Sometimes, directors do their better and best work after a noble failure from a previous project. David Lynch made Blue Velvet after the failure of Dune. Even though I didn’t like it that much, Brokeback Mountain was a smaller movie for Ang Lee after the disappointment of Hulk and garnered him an Best Director Oscar and was a box-office success.
John Carpenter had a lot of highs and lows in the 1980s. I recently watched The Fog and must say it’s not one of his best, which is why he was so willing to allow a remake, even commenting that it wasn’t one of his bests. It’s ambitious but it’s what the old folks would call a “Shaggy Dog” story as it leads up to something that it can’t deliver on.
One of his most ambitious works of the 1980s was Big Trouble in Little China released in 1986. It failed but later found cult status success through repeated watches on cable TV and the home video market. Carpenter walked away from Hollywood making more independent movies such as Prince of Darkness and They Live.
I’m not a fan of Prince, but They Live has grown on me over the years. I think it is a condemnation of the Reagan Administration and the disaster that it was in retrospect. Many people bought into President Ronald Reagan’s “City on a Hill” and “Morning in America” optimism as the Middle Class was dealt a crushing blow. With the manufacturing and factory jobs collapsing in the 1980s, Reagan and his administration had no solution. Now, almost 20 years after he passed, some people are questioning how much of his administration was he afflicted with dementia and Alzheimer’s.
They Live was released on Nov. 4, 1988 right before the 1988 Presidential Election. If you research a lot of what they didn’t want to tell us in the 1980s, you see a lot of similarities with this movie.
Before I go any further, I’m totally going to spoil the plot of this movie.
Roddy Piper in a surprisingly good role plays a man only referred to in the end credits as Nada, a drifter from Denver who has made his way to Los Angeles. He’s got nothing but the clothes on his back and what little tools and personal effects in his backpack. Unable to find any jobs at an unemployment office, where the worker is obviously not interested in helping him, he talks his way on a construction job. Even though a foreman says it’s a union job, he notices some Latinx workers.
Reagan was no fan of unions, even though he was president of the Screen Actors Guild at one time. Like many jobs in the 1980s, unions were broken down as cheap labor was encouraged. The same people who got angry about undocumented immigrants didn’t mind them working as long as they could save some money.
A co-worker, Frank Armitage (Keith David) takes Nada to a homeless camp located near a church where they can get some meals and rest. Frank tells Nada he has a family back east that he’s working to help. Both of them seem to have a resistance toward corporations and how they’re unwilling to help.
On a TV set at the camp, they keep noticing an interrupted broadcast of a hysterical bearded man telling people about an unknown group or organization that are keeping them down. But Nada is also noticing strange things happening at the church but Gilbert (Peter Jason), who helps run the camp, tells them that choir meetings run late and they’ve been doing other things such as working in the kitchen. Frank encourages Nada to leave it be as long as it doesn’t bother them.
Frank and Nada are obviously at odds even though they seem to share some qualities. Frank represents the American public who was allowing to let everything happen as long as it didn’t bother them individually. He’s got a job so why mess with that. But Nada represents the Americans who are quick to notice when things don’t seem right.
Eventually, a group of police in riot gear show up and tear up the camp, forcing some of the residents to go run and hide as they beat and harass others, including a blind street preacher (Raymond St. Jacques). Only three years earlier in Philadelphia, law enforcement actually firebombed a neighborhood following tension between authorities and MOVE, a black liberation party. I don’t doubt Carpenter is referencing this as well as the infamous Rampant division of the LAPD.
Nada discovers a box of sunglasses hidden in a wall space and leaves the camp. He hides the box in a back alley but keeps one pair at which point he notices everything is in black and white. Advertisements, billboards, cash money, magazines and newspapers all have subliminal messages.
But that isn’t half of it. At a news stand, he notices an middle-aged well dressed man has a bug-eyed alien humanoid face. Initially phased, he walks into a supermarket where he notices the other humanoid characters are interacting with other customers and employees. He soon learns that many of the wealthy people and movers and shakers are the alien humanoids disguised as people. Law enforcement are also most the humanoid characters. At first, they try to work with Nada but after he resists, he is able to shoot both and then goes on a spree shooting humanoids at a big bank.
It’s here where the movie seems to almost blow his premises. It’s also the moment when Nada quickly turns into an anti-hero. This is probably Carpenter’s limitations. They Live was only made with about $3 million, which even in 1988 was a small amount he was able to raise from investors.
Wanted for murder and dazed, he kidnaps a woman, Holly Thompson (Meg Foster). They go to her house in the hills where she is able to whack him across the head with a wine bottle when Nada lets his guard down pushing him out the window. The character of Holly Thompson is problematic. She’s hardly in the movie long enough to be anything more than someone who double-crosses Nada in the end.
Nada returns to the alley finds the box of glasses and seeks out Frank. But Frank doesn’t want anything to do with him and they get into what is one of the most memorable fights in movie history. Finally, Nada puts a pair of sunglasses on him and they both see what’s going on.
Later, they’re able to meet with Gilbert who alerts them to a meeting of other revolutionaries. Gilbert says that the aliens have convinced the human authorities they are part of a radical Communistic party. Sound familiar? Whenever people want to scare people, they bring up the C word and Reagan rode it in the 1980s the way the Republican Party exploited 9/11 and went after President Obama and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez calling them Socialist and Communists.
Unfortunately, the movie ends in typical 1980s fashion with a shoot-out and explosions. Like I said, this is Carpenter’s limitations. He does manage to present a good premise but there’s more to this sci-fi horror movie. The notion that people are willingly colluding with a foreign body to line their own pockets and wealth is something very common. Greed is still alive and in the 1980s, as Gordon Gecko said, “Greed is good.”
Carpenter does suggest a few good ideas. At one point, the media seems be to most the aliens as well as film critics. The TV station are broadcasting the signals that are covering up what humans see. You can see similarities now with how people believe more of what they see online and social media.
In one funny scene, a woman is having sex with an alien, which begs the question, are they able to procreate together? If so, what is the result? Also, we can see the aliens as metaphor for colonization over the centuries. There’s so much here that is unfortunately not explored.
There’s a lot more that can be done to explore this idea of aliens hiding behind masks. V was able to use an alien invasion it as a Fascist/Nazi allegory. But Carpenter seems to focus more on the aliens working to get richer. If you think about diamonds, gold, silver, and other gemstones are only expensive because we say they are. Wine itself is just fermented grape juice.
Maybe the aliens came to Earth because we are mostly in love with greed and wealth. We want to wear the nicest clothes, drive the nicest cars and have as much money as we can. I remember in The Hidden how the alien parasite is mostly impressed by money, loud music and fast cars. The aliens in They Live are probably the same. They just want to exploit our foolish needs to put our own excess over others’ well being.
A bum played by George “Buck” Fowler, who Nada and Frank meet in the camp, is later dressed in a tux at a big banquet talking about how everyone sells out all the time. Selling out has become the way a band, musician, or artist commits heresy. But we all need money in order to buy gods and pay for services so sometimes we have to. The question is where we draw the line.
There’s a lot to this movie that is only about an hour and half that can be further explored if handled with the right showrunner and right collection of writers. Look at what has been done with Battlestar Galactica, Watchmen and Westworld among others.
At one point, Matt Reeves was tapped to do a remake of They Live which was loosely based on the short story “Eight O’ Clock in the Morning” but he was going to do away with the social commentary Carpenter added. Thankfully, Reeves went to go work on The Batman but there is still talk about doing a remake/reboot without the social commentary which would be a bad idea. I saw take it the next level.
They Live was a modest success on its release but didn’t get the best of reviews. Now, it’s highly regarded by critics and audiences for the social commentary as people look back at the 1980s and the falsehoods they were told. Granted the initial reviews criticized Carpenter’s limitations on the premise, and they’re right.
I’ve noticed that none of the alien humanoids nor their collaborators are BIPOC. You can see the emotion in Frank as a black man who already has the cards stacked against him trying to make a living. The street preacher is black as well as another revolutionary played by Sy Richardson. Even though the Civil Rights Act had been passed in 1964, BIPOC were still expected to follow on the straight and narrow. They still are in the eyes of some people.
They Live could be the next hit TV series if handled correctly. Even if it’s never made into a series, it’s still worth watching. What do you think? Please comment.