THEY LIVE – John Carpenter


Imagine a world where huge financial institutions run the world: they have the power to install their own puppet leaders, they control global markets and decisions which they make in the blink of an eye can literally mean the difference between life and death for huge numbers of people. They control the mainstream media, which pumps out a steady stream of witless celebrity bilge, energy-sapping sports coverage and thinly disguised hate-filled propaganda, designed to anaesthetize and indoctrinate. Television hypnotizes, and to NOT watch it results in migraine-like headaches. The police are employed to protect and serve the rich alone, and are to be used as a private army when necessary. These institutions can take away your homes, jobs and freedoms arbitrarily and with impunity. Money is worshipped, wealth flows upwards and a shit-storm comes down on all those who aren’t ‘with the programme’; the ordinary Joes and Joannes who just want a decent standard of living and a nice place to raise the kids.

Pretty scary, eh? And of course its nothing at all like the situation we are in today. Well, now imagine these institutions being run by aliens….

Paranoid fantasy? Bad sci-fi written through too much stress and caffeine? Drug-addled 60s-throwback psychedelic hysteria (instead of ‘The Man’ we have ‘The Space-Man’)? Or a vision of a possible reality, made in the style of a 50s B-movie and featuring a 7-minute fistfight? ‘THEY LIVE‘ (directed by JOHN CARPENTER) is all of these.

An unemployed, homeless construction worker Nada (literally ‘Nothing’, an Everyman-type, ably played by professional wrestler Roddy Piper) turns up at a homeless camp in LA looking for work. These camps have sprung up all over America as banks repossess homes. Jobs are scarce, cost-of-living expenses sky-rocket and more and more people find themselves destitute. Here he meets Frank (Keith David. Or is it David Keith? Anyway its NOT the guy who hangs himself in ‘An Officer And A Gentleman’). At a church in the camp he stumbles across an underground meeting but before the purpose of this enclave becomes clear the police move in and destroy the camp, beating its inhabitants and scattering their meagre possessions. When he revisits the scene of the meeting he finds a box of sunglasses which he stashes in a dustbin. Confused, but figuring that at least he has a free pair of shades, he heads out into the main street, and here he has a major revelation. With the glasses on what look like ordinary billboards and magazines appear to contain subliminal orders such as ‘OBEY’, ‘CONSUME’, ‘SLEEP’, with money containing the slogan ‘THIS IS YOUR GOD’. Wearing the glasses he soon realises that some people are in fact aliens, and have infiltrated the wealthy upper-classes. He gets involved in a shoot-out in a bank, killing only aliens. This leads to him being pursued by police and he hides out in the home of TV producer Holly Thompson (the witchy-eyed Meg Foster). While trying to explain himself, she tricks him and pushes him out of her house and down a hill, leaving the glasses behind. Nada returns to the camp and tries to convince Frank to put on the glasses, but Frank thinks he is dealing with a murderous fugitive and they fight in the alley ( for 7 minutes-a tribute to John Wayne in ‘The Quiet Man’) before Nada eventually forces the glasses onto him, and Frank too sees the aliens.

They re-establish contact with the church group, and at the meeting (also attended by Holly) they hear about climate change engineered by the aliens, population control by a signal sent through television,  how people are being ‘farmed’ and the entire planet strip-mined for its resources. The aliens, along with their human collaborators, run the media, the financial institutions, and even the government. The resistance plan to mass-produce the glasses to awaken the population to the reality of their situation, but before any progress can be made the police break into the meeting and begin slaughtering everyone they find. Using an alien transporter device Nada and Frank escape to an underground tunnel system where they come across a benefit being given by the aliens for the humans who have aided them in their mission. Further exploration leads to the cable TV station responsible for generating the cloaking TV signal and, finding Holly, Nada and Frank head to the roof to destroy the transmitter. Here Holly shoots Frank and is killed by Nada, who is himself shot by an overhead police helicopter, but not before he brings down the aerial and stops the signal transmission. The result is that humans can now see the aliens as they really are, and the extent of their infiltration throughout society.

‘THEY LIVE’ is 25 years old next year and is more relevant now than ever. When it originally came out (in the era of Reaganomics, ‘Wall Street’ and ‘Bonfire Of The Vanities’) it’s B-movie style and tongue-in-cheek humour led to it being criticized as one of the weaker films from Carpenter, who had previously set such high standards with ‘Halloween’, ‘Escape From New York’, and ‘The Thing’ among others. However, this is my blog and therefore my rules, so I’ll give you my take on ‘THEY LIVE’.

It’s a documentary. Or at least a drama-documentary, with fictional characters playing against a real background. Its 25 years old and the ‘near future’ is NOW. Social, economic and political nowadays are EXACTLY the same as in his ‘fictional’ film (When Carpenter’s ‘Assault On Precinct 13’ came out, one of the reasons given for it being ‘unrealistic’ was that the gangs had automatic weapons, and they would never be as organised as Carpenter portrays them!). Multi-nationals own governments, financial institutions do as they please (restricting access to your own money, while charging crippling interest if you dare spend one penny more than your pre-determined worth), TV is relentless garbage (peddling vacuous, unattainable ‘life-style’ propaganda to an audience of couch-bound consumers, numbed by the media, titillation-on-tap, drugs of one kind or another, lack of empathy and stress) job-cuts, homelessness, and anxiety are all on the way up, and tolerance, community-spirit and social-mobility are sloping downwards. I’ve got just one question-if the governments, which we have ‘democratically’ elected with our ‘x’ on a piece of paper every couple of years and who constantly claim that they are acting for our benefit, if they care at all about the population, how have they allowed this to happen? We live in the Western World in the 21st century and we should ALL be prosperous, healthy, trouble-free, and comfortable. Take a look around…..

Dismissed for it’s style, and consequently its content, ‘THEY LIVE’ stands up today much better than some of Carpenters more celebrated films. If it was made today, it would be very different (in fact it has been remade with a far larger budget and far fewer jokes, as ‘THE MATRIX’). I’m not suggesting that the planet is controlled by aliens who regard humans as cattle and who influence every aspect of modern life in order to maintain a docile and compliant population, oblivious to their situation…..In fact that is EXACTLY what I’m suggesting. However this isn’t the place for me to provide evidence for my ill-formed and paranoid ramblings. What I will say is that both ‘THEY LIVE’ and ‘THE MATRIX’ go some way to de-condition you, whether or not you believe the ideas they contain, so that next time you hear about bankers bonuses or governments murdering their own citizens you may pause to think why these things are brought about. In much the same way as hearing the Bill Hicks routine about advertising will alter your view of TV commercials forever, ‘THEY LIVE’ will open your mind to at least the possibility that this may be the way the world works and that is it’s strength.

Take all this with a large pinch of sodium chloride if necessary, and do with it what you will. Enjoy the film on a superficial level as a dark comic fantasy and ignore my deranged gibberish. I don’t expect to alter your perception, but watching  ‘THEY LIVE’ might…

(Written to: ‘Equal Rights’ – PETER TOSH, ‘Bass Culture’ – LKJ, ‘Tago Mago’ – CAN)