They Live (1988)
I’ve been looking out for another John Carpenter film since The Thing (1982) and Starman (1984), coming across an article that sees They Live (1988) which is now seen as a precursor to our times. Now I have finally seen this short yet rather feisty sci-fi horror. This could easily be seen as a film released by Hilary Clinton as propaganda to keep Donald Trump out of the White House. At the moment over in the States literally anything can happen as we all fear for the worst. I could go on about how I feel about the election, but this is not a political forum or social media. John Carpenter instead has accidentally predicted a future where aliens have taken over and none of us even realise, carrying on with our lives none the wiser to this subtlest of invasions, or should I say occupations.
On the surface I saw this as a cross between a Paul Verhoeven and a classic B-movie, commenting of the economy that had all but collapsed, only working for the rich and successful – sound familiar? We find Nada (Roddy Piper) who is out of a job, homeless, and ready to get started again in life. Finding a job is harder than it looks, you could become disillusioned with a society that doesn’t help you, needing to support yourself. He soon finds construction work and shelter in a makeshift camp – much like the one that’s being demolished in Calais. However its the scenes before that get my attention of a TV transmission that fights to get through, interrupting viewing, there’s a broken message that get s the audience’s attention and Nada’s who is just happy to have found somewhere to sleep. A conspiracy of some sort is going on, it could just be another theory as they usually are.
However that view is soon questioned when Nada finds a pair of sunglasses that change his view of the world. One where the illusion of commerce and advertising’s exposed. Societies true intentions, the desire to control en-mass is revealed to him. All through a pair of glasses. Seeing these aliens is shocking to him and the audience, who are these creatures with skull like features exposed, what are they doing living among us? They soon realise that he can see them, his reaction is instinctive, reacting out of fear of the unknown threat. They too are threatened by this revelation, still it’s not new to them.
Visually this sequence reminds of me of how far cinema has come, and how much its language relies on its past in order to convey the ideas in the film. Nada’s discoveries treated in classical terms, first used in The Wizard of Oz (1939) and A Matter of Life and Death (1946) that uses black and white and colour to determine the reality we are in at anyone time. Here Nada’s reality is in colour until he sees the truth in black and white. Much like Oz as Dorothy steps out of her mundane life to that of Oz. For Peter Carter (David Niven) he jumps literally between life and death. We don’t have bright heavenly colours we’re used to, instead life is in colour, whilst heaven, the afterlife in far darker, in black and white. This was a creative choice to throw the audience off at the time, the magic of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger who were playing with the medium. Carpenter 44 years later uses the same language to differentiate between the projected reality and the dreariness of the hidden one that’s exposed through a simple device – a pair of sunglasses that are used to protect our eyes from the Sun. Here they’re used to remove that protection from beings that have come further than the sun.
What follows is a need to wake up the world, that’s after one of the longest on-screen fist-fights, and over the most trivial matter, wearing a pair of shades. It seems to go on forever between these two men, a black and a white man fighting over the who should listen to who. Maybe that’s too literal a reading, these two men Nada and Frank (Keith David) who eventually realises that the truth is hidden from him.
The final third of the film sees a rise to arms, joining a militia, is that what we are seeing with Trump supporters as they fight the political establishment that they feel has done nothing for them? It’s a two-man fight that leads them sooner than they thought to the truth of what is going on, using our greed for money to blind those who are successful to turn a blind eye whilst the aliens who have taken over the planet, using like food, sucking it dry of nutrients before moving on. The most effective infiltration mission on earth that goes on for years and probably seeing the after effects long after the film is over. We leave Earth as they wake up to the unwanted gusts who they thought were just human. An infestation I’ve not seen son effectively carried out since Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), this is not about the fear of communism, but the fear of governments and capitalism’s control over us all. How far is this film now from our reality, that’s the question that I come away with from this film. Nearly 30 years later it’s become even more prophetic to our times, much like Network (1976) that was a fight for ratings and media controlling our reality, how we think, its scary how much we have seen come to pass in recent years.