They Live

Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David, et al.
Director: John Carpenter

The ruling elite of the world are aliens in disguise, their aim being to keep humans in a state of mindless consumerism. Billboards, store signs, magazine covers–all bear subliminal messages to OBEY, to CONSUME, to have NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT. Money itself says THIS IS YOUR GOD. But worst of all, with these glasses you see which of us are really hideous, bug-eyed aliens. And in case you haven’t guessed yet, I’ll let you in on a little secret: they’re all Republicans!

This movie will appeal to anyone with a interest in politics as it is a classic example of the true nature of capitalism and the way in which its true goal is to set people against each other and to control the masses with consumerism.

Probably most appealing about THEY LIVE is that it confines its global-conspiracy storyline to a radius of a few miles and a timespan of a few days. Carpenter, taking a cue from his own favorite SF films of the 50s, realizes that he doesn’t need to play it big – further proof that his best work is with restricted budgets. Consequently, the most memorable moments are the simplest: Piper taking a slow walk down the block, newly aware that it is replete with aliens; Piper and work buddy Keith David stubbornly duking it out in an alley; Piper being struck by a woman he has taken hostage.

The twist is that most of the population are unknowingly contributing to its downfall.

Carpenter throws in references to various forms of mass inculcation: subliminal persuasion, Communism (which the human rebels are branded in order to turn the public against them), propaganda, evangelism (the rebels broadcast from a church, and one of them is a street preacher), and most pointedly, consumerism. With this in mind, the invaders are credited as ghouls in the end titles – those who would feed off the dead. It points the direction of the film’s satire: that media-induced conformity has left us so drained of individuality/vitality that we have let ourselves become ripe for the harvesting (Since Carpenter has already worked with aliens, vampires, and ghosts, THEY LIVE could be seen as his ‘zombie’ picture).

As with all Carpenter’s films, this one is great to look at – he prefers to take his horror out of the shadows and into the hyper-real with sharp, clear photography and sparkling color. Again, Carpenter contributes a businesslike, pulsating score (a touch bluesy this time around), and tosses in a minor trademark by having the characters watching an old horror movie on television. THEY LIVE has some shocks and violence but is mostly great fun – it’s no coincidence that Carpenter counts it among his own favorites.

Roddy Piper plays a drifter who hooks up with a bunch of shanty-town dwellers. Inadvertently he becomes aware of an alien conspiracy which has been in effect on Earth for years. Produced while Carpenter’s career seemed to be in a lull, this is nevertheless one of his most enjoyable outings; a snappy-paced romp that stays offbeat until its closing frames.

THEY LIVE is based on a (very) short story by Ray Nelson but also borrows from the Devourers in Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar stories, positing aliens not as intergalactic warlords or rapacious monsters, but as the ultimate force in asset stripping and insider trading. In this scenario, Earth will be destroyed economically.

The scenes of SWAT teams and black helicopters moving in on innocent people to dissipate them and uphold the crippling Capitalist system is reminiscent of the events in Seattle in 1999 and Genoa in 2001.