentions behind the current status quo, there’s no need for one Cool Guy to run around chewing bubblegum and kicking ass on his lonesome, for you’ll stand with untold others who, God or any other power willing, won’t take the boot any longer.
And should the capitalist ruling class insist on stamping down all the harder and forcing said bubblegum ass chewing… well, you’ll at least be tuned into who’s really the enemy and less liable to turn against true allies.
So! John Carpenter models the necessity of staying informed and being prepared to fight back against the present hegemony should need be, Rowdy Roddy Piper delivers a strong performance and a stronger brawl, and someone somewhere along the line noticed Meg Foster’s eyes look an awful lot like the alien eye makeup. At least one’ve those virtues oughta earn They Live a look-in at the National Film Registry, yeah?
Hey! You should leave a comment under this piece telling me what you thought about They Live, or John Carpenter’s filmography, or that time “Rowdy” Roddy Piper gave his life to stop Jesus from ending the world! And you should ALSO mosey over to the Patreon, where the same day this piece launches you can catch another piece about the Wachowski siblings’ debut feature, 1996’s Bound! Only there for one month, only five dollars!
Anticipating the Registry is sponsored by Adept7777 and Dan Stalcup on Patreon.