Second Glance: The Pliable Political Commentary of ‘They Live’

The one-size-fits-all dogma of this 1988 action flick allows viewers to re-read and re-appropriate the movie for different eras.

Welcome to “Second Glance,” a bi-weekly column that spotlights an older film of note (thanks to an anniversary, a connection to a new release, or new disc or streaming availability) that was not as commercially or critically successful as it should’ve been. This week, we take a look at John Carpenter’s They Live.

When we’re putting together the Second Glance column, your film editor usually tries to select movies that are at least moderately obscure — overlooked, unsung, ignored altogether, etc. This week’s installment doesn’t really meet that criteria; while not a giant hit upon release, it was at least moderately profitable, and has always been beloved by a pocket of viewers. But over the past few months, its name has kept coming up, being name-dropped and referenced and memed aplenty, so we might as well bend the rules a little bit. Because They Live isn’t just a late-‘80s sci-fi/action flick; it’s a political satire that’s only grown more resonant with each passing year.

Released in 1988, They Live was directed by Carpenter, who adapted the script (under the pseudonym Frank Armitage) from Ray Nelson’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning.” It stars pro wrestler Roddy Piper — dropping the “Rowdy” from his moniker, like respectable thespians do — as a drifter who opens the movie sauntering into an unnamed metropolis, lugging a pack on his back and a chip on his shoulder. The economy is dire, and he’s stuck working an under-the-table construction gig. But he becomes aware of a lurking resistance movement, and then he finds the sunglasses.

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At first it seems they merely turn everything black and white — which, frankly, is a pair of sunglasses I wouldn’t mind owning. But then he discovers they reveal the not-so-subtle messaging of ads, signs, products, magazines, money, and television shows: “OBEY,” “MARRY AND REPRODUCE,” “CONSUME,” “WATCH TV,” “SUBMIT.” And they also reveal some of his fellow citizens to be not human at all; instead, they’re creepy skull-head aliens. As Piper makes these discoveries, Carpenter gives us enough shots of him putting on and removing his sunglasses to suggest They Live may be David Caruso’s favorite movie.

And the black and white is a smart touch. The crispness of the monochromatic photography suggests a vintage sci-fi picture – specifically, the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, another story of aliens among us that was easily decoded into political commentary. But Carpenter’s primary objective for They Live was to make a tough action flick, which he does; it fits snugly into his filmography’s subset of urban mayhem movies (alongside Escape from New York, Assault on Precinct 13, and parts of Big Trouble in Little China). He can’t resist putting the narrative on pause for at least five minutes for a good old-fashioned bare-knuckle street brawl (between Piper and the great Keith David, both of whom give as good as they get). And Piper is, in many ways, a conventional action hero, growling dialogue like “I got news for you: there’s gonna be hell to pay” and the film’s most oft-quoted line, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum.”

But the director is also subverting some of the inescapable tropes of the period. Piper’s character fumbles frequently, often to the accompaniment of Carpenter and Alan Howarth’s twangy, poor-loser score; it’s a sharp contrast to the indestructible, infallible action heroes of the Stallone/Schwarzenegger era. And few of those pictures (aside from The Running Man, which may have to make its way into this space as well) made room for this kind of explicit social commentary. They Live’s commentary is not terribly subtle; those block-lettered consumer message rewrites smell of a first-semester media studies course, and its dogma has such a one-size-fits-all pliability, it’s not surprising we keep finding ways to re-read and re-appropriate the movie for different eras.

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After all, it was intended as a jab at the Reagan era, set in a trickle-down economy where the rich have gotten richer off the working class (David’s character states as much, in as many words). So tied is it to the Reagan years that an alien politico is even seen, on a television, announcing, “It’s a new morning in America!” But, sadly, these notions and complaints didn’t prove to be period-specific, and They Live’s increased visibility lately probably has more to do with its specifically anti-capitalist messaging. The endgame in the film is money; the aliens, we’re told, are “free enterprisers,” and their plot for dominations is “business, that’s all it is.” (Meanwhile, a Bernie-type rabble-rouser randomly appears on television: “They are dismantling the sleeping middle class!”).

But, in the end, all it takes is one brave soul willing to resist – to risk his life shutting off the filter and let all of America see these pillaging, lying, soulless scum-suckers for who they are, with the presumption that once they do, the con is over. What can I tell you, it’s a Hollywood ending.

“They Live” is currently streaming on HBO GO and is available for rental or purchase on Amazon, iTunes, and the usual platforms.