“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum!” declares the heavily armed protagonist of John Carpenter’s They Live (re-released this week) just before he opens fire, shooting up a bank full of yuppie scum and taking his first fledgling steps towards revolution.

I love They Live!


Now 30 years old and filled with endlessly quotable dialogue and thick-ear action, Carpenter’s tale of a homeless construction worker – wrestler-turned-actor “Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s aptly named John Nada (Spanish for “nothing”) – who stumbles upon a clandestine alien invasion when his eyes are opened by a very special pair of sunglasses, is arguably one of the most underrated films of the ‘80s; a sly, subversive critique of Reaganomics and the “Greed Is Good!” mantra of that decade that’s more relevant today than it was in 1988. But just how subversive was They Live?


Well, for starters, the hero is homeless. A rough sleeping member of the underclass, drifting from city to city chasing his slice of the American Dream, Piper’s Nada believes against all the evidence that his hard work will pay off. In a world of haves and haven’t-got-a-fucking-hopes, Nada definitely belongs in the latter group. As his only friend, Keith David’s Frank says: “The whole deal is like some kind of crazy game. They put you at the starting line. And the name of the game is make it through life. Only, everyone’s out for themselves and looking to do you in at the same time. OK, man here we are. You do what you can, but remember, I’m going to do my best to blow your ass away. So how are you going to make it?” Nada’s answer is at once hopeful and hopelessly naïve: “I deliver a hard day’s work for my money. 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.” Nada believes that if he just keeps his head down and plays the game, a slice of the good life can be his. But the game is rigged and the odds are stacked against him.


The angriest, most overtly political film of Carpenter’s career, a raging howl of protest against rampant consumerism and toxic capitalism, in They Live television is the drug of the Nation, quite literally breeding ignorance just as The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy always warned us. Because it’s television, and our own dreams, our own desires, that is the tool the aliens use to subdue us, to seduce us, pumping out subliminal messages to STAY ASLEEP, billboards exhorting us to OBEY, while robbing us blind, the very money in our hands declaring THIS IS YOUR GOD.


As with Brian Yuzna’s Society, the rich of They Live are quite literally a different species; a race of alien invaders. But while Yuzna’s privileged upper class wanted to literally fuck and consume us, Carpenter’s aliens are far more human monsters; neoliberal arch capitalists bent on strip mining the world. They’re not here to destroy the Earth, just to rape it, to strip-mine us and turn a profit. And we are blind to the threat they represent, complicit. Before Nada dons the special alien-revealing sunglasses, the ravings of Raymond St. Jacques’ Street Preacher are just that: the ravings of a madman. But while the world may have blinded him, the Lord has let him see. “Outside the limit of our sight, feeding off us, perched on top of us, from birth to death, are our owners! Our owners! They have us. They control us! They are our masters! Wake up! They’re all about you! All around you!” it’s only when Nada dons the alien-busting sunglasses that the scales drop from his eyes, revealing the truth and, quite literally, allowing him to see the world in black and white.


They Live forces us to see the world as it really is, a world where we are complicit in our own slavery, where as one human quisling points out: “What’s wrong with having it good for a change? Now they’re gonna let us have it good if we just help ’em. They’re gonna leave us alone, let us make some money. You can have a little taste of that good life too. Now, I know you want it. Hell, everybody does.”


The truth is, we do all want to make a little money, we do all want a taste of the good life! And like Keith David’s Frank in the film’s celebrated 6-minute fight scene, we’ll fight desperately to stay asleep, to stave off reality. Because once we put on the sunglasses, we realise we are trapped, enslaved by our own desires and by the illusion of democracy and freedom. It’s only when we accept the reality of our servitude that we realise our choice is stark: to submit or to fight, to become like Nada and Frank modern day (if heavily armed) shades of Tom Joad, battling against the soulless forces of capitalism that subjugate them, subjugate us.


But it’s just satire, right? A heavy-handed slice of ‘80s genre cinema? Three decades on, with a sexually aggressive, fucktarded reality TV star masquerading as the leader of the free world and a zero hours gig culture that depends on food banks and charity, Carpenter’s paranoid masterpiece feels more like reportage than satire, a documentary rather than a sci-fi/action flick. Having leapfrogged homeless people on the way to the train station on my morning commute this morning though (and I live in Dalston, hippest, trendiest place in the world according to Time Out New York and Italian Vogue) I defy you to turn on Question Time and not see Carpenter’s ghouls in the self-serving visages of the likes of Victorian haunted puppet Jacob Rees-Mogg or Poundshop Nazi amphibian Nigel Farage as their Brexshit dismantles the country for their fun and profit, the alien cruelty in the studied smiles of Esther McVey or Ian Duncan Smith, the absence of humanity in the face of Theresa May.


“Steel mills were laying people off left and right. They finally went under. We gave the steel companies a break when they needed it. Know what they gave themselves? Raises. The Golden Rule: He who has the gold, makes the rules. They close one more factory we should take a sledgehammer to one of their fancy fuckin foreign cars.”


“He who has the gold, makes the rules.”

I’ve got a sledgehammer. Who’s with me?


They Live! (the 4k restoration) is released on DVD, Blu-Ray and UHD on October 29

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