Perhaps because of how undeniably cool the film is, it remains one of the director’s most underrated efforts.
So much of <em>They Live</em>’s surface level iconography has seeped into the pop cultural consciousness that its politics seem quickly forgotten. After the existential horror of <em>Prince of Darkness</em>, John Carpenter returned to the same brand of pop art action that had failed with <em>Big Trouble in Little China</em>, but here martial arts was replaced with provocative science fiction. Perhaps because of how undeniably cool the film is, it remains one of the director’s most underrated efforts.
In adapting Ray Nelson’s short story, “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” Carpenter crafted a shrewd and affecting distillation of ‘80s consumer culture and unchecked capitalism. The film stars iconic pro wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as Nada, a drifting laborer who winds up in Los Angeles, where he discovers a massive conspiracy. Earth has been taken over by ghoulish aliens, but not through the spectacle of flying saucers and laser beam imperialism. These creatures have infiltrated the ruling class, using corporations and media interests to manipulate Middle America and make slaves of the poor.
Revisiting the film today, it’s 1) profoundly depressing how relevant it remains and 2) surprising in how overt Carpenter’s message of class solidarity was. From the moment the movie begins, the onslaught of television screens and radio chatter paints a picture of a broken America whose tragic underpinnings are swept under the rug with matter of fact efficiency. Carpenter populates the frame with images of people standing around, looking confused at the state of things, but expectant for some kind of change. Even the buddy relationship at the film’s center, between Nada and Keith David’s Frank, feels like the kind of propaganda one might find on a leftist meme page placing class consciousness above identity politics.
But by exploring these depressing themes through genre, and placing an honest to God beast of a badass in Piper at the lead, there’s a measure of wish fulfillment to the film that should explain why it picked up such steam over the years. This is a movie whose first bit of real action involves Roddy Piper shooting a pair of cops with a big ass gun. That they’re secretly “evil” aliens is just dreamworld language for the way the police enforce the real system that oppresses people every day. It’s a bold and brash lightning bolt of a film that runs through its themes with such precision and verve. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say a modern remake would wind up being an hour longer and, like, 50% tamer trying to get even a fraction of these ideas across on screen.
All that said, it’s extra disappointing how many wrong-minded people have misread this film’s messaging for years. What should be an unbridled classic of leftist cinema is often co-opted by middle-of-the-road conspiracy theorists and nutjobs who reappropriate the film’s iconic “Obey” imagery to support a theoretical war against an imaginary secret class that runs the world, gleefully ignoring the capitalists doing so in broad fucking daylight. The iconography of “putting on the glasses” and seeing the “real world” has been abused to high holy Heaven, with idiots digging for hidden messages in the media that wholesale pretend the blatant messaging in the foreground is just a smokescreen for deeper Easter eggs of oppression.
For a movie that was willing to spend six minutes of one man physically fighting his only friend to get him to see the light, it’s a tragedy that <em>They Live</em> has radicalized fewer audience members than one might assume, given the film’s potency and pure pop aura.