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I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live*
(1988)

(SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best.


Nada: I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum.

One of They Live’s most vocal advocates is the much-ridiculed David Icke, who rates it up there with The Matrix as an exposé of the aforementioned way things really are. Devoted conspiracy theorist as I am, one of the problems I have with the conspiracist view of Hollywood (and movies generally) is that, while there’s much that is undoubtedly provably tainted (military backing and support of pictures that will only occur if it paints the armed forces in a positive light, for example) the response of the beholder to any kind of creative content, pro or con their view, is that it is simply espousing the agenda of the elite (even if that’s no more than being dedicated to a grim, violent and/or apocalyptic worldview; in every instance it’s been designed to prime us for such actual developments), or is “soft disclosure” of some description.


In this eye’s view, there is zero room for the genuine creative agenda of an artist; they must have been buffeted into presenting a tarnished perspective, or alternatively somehow have their paws on the truth and have somehow prevailed enough to present the unvarnished facts. Thus, based on personal tastes and prejudices, you get Icke vouching for The Matrix on one hand while on the other, others claim the Wachowski are mere Illuminati stooges. Perhaps it’s even worse than that – anyone up to their neck in the mire of Hollywood is presumably suffused with Archons, and thus inescapably corrupted.


It’s also a frequent proud pronouncement of the conspiracy theorist that they don’t watch movies, or remove themselves from popular media, which inevitably leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby any access to TV and movies feels like a bombardment of pertinent commentary, mainlining straight to their brains. Which, depending on their aforementioned predilections, yields responses either revelatory or simply presenting the views of our secret masters. You only have to look at David Wilcock’s recent piece on Pizzagate (which he, ever modestly – if he were addressing his modesty, you can bet he would announce that he would prove conclusively in the article you were about to read, backed by hundreds of indisputable sources, that he was the most modest and retiring person who ever there was or would be – claims to be “what may well be the definitive… expose”), in which he has found pretty much any and every reference to pizza ever, right back to the inventions of dough, cheese and tomatoes, to be highly suspect and leading. When he then concludes, as he always does, by spending paragraphs documenting the inane synchronicities of his page view counts, that no one outside of Charlie Babbitt would find interesting, you end up with a sense that he’s as frequently running on the fumes of his own insurmountable ego as Ben Fulford is on the effluent of wildly variable (but always entertaining) secret government sources; in both cases, this isn’t really of any consequence, so long as they, as would-be exposers of all that is hidden, don’t mind having seriously suspect credibility from the off.



NadaYou know, you look like your head fell in the cheese dip back in 1957.


Icke, at least, isn’t wildly insecure, but he’s as prone – as we all are – to seeing confirmations of his biases everywhere and ignoring those that conflict. So, in They Live’s case, David surmised, “I thought, either that guy got real lucky, or he’s got a very good idea what’s going on. I suspect the latter”. He proceeds to recount how Carpenter replied to a letter concerning Icke’s take on the movie: “He said, ‘Oh no, the aliens in the movie hiding behind human form were symbolic of the Republican Party’. Well, anyone who’s seen They Live, you’re having a laugh”. Attempting to further reinforce a slightly desperate position (why not just recognise that’s what it’s about, but that, through the power of metaphor and personal interpretation, it also provides an eerie depiction of what David believes it’s about?), Icke asserts “I think when you watch John Carpenter’s filmmaking history, that’s a guy who’s got a very good idea of much of what’s happening. That’s my view, anyway”.


Whatever else can be said about John Carpenter’s filmmaking history, it’s that it most certainly doesn’t present any kind of unified perspective on the state of things. This is a guy who loves Howard Hawkes and Nigel Kneale, who has made movies as tight as they come and as sloppy as hell. No doubt in some way Icke could force the disparate likes of The Fog, Christine, Star Man and Vampyres to fit his theory, but it would take some manoeuvring. And while he was about it, he’d could probably do the same with Tobe Hooper’s consummate oeuvre.


Icke’s take on the real forces at work in the world has its basis in the gnostic view of Archons (tantamount to reptilians and greys in modern lore), and “these entities, so brilliantly portrayed in They Live, are feeding off human low vibrational energy, emotional energy, fear, anxiety, depression, hatred, because that’s the frequency band that they can absorb, because that’s their stage of being” (the only part of the movie that connects with this is Frank’s speculative speech about the aliens “feeding on our cold fuckin’ hearts”), and how “it gives a brilliant visual representation of what we’re dealing with and how the world could be if we rid the world of this force in the shadows”.


Street Preacher: They have taken the hearts and minds of our leaders, they have recruited the rich and powerful, and they have blinded us to the truth.

On the commentary track, Carpenter explicitly said he made the picture during the Reagan era, and was “trying to say something about that”, and that’s really pretty evident throughout; this is a movie about the trodden down underclasses (he charitably suggests Roddy was right for the role because he knew something about that, and Piper is fine, but I still wish Hollywood blue blood Kurt Russell had starred; it would have been a punctuation point to his performance in Big Trouble in Little China and Nada even has the same mullet; of course, if he had consented to show up in a low budget Carpenter movie, we wouldn’t have got the movie’s most famous line, improvised by Piper.


Nada: I just want the chance, it’ll come. I believe in America. I follow the rules. Everybody’s got their own hard times these days.

The first images we see are of urban decay (and They Live’s title wittily appearing as graffiti) and homelessness with Piper’s John Nada (not a subtle name) told “There’s nothing available for you right now” at the job centre. Frank’s story (“We gave the steel company a break when they needed it. You know what they gave themselves? Raises”) is effectively that of the incipient collapse of capitalism as a tail-eating snake that can never be sated. But it isn’t a prescient picture; it’s merely reflecting how things were, how they are and how they will continue to be until a new presiding paradigm replaces this unsustainable one.


Beardy Broadcaster: Our impulses are being redirected We are living in an artificially induced state of consciousness that resembles sleep.

Now, They Live definitely does work if you want to look at it from Icke’s point of view, but that’s as much because science fiction is blessed with being able to tap into broader themes and truths; that’s its currency (assuming for a minute that you accept Icke’s reading of reality, which I’m not – assuming, that is). It diminishes the authors and artists to suggest all they’re capable of is parroting a script at the dictation of their overlords (if that’s what the Icke or Wilcock are getting at; it’s either that or malign subconscious influence via the Archons). The idea that we are all sheep or zombies sleepwalking our way through lives, dictated by remote or inaccessible slave masters is nothing new; it’s simply that Carpenter and the Wachowskis come armed with arresting means of conveying that idea.


Beardy Broadcaster: The poor and the underclass are growing. Racial Justice and human rights are non-existent. They have created a repressive society and we are their unwitting accomplices. Their intention to rule rests with the annihilation of consciousness. We have been lulled into a trance. They have made us indifferent to ourselves and others. We are focussed only on our own gain. They are safe as long as they are not discovered. Their primary method of survival is to keep us asleep keep us selfish, keep us sedated. They are dismantling the sleeping middle class. More and more people are becoming poor. We are the cattle. We are being bred for slavery.


The movie’s a fairly resounding attack on ‘80s consumerism and the self-gratifying automatons it breeds, disguised as a rather nifty science fiction scenario. Carpenter is doing much the same thing with the genre here as he did for horror in his previous picture, Prince of Darkness, offering a mechanism (a broadcast in both movies) that fosters a whole different perspective on reality (religious there, economic here). And, like Prince of Darkness, They Live’s strength is all in the set up.


The payoff here comes thirty minutes in, when Nada puts the sunglasses on for the first time, and we witness the iconically-designed aliens (simple, but hugely effective) and the litany of subliminal instructions that control our very actions (it’s the next step on from Alex Cox’s blank supermarket products in Repo Man – notably, Sy Richards appears in both movies): OBEY, MARRY & REPRODUCE, NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT, CONSUME, WATCH TV, SUBMIT, BUY, STAY ASLEEP, DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY and (on the nose, but perfect) THIS IS YOUR GOD (on the dollar bill). All with a background hum of “Sleep, sleep” on a metropolitan loop.


Nada: Heh heh. It figures it would be like this.

This is the picture’s signature sequence in terms of its “truth” label, one that conjures Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque paranoia as Nada suddenly realises he’s in an environment awash with aliens relying on his (and every other somnambulant human’s) blithe indifference. As a no longer blind man he’s a very real threat: “I’ve got one that can see”. Piper’s stream of insults are very amusing too, of course.


Nada: I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

The picture’s other famed episode is the extended fight with the awesome Keith David, as the reluctant Frank Armitage (“Okay. You’re fighting the forces of evil, that none of us can see without sunglasses”). Frank prefers to do what we all do, not rocking the boat (“I’ve got a wife and kids, so leave me alone”). Their altercation reaches a kind of blissfully inane plateau, where the motivation is the motivation. The idea of forcing someone to wear a pair of sunglasses, in isolation, is ludicrously inspired, and the sequence commendably never quite divorces itself from that absurdity and is all the better for it (as is the bit where Piper laughs after kneeing Frank in the balls).


Frank: Maybe they’ve always been with us… those things out there. Maybe they love it… seeing us hate each other, watching us kill each other off, feeding on our cold fucking hearts.

After this, the picture can’t hope to maintain such heights. There’s still some decent dialogue, and ideas, such as the lure of wealth and power to those who work complicity with the aliens, and the signal that continues transmitting even when the TV set is switched off. Those disturbed by chem trails will seize on “Earth is being acclimatised. They are changing our atmosphere into their atmosphere”, but their motivation is very much of the capitalist creed (depleting the planet and moving on to another, all humans are livestock – that’s one of the key pieces of evidence for Icke right there –  and the Earth is just another developing planet, their Third World). There’s an excellent scene in which the human collaborators receive a pep talk concerning the resources the aliens need for multi-dimensional expansion; in return, the per capita of income of each collaborator has gone up that year by an average of 39%! And the response when questioned on such moral turpitude is also pretty damning to the majority of the western world: “What’s the big deal? We all sell out every day. May as well be on the wrong team”.


But the denouement is perfunctory, reflecting the limited time and resources Carpenter had to play with, and it means there’s little resonance to the big idea. At any rate, not in the lingering way there is with The Thing. That happened in the first donning sunglasses scene, later underlined, but not really advanced. The rest is very much cheesy B-movie hokum. The cinematography from Gary B Kibbe is underwhelming, which would contribute to the lifelessness of much of the director’s ‘90s output, and Meg Foster, apart from having crazy blue eyes and pushing Roddy through a window, doesn’t have the most of rewarding of supporting roles. The reveal ending, though, if indebted to both Network and The Howling, is amusing and adroit.


Its patchiness is part of its charm, of course, and more directors should do what Carpenter did, dabbling in low budgets when big success proved elusive; the majority of his ‘90s fare, and subsequent descent into a semi-retirement of videogaming, are illustration enough of that. Icke would certainly appreciate Carpenter’s take on aliens, though, that “I always believe that aliens should be evil. I don’t believe that Close Encounters and E.T. is valid because they’re not evil. They’re nice’. Certainly, that accounts for The Thing, and They Live (and the Village of the Damned remake). But Starman, John? Starman’s not evil. A bit wet, but not evil. That one’s also getting a remake, it seems. They Live could do well from a reinterpretation, in distinction to almost all of the other remakes we’ve had of Carpenter movies, since it’s an imperfect picture blessed with a perfect idea; a filmmaker with the savvy and budget to do it justice could be a godsend. It could even have a cameo from Icke, provided, if the Archons are amenable.


*Or is it They Live! - I certainly remember the title having an exclamation mark. So perhaps the damn mysterious Mandela Effect is at work here too. 

Addendum: Your mileage may vary with unsupported sources for hot takes, but I tend to consider the “open-mind first’ position a productive one, particularly when it comes to the conspirasphere. So Janine , whose readings are undoubtedly of variable merit in terms of accuracy/ interpretation, suggests the picture was intended as a “dark cult” production, but one that put too much out there too clearly, which is why it has since been clutched to the bosoms of truthers, perhaps second only to The Matrix for ready memes. Her understanding, however, that “whoever originally came up with the story was working on behalf of the dark cult” makes it unclear if that would be Carpenter or Ray Nelson – who knew the Beat Generation, a generally dodgy bunch, as well as Philip K Dick – or both. Given Carpenter insisted They Live! was about capitalism, he may have been intentionally obfuscating after the fact, or alternatively attempting to deflect any repercussions from the attention it was now receiving (gotta keep playing those video games, John).


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