They Live!: Re-Examining John Carpenter’s Sci-Fi Epic

Screenwriter/director John Carpenter has built his career by being a contrarian in an industry controlled by traditionalists. His horror films such a Halloween (1978) and The Fog (1980) delve into the abyss of the darkest parts of human nature. Not only does Carpenter manage to be entertaining and revolting at the same time, but he also makes us aware of the evil that lurks inside of everyone.

His influence is resonant, and his films Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing have all seen their own remakes (although it’s worth acknowledging that his Thing was a remake unto itself) and he was recently profiled on The Director’s Chair on Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey Network.

Even in his best science-fiction/action films, he seems to be trying to tell the audience about the struggles we encounter in our lives and why they exist. It’s like he has a secret and he is trying to share it through his films. Hit films such as Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Escape from New York (1981) pit the average man against inhuman gangs, tyrannical governments, or other oppressive entities. Perhaps the one film that gets right to the core of Carpenter’s little secret is They Live (1988).

The film tells the story of a drifter (Nada played by Rowdy Roddy Piper) who migrates to Los Angeles looking for work. He stumbles upon an innocent looking shelter. When he begins noticing strange happenings, he realizes this isn’t a typical shelter. The truth is revealed to him when he discovers sunglasses that allow him to see “reality”. The reality is that the people in power (police, politicians, wealthy business owners) are really aliens sent to earth to deplete its resources and render it dormant. They gain access to everything by using mind control techniques through subliminal messages on billboards, TV and radio broadcasting. Nada decides to confront these aliens to thwart their efforts to overthrow the earth.

If this sounds like something right out of a David Icke lecture or book, that thought might be right on target. Icke is an advocate against government intervention and conspiracy theories surrounding mind control and manipulation. He speaks extensively about the sun and moon’s ability to control the energy of people on earth through magnetic vibrations. He has been called a nut-job by many. However, there are those who see validity in what he preaches. When films like They Live hit the big screen, it gives people reason to pause.

In the film, the aliens are depicted as having gooey, skeletal faces which become visible when they’re viewed through Nada’s special sunglasses. In true Carpenter form, the conflict is set between the average Joe and the unseen evils that oppress him. In this case, the evil looks just like everyone else unlike the villains in Carpenter’s slasher/horror movies. Another fascinating aspect of this film involves the murder scenes. In most Carpenter films, murder is a graphic, vicious and violent act. In this film, he took a more reserved approach. It might be that he wanted people to hear the message without getting wrapped up in the fear and terror.

Carpenter, didn’t however, make enough concessions when it came to on-screen brawls and lame, improvised one-liners. But hey, the film is all the more enjoyable for them. It’s a pulpy genre-blender that pays tribute, in it’s own way, to socially conscious science-fiction films from the fifties. Not Carpenter’s best outing, as such, but an enjoyable film nevertheless.