It’s an acknowledged perceptual truth that we tend to ignore things about ourselves and the world around us that are uncomfortable to deal with. John Carpenter’s They Live takes this idea to a logical extreme: In denial of the all-consuming conformity of their culture, the characters in the film’s world are literally blinded to imperfections, to anything that will throw off the comfortable balance of their existence. Adding another layer to this conceit, Carpenter makes it such that this pervasive blindness is not self-inflicted but rather manufactured and perpetrated by a totalitarian state, the reinforcement of which comes chiefly via news media—that is to say, the televisual image. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer spoke way back in 1944 of the standardized mass culture and its ability to numb an unsuspecting populace into passive victimhood. But for Carpenter to wear this message so loud and proud from within the Hollywood industry all the way back in 1988 makes it no less confrontational, the time amassed between the two objects not dulling the impact of their ideas one bit. In fact, four years hence from the dystopia imagined by George Orwell with 1984 and at a time of increasingly widespread televisual prominence, it’s a message that’s only doubly relevant in Carpenter’s era.
Screens, and their power, are foregrounded early and often. A broadcasting push to eliminate a growing establishment of anti-media dissidents is witnessed by the film’s hero in the opening minutes, on a number of televisions of varying size: billboard-sized screens, mid-sized units embedded within window-shopping spreads, and tiny portable devices wielded by a crowd of working-class underlings. Through a series of clever sci-fi hooks worthy of Val Lewton or George A. Romero, the witness, Nada (professional-wrestling icon Roddy Piper), will soon inadvertently become the most vehement member of this televised rebellion, blazing a trail of unchecked violence against a public blissfully complicit in the capitalist greed of their government.
Before any of this happens, though, Carpenter establishes the economic and social realities of the film’s dystopic Los Angeles setting. The intriguingly origin-less Nada, a hulking brute whose meaty pectorals are like magnets for the eyes in Carpenter’s respectfully roomy widescreen compositions, finds work in L.A. at a construction site on the outskirts of the city, where many of the workers pony up their low wages to live in a shantytown overlooking the metropolitan splendor at the heart of the city, which practically wears its price tag on its gleaming surfaces. It is here where the seeds of the rebellion are planted, though many of the blue-collar laborers remain oblivious to the prophetic awareness that guides the movement. Nada befriends one of these men, Frank (Keith David); they chat about Frank’s family life back home, but Nada’s upcoming epiphany effectively makes him both an enemy of the state and a seeming madman to his civilian friends.
Screens, and their power, are foregrounded early and often.
Naturally, for a film that’s all about the potentially poisonous authority of the image, said epiphany deals with seeing. During one of his aimless struts around the city (Piper’s evocative gait well-practiced from his wrestling days), Nada stumbles upon a box of Marty McFly-like shades, and curiosity leads him to try on a pair. Ostensibly an insider invention meant only for police thought-control management, the sunglasses reveal a black-and-white, hyper-conformist environment when donned. Billboards touting mantras such as “OBEY,” “CONSUME,” “WATCH TV,” and “WORK 8 HOURS” replace advertising campaigns, everyday objects are tagged with their raison d’être as seen from the most cynical perspective (currency, for instance, is labeled with the phrase “THIS IS YOUR GOD”), and a select group of people resemble hideous, metal-eyed corpses stripped of their skin (Nada hilariously refers to one woman as “formaldehyde face”). Significantly, Nada doesn’t waste much time after his discovery before he starts punching out these monstrosities, eventually stealing a cop’s gun to shoot out a bank full of them; that his violent disgust plays out as a reflex more than an activist’s duty speaks to Carpenter’s point: freedom from government control is less a political right than a humanist right.
The man-against-society revenge thriller that follows is relentless in picking apart the grotesque standardization of consumer society and the repercussive pang of collective denial inspired within the people. Carpenter has a dramatic knack for being merciless without exhausting the viewer; the same penchant for following a juicy premise to its extreme end point that governed two of Carpenter’s previous features, Halloween and The Thing, is applied here in a more farcical register. Policemen by and large are represented as ineffectual and slightly buffoonish instruments in a faceless system of order, while the titular “they,” ugly and intimidating as they are, never stand a chance against Nada’s rifle. Individuals are subsumed into a larger, more diffuse and powerful enemy: that of the state-controlled media image. As a result, Nada’s killing spree is cycled through with very little sense of actual physical threat. The real stakes are not the annihilation of the protagonist but rather the question of whether or not he can stir his fellow laborers out of conformist hibernation, in turn sending a cry for independent thought into the ether. Thus, it’s a movie that keeps its intellectual goals embedded within its premise even as it tackles them with irreverence.
Tellingly, persuasive friction against Nada’s pursuit only comes in the form of human companions. The film’s rightfully remembered 10-minute fist-fight sequence—a jumbling of bodies that one might call slapstick were it not so brutal—occurs between Frank and Nada, ostensibly likeminded peers at first who are momentarily torn by a crucial distinction: one is blind and chooses complacency, while the other has “seen” and insists upon awareness. Scored to nothing but the panting of the men, shot at a courteous distance so as to encourage appreciation of the actors’ athleticism, and interspersed with jabbing one-liners, the scene is not unlike the pre-packaged spectacle served up in Piper’s primary professional life, but the visceral thrill it offers doesn’t distract from the thematic undercurrents motivating the battle. In the end, a frustrated Nada has to forcibly apply the magical sunglasses to the face of his wounded comrade—a rather bleak assessment of what it takes to convert average citizens into radicals.
They Live’s iconic, subversive conclusion features the film’s most unforgettable image: a mammoth satellite on top of the mile-high television station exploding in flames against the L.A. skyline.
Another key supporting player in They Live is Holly (Meg Foster, cleverly cast for her almost supernaturally blue eyes). The seemingly baffled victim of Nada’s automobile hijacking, Holly is eventually revealed as the opposite of Frank’s soon-to-be proselyte: a duplicitous broadcaster at the local television station behind the aforementioned public service announcements who counters Nada’s awkward come-ons with a seduction of her own. She shows up at one of the underground gatherings of the anarchist movement as if to advertise positive allegiances, but later lures Nada into a trap in the TV-studio-set climax. Though human and wholly aware of manipulative behavior perpetrated on a daily basis, she represents the scariest possible outcome in Carpenter’s world: a person who knowingly, willingly and proactively remains complicit in the evils of the system in which they are simultaneously imprisoned.
They Live’s iconic, subversive conclusion features the film’s most unforgettable image: a mammoth satellite on top of the mile-high television station exploding in flames against the L.A. skyline, both Nada and Holly going down with it. This satellite, it turns out, is the primary transmitter of the station’s content, and therefore the sole technological source of totalitarian enforcement. For a movie of such pulpy playfulness, this wallop of nihilism—the suggestion being that everything, including those few founts of radicalism, must be destroyed before real progress can take effect—has a strangely sobering impact. Suddenly, the film itself is reconfigured as a product of the same image-making institution it indicts, its director’s sly subversion made to look as inherently self-destructive as his protagonist’s ultimately doomed retaliation. Maybe this is why Carpenter’s audacious entertainment has faded into relative obscurity in the two-and-a-half decades since its release; its obsolescence is in some sense built into its dissident punch.
Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.