Clotheslining the 1%

by Arthur B

They Live is more relevant than ever.
John Nada (“Rowdy” Roddy Piper) is drifting from town to town across the States after losing his job in Denver, Colorado, in the midst of a massive economic downturn. (He drops a reference to 14 banks closing in a week.) Arriving in Los Angeles, he is eventually able to find work on a construction site, and finds something resembling a community in a favela of the sort that we aren’t supposed to believe exists in North America, occupied by members of the growing underclass John finds himself a part of, and a friend in the form of Frank Armitage (Keith David), who’s full of criticism of the capitalist system as it stands and is beginning to think that violent action may be the only solution - though John still just about believes in America and isn’t ready to go that far.

As it turns out, there’s a few people around who are out to make a difference. The community manager of the favela, a street preacher John sees hassled by cops earlier in the day, a strange professor whose pirate TV transmissions are trying to get the truth out - these form the leadership of the local cell of a resistance movement founded by a small group of scientists who, through a purely accidental scientific discovery, have discovered the terrible truth - that Earth has been colonised, occupied, and completely controlled by aliens who masquerade as human beings and hide their commands to us in plain sight, with mind control transmissions keeping is in a hypnotic state that keeps us unable to perceive this.

By chance, John happens to spot the connection between the pirate TV broadcasts and the church across the street from the settlement. Investigating, he discovers a strange laboratory in a back room of the church - but before he can take his investigations much further, a massive police raid on the shanty town takes place, a violent purge which sees the church taken out with it. After the carnage of the raid, John is able to retrieve from the ruined church a box of very special pairs of sunglasses - glasses fitted with “Hoffmann lenses”, developed by the resistance. These sunglasses are effectively an instant political awakening in plastic form: wearing them, not only do you look damn cool, but you also break through the aliens’ illusions and get to see the world as it really is. The sight is so shocking to John that he realises that his nonviolent, stick-to-the-rules ways can only play into the hands of the aliens. It’s time for John to chew bubblegum and kick ass - and he’s all out of bubblegum.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about John Carpenter's They Live is how its righteous anger and the charisma of its lead actors make us root for their violent actions against the system, whilst at the same time the very mutability of its core metaphor means that the protagonists can stand in for any terrorist or insurgent movement of the past couple of centuries. Whether you see the aliens as yuppies and Reaganite hypercapitalists (as you are mostly prompted to), or Jews (as far-right conspiracy theorists love to deliberately misinterpret the film as being about) or Communists (as a 1950s audience might), or whatever, the movie asks you to accept that only hardline political extremes hold the key to radical social change and that moderation is a mug’s game. (One of Roddy’s better quips in the film is “White line’s in the middle of the road - that’s the worst place to drive.”)

Overwhelmingly, the movie is a contemplation of ideology, with the sunglasses both representing the capacity to critique the ideology of the prevailing culture and an ideological filter in their own right. The pacing of the movie, which starts out positively sedately (right down to the synth-blues soundtrack) and ratchets itself up bit by bit, encourages the reader to join John and Frank in taking a more and more extreme position, until at the climax a mass pogrom of aliens and the collapse of global culture and civilisation as we know it comes across as a good ending.

It is, in other words, a movie which encourages in its audience a black-and-white worldview, and there’s substantial common ground between the film and a great many worldviews which see a small elite as being directly and malevolently responsible for the whittling down and disempowering of the middle class and workers and the widening of the gap between us and them (as opposed to those worldviews in which that gap expands as a result of small elites opportunistically exploiting conditions and governments failing to take action to counterbalance this). It presents a world in which the government is in the control of narrow interests which have no qualms about making violent moves against the masses first, and in which the masses in turn have no hope save to turn to violent action themselves in self-defence.

That said, if there’s one thing the film constantly asks the viewer to do, it’s to analyse and pick apart the messages they are receiving from the media - and there’s no reason why the movie itself should be exempt from this. Perhaps the strongest message you can take from the film if you believe in moderate solutions to social problems, or if you are a radical who believes that nonviolent activism can bring about necessary social change, then you’d better get out there and make your case - because we live in a world where a lot of people think violence is the only solution, and many more believe either that the problems aren’t solvable or that they aren’t really problems.

A mild problem with the film is that it gets its main point across quite early, if you just take the sequence from Roddy first putting on the sunglasses to the end of his iconic bout of alien-shooting at a bank (one of the more shocking incidents in the film when you realise that as far as anyone else can see this was just a random, senseless spree-killing), then you’ve covered more or less all the really transgressive politics the film has to offer, and the half hour or so preceding that presents most of his critique of Reaganomics. The rest is a series of escalating (and, admittedly, kind of awesome) scenes in which the violence - and the scope of the conspiracy Roddy is fighting - spiral out of control until the film ends with a big explosion and an outstretched middle finger; for these last acts, there’s not much of a deeper point being made beyond how ideology ramps you up to increasingly extreme positions.

That said, the movie somewhat corrects this with the concluding sequences in the conspiracy HQ, which are hilariously over-the-top, but also somehow politically apt and weirdly poignant - particularly the interstellar teleporter. Here is a world where the elite and their collaborators literally get to explore the universe - whilst the rest of us die in the dirt on Earth.

Carpenter brings to the table a charmingly 1950s aesthetic to a lot of the aliens’ technology, which suits the motif of using black-and-white to indicate when a scene is being viewed through the sunglasses and also feels vaguely appropriate to the regressive rhetoric of the Reagan-era politics the movie rails against, but otherwise this isn’t the aesthetic feast of gorgeous special effects that, say, The Thing was. The movie largely rides on the strength of the performances from its cast, who generally do a good job - Piper in particular is a much better actor than he’s often credited with, though after this his acting career didn't particularly take off. His only other widely-known role was in the ill-advised Hell Comes to Frogtown, though he did, at least, have a bit of a late-career acting comeback before he died playing to type as a washed-up indie circuit wrestler in It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (spoofing Mickey Rourke's role from The Wrestler)
and a fun voice acting gig in Saint's Row IV as himself (including an extended parody of this very movie).

Speaking of wrestling, that’s presumably why Hot Rod was cast; Keith David and Piper infamously end up in this ridiculously overlong punch-up in the middle of the film which is essentially a hardcore wrestling match presented as a metaphor for the difficulty of getting people to change their ideological viewpoint through arguing with them. On the one hand, this is playing to Roddy’s skills - if there’s one thing wrestlers spend ages learning, it’s how to sell the audience on the idea that they are really hurting or being hurt by someone - Keith David does a decent job with it too, and it’s probably something Roddy’s fans wanted to see, but it’ll be hard to sit through unless you really enjoy cinematic punch-ups, in which case it’s a joy to behold. There’s also a few more bits here and there which work in some of Roddy’s wrestling moves - he acquires a gun for the first time in the movie after executing a wicked clothesline on an alien cop - but for the most part Piper’s wrestling background isn’t used much outside of that scene - though to be honest you don’t need more than that.

Outside of the core duo of David and Piper, one of the standout cast members is Meg Foster as TV executive Holly Thompson, who John takes hostage in order to get away from the site of his attack on the bank. She plays the character perfectly, and is helped in particular by a script that allows her to be something a bit different from the textbook “confused, borderline-panicking woman the protagonist violently gets involved in their crazy little crusade and who then falls in love with the main character” that usually crops up in action movies of this vintage. She manages to hit this perfect balance between clearly being scared and equally keeping every ounce of that fear under control, refusing to let John belittle or patronise her, and then taking what action she needs to take to shut down the situation as soon as the opportunity presents itself without fuss or a hint of mixed feelings about the whole thing. Taking her hostage isn’t one of John’s more sympathetic moments, and boy does he pay for it dearly.

Another standout performance comes from George “Buck” Flower, credited only as “drifter”. He’s one of the homeless people you see in the favela at the start of the movie, scowling at the resistance’s pirate transmissions cutting in on his favourite TV shows and expressing scepticism at the whole thing; much later on he shows up finely groomed and in a brand new tuxedo at a shindig at the global conspiracy headquarters, apparently having been working as a spy within the underclass for the secret masters all along. Smugly offering David and Piper a tour of the facility (assuming that, because they’re there, they must have signed on with the conspiracy too), he offers us our best and most direct look at the heart of it and its collaborators, and his surprise appearance means that rewatches end up more rewarding as you pick apart his earlier appearance for signs that he’s a collaborator.

In fact, though slow, the early part of the movie is surprisingly stuffed with plot details and backstory elements that come up in passing conversations or briefly-seen incidents which makes the movie a far richer tapestry than it first appears. On the whole They Live might extensively play with the tropes of lowbrow action movies, it’s got extensive hidden depths, not least in the way it depicts how what looks like random, motiveless violence to everyday people seems very different to Piper and the other resistance members. It would be extremely difficult to remake today given the rise of spree shooters rendering some scenes even more uncomfortable in retrospect - but the fact that it touches an increasingly raw nerve as time goes by is proof positive that it doesn’t need a remake in the first place.

Also, the interactions between David and Piper are slashy as anything.

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Comments (go to latest)
Robinson L at 00:02 on 2017-11-16
I’ve never seen this movie, and unsurprisingly, the first time I heard a plot breakdown of it was in 2012 or 2013 on a podcast inspired by Occupy Wall Street. From what I recollect, the guy doing the podcast said the movie itself was only so-so, but that the social commentary, while heavy-handed, was spot on.

So I’ve been kind of curious about They Live! as something which apparently grapples with some truths about US society which most film and television doesn’t acknowledge. I feel like if I did see it, I would probably write off the violent portions as “obligatory action scenes”; the films which reflect my sensibilities about how social change is accomplished make films which reflect my sensibilities about how societies like the US’ actual work look positively ubiquitous. However, I’ve never gotten much sense of They Live! as something I would enjoy on a pure entertainment level, and the social commentary doesn’t sound so cutting edge that I feel compelled to check it out despite my tepid interest in the story.

Maybe I’ll check it out someday, and if so, I know I’ll likely appreciate it on a discursive level. But if I never get around to it, I doubt I’ll feel that I’ve missed out on something vital.
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