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Breaking Down John Carpenter’s ‘They Live’

John Carpenter Spotlight

They Live! is Aware of its Limitations and Potential

There are obvious reasons for why They Live! has earned its reputation as such a captivating film. It’s open in its commentary, aware of both its limitations and potential and self-effacing in its nature. A film whose personality is as about as subtle is John Wayne yet as honest as Jimmy Stewart. They Live! is an unassuming piece that has a remarkable ability to both be what it is and to provide rhetoric to discuss elements beyond those directly in the film.

The plot, in brief– A nameless drifter “Nada” (Roddy Piper) wanders into L.A. and happens upon an underground resistance against an alien force that is infiltrating America (and the world) with a form of subversive control through images. They Live! is a social commentary on Reaganomics , greed and consumer culture, fears of a new decade. It’s ripe with discussions on politics, economics, mass social fear, media culture, aliens, and professional wrestling. Spoilers to follow.

“Rowdy” Roddy Piper plays the rootless vagabond who is namelessly credited as “Nada.” With rough features and a wide gait, he’s the image of an American cowboy born a century too late. A man whose reality is based on the assumption that things are just as they appear. He is completely impressionable to his own sight and he never calls it to question (when given a new perspective he accepts it with open arms.) His first encounter with a pair of alien-revealing sunglasses sends him, within minutes, on a shooting spree. In another instance, when he finds that his romantic interest– Holly (Meg Foster)– is aiming a gun at him the hesitation to shoot is slight at best. For Nada, the world simply is what he sees.

Through its characters, They Live! presumes an acceptance that what is seen is also what is real. This assumption settles like dust against the LA backdrop, a town built on a show industry. It forgoes any mention of a subjective option; ugliness is ugly, truth (whatever that may be) is ultimate, greed is corruption. It doesn’t ask these questions, instead, it states them with crystal clarity: corruption should be eliminated, the wealth gap is a construction– the aliens must be killed. For the film’s lone cowboy, Nada, and his companion Frank (Keith David) to stand against these forces of evil (define them as you like) it takes hardly more than an ugly-mug and an expensive watch to warrant a complete eradication. It is a testament to the film’s thoughtfulness that such an accepting figure would fight so credulously against a hidden agenda.

While the ideals in They Live! may be keenly American, the fears are not.

They Live! (despite its Canadian lead) is a poignantly American story. Nada is a solitary character who is empathetic to his fellow man (i.e. “everybody has their own struggles”) and believes in the American dream (i.e. “I’ll do a hard days work for a little money, I’m just waiting for the chance, it’ll come.”) Corruption to this dream is treated like cancer. Integrity must be maintained and the truth must always be apparent. Defeatist statements (like the drifter’s explanation for joining Them: “we all sell out every day, might as well be on the winning team”) and any hesitation to accept the call to action (Frank’s refusal to try the glasses) are fought mercilessly. This isn’t to say that They Live! is all heavy-handed political or American-ideological rhetoric, in fact, it’s quite the contrary. They Live! is strange, thrilling, and playful (sometimes all in the same scene). The iconic five minute and the twenty-second fight between Nada and friend Frank is more akin to gritty physical humor than any serious action-hero fistfight and with lines like “it looks like your head fell in the cheese dip“ riddled throughout the film, They Live! could hardly be considered solemn.

What a better time to revisit They Live! then now in a world whose media addiction and a widening wealth gap have become the preoccupation of scholars and tweeters alike. While the ideals in They Live! may be keenly American, the fears are not. After all as Frank points out that “the golden rule [is] he who has the gold makes the rules.”

– Adriene Lily

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand Sound On Sight.

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