They Live (1988)

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*. I don’t know if They Live was ever announced as the official film of the Occupy Movement, to be shown during “movie night” on the side of a tent maybe, but I don’t see how they could have come up with a better title.
*. Really, it’s all here. The x-ray vision of a country owned and operated by a small elite of “free-enterprisers” and their collaborators, a shadow cabal of global capital who run the world and who are “dismantling the sleeping middle class.” The underground, culture-jamming hackers and their catchy slogans. The small park of squatters (labeled as communists or terrorists) that is later levelled by the fascist cops.
*. Just sticking with that latter point, how amazing is it that the first of the “ghouls” (the name they’re given in the credits) that Nada kills are cops? Yes, they’re really aliens, but that’s still quite a taboo to get blown away by our working-class hero as soon as he arms himself.
*. Carpenter was well ahead of the curve here, though They Live is also very much of its time, being a response to the Reagan revolution in American politics. We even get a politician on TV talking about “morning in America” in case you miss the point.
*. It’s really an old message though. The character of Nada (pro wrestler Roddy Piper) has a long pedigree. Here’s just one forefather: In Upton Sinclair’s landmark novel The Jungle (1906) the hero, an immigrant named Jurgis Rudkus gets a job in the meatpacking industry in Chicago. There he gets beaten down by the system. A hulk of a man, he is of the belief that if he does a hard day’s work and follows the rules he can at least provide for his family if not get ahead. He is, however, cruelly disillusioned and ends up joining the socialist movement.
*. Nada’s line “I believe in America. I follow the rules” is a red flag. It must be meant to recall the opening of The Godfather, where it is used ironically. And we know that it’s being set up to be knocked down here. Nada has to be brought to a point where he doesn’t believe in America. Or at least what America has become.
*. The political message bothers a lot of people because (a) it’s heavy-handed; or (b) it’s muddled. Fair enough, but then this is a B-picture and it has no pretensions to sophistication or subtlety.
*. Personally, I take it directly, at face value, and love seeing Piper as the check-shirted, working-man defender of humanity. Kent Jones remarks that They Live is “the one modern action epic with a genuinely proletarian hero.” In my notes on My Bloody Valentine I mentioned how rare a bird that film was due to its blue-collar setting. Popular, genre flicks (escapist, unrealistic) are geared toward the mass moviegoing audience: middle-class and suburban. Slashers aren’t supposed to be tearing apart mining communities. Action epics, even of the SF variety, are much the same. Yes, Arnie in Total Recall is working a job much like the Nada lands at the start of this film, but as things turn out he really isn’t a hardhat. He’s an interplanetary man of mystery.

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*. The racial angle plays into this. Not only are Nada and Frank (Keith David) brothers, but as Jonathan Lethem notes there are no black ghouls. This despite the fact that the ghouls, while generally appearing as yuppies, also seem sprinkled about the middle class.
*. I often hear it asked what it is that the ghouls are up to anyway. They’ve come all the way to Earth just to make money? Is there maybe a message about the sheer pointlessness of capitalism in that? This is a point I’ll return to.
*. Another thing that isn’t clear is how long the ghouls have been doing this. It all seems fairly recent, but the larger point, I think, is that the rich are always with us. In allegorical terms, Pharaoh was a ghoul.
*. Nada isn’t much of a name. It comes from the source (a Ray Nelson short story), but is never mentioned in the film (it appears only in the credits). We are also never told the name of the city we’re in, though it’s obviously Los Angeles. This seems to fit with the film’s attitude toward signs and labels generally, which are revealed to be generic and uniform underneath their colourized camouflage. Names are lies, or else part of a system of control.
*. Piper isn’t a great actor, but in this part he works. He looks a little like a good-natured cartoon sheepdog, and though he delivers a number of famous lines (like the one about being all out of bubblegum), my favourite is his slow “I don’t like this one bit,” with the “one” drawn out like a thought being born.
*. How is it possible that Meg Foster is not one of the aliens? Those eyes can’t possibly be real.
*. The whole thing is a breathless fantasy, akin to those of Philip K. Dick. There’s a lot that’s never explained. We make a quick visit, for example, to a transporter room that operates by “some sort of gravitational lens deal, bending the light or some damn thing,” but that’s all we’re told. Nothing more needs be said because it’s not important for the allegory to explain how the aliens/ghouls are traveling to and fro. There’s an incredible economy to Carpenter’s storytelling in this film.
*. But then there are moments when “economy” doesn’t seem the right word. Nada tells Frank a story about being terrorized by his father that seems completely pointless. Meg Foster’s character (Holly) is both vague (was she always on the side of the ghouls, or did she change her mind again?) and superfluous. And then there is that epic alleyway beat-down between Nada and Frank that never wants to end.
*. What are we to make of this fight? It seems to have been a kind of improvisation, with Piper and David wanting to really put on a show. They rehearsed it for weeks, and I have to say it looks great (trust a professional wrestler to be able to sell a fight). But it’s absurd. Why is Frank so obstinate about not wanting to put on the glasses? I guess from his point of view Nada is crazy, but why not humour him? Again, I think it’s an allegorical point being made: that we have to be forced to see the truth. Otherwise it’s too comfortable to live in the Matrix. Hell, even the homeless in this movie are seen sitting outside eating cooked meals and watching television on a couch.
*. I mentioned the uncertainty surrounding the Holly character and whether she has always been a traitor to her species or just turned at the last minute. The Drifter is another such collaborator, though of a more comic turn. It’s interesting how both this movie and The Thing share a concern with these enemies within and the problem of deceptive appearances. And again one thinks of the paranoia of Dick.
*. I think this is a wonderful little movie, full of quirky, inexplicable moments (the blind preacher mouthing the words of the television broadcast, for example) and staying light on its feet despite a heavy political message. Indeed, I would put They Live on a short list of essential movies of the 1980s. What keeps it relevant is both the timelessness of its message and its abiding ambiguity. Are the ghouls really bad guys? What are they doing that’s so bad? Don’t they just want to fit in, socialize and be friendly?
*. If anything, the human collaborators are worse. They’re the cynical sell-outs. But then can they be blamed? I don’t think we’re meant to feel that capitalism was an alien invention. They just plugged themselves into the human grid. And meanwhile they’ve made the world seem such a colourful place.

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