Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

09 Nov 2012

(Movie - 1988) They Live directed by: John Carpenter

(Reaction) We Got Owned by: Jelo Singson

They Live is through and through a socio-political commentary. It talks about the growing divide between the rich and the poor and also serves as a cautionary tale of sorts preaching against consumerism and the dangers of being uncritical of what we take in through mass media.

It takes a unique poke at these themes by presenting it as a sci-fi, horror, dark-comedy hodge-podge of a film starring, of all things, an ex-WWF wrestler, Roddy Piper as the nameless drifter credited later on as Nada. The word nada is Spanish for nothing. Being never actually referred to by name throughout the length of the film the appropriateness... and the utter lack of imagination... of the name is not lost on the audience.

Personally, I take this odd choice of name to be an allusion to his worth - that is nothing. He is a down on his luck vagrant who could be dead on the street tomorrow and he wouldn't be missed by anyone. I also take this to be the film's opinion of the average Joe on the street: a mere statistic in the immense, relentless machinery of the everyday grind, nameless and by and large, faceless as well.

Visually, the film is gritty from start to finish. The film opens with a slow panning of scene after scene of inner city decay. The camera then closes in on exhaust-shaded graffiti bearing the words they live as the title shot. As these scenes play on they are accompanied by the slow, bluesy riff of a guitar and the humming of a harmonica hinting at the truly blue-collar vein of the film.

These elements also hint at the nearly shoestring budget of the movie. In fact, eagle-eyed film aficionados will most probably notice the use of recycled film props such as the communication devices the alien police use. These do not detract from the film but rather tie it together nicely thematically. After all, what's a film about economic decline without the evidence of some budget difficulties?

In a nutshell the film follows the exploits of Nada who, through a chain of events, uncovers a massive alien conspiracy. Via a pair of special sunglasses; Hoffman/Hofmann lenses they call them in the film, Nada discovers that the moneyed elite of society are in truth ruthless aliens. Slowly and subtly these aliens ruin the world through covert means.

They manipulate purchasing preferences by using subliminal messages embedded in advertising causing people to favor mindless consumption which in time becomes uncompromising greed. They sabotage economies by placing their kind in positions of power and once in position they reward the incompetent ensuring a long-drawn-out but certain financial death for any company. They control mass media ensuring that people no longer desire self-realization and enrichment but rather seek to be entertained and apathetic of conditions apart from the pursuit of pleasure. Even earth's ecology is gradually being ruined as a filthy, pollution-filled atmosphere is actually the natural environment that these aliens thrive in.

Perhaps this is the reason for the evocative title of the film. The aliens have found a way to live at the expense of the human race.

They, meaning the aliens, have sucker-punched humanity with a bunch of counterfeits. They have managed to fool humanity to chase after meaningless pursuits - buying stuff they don't need to impress people they don't like by spending long hours doing work that they don't enjoy. A truly sad cycle of meaningless toil as described in the book of Ecclesiastes.

Interestingly, I view the use of aliens as the secret overlords hell-bent on controlling and destroying the earth as another interesting social commentary. It's as if the film is trying to say this: Manipulating the populace into buying and consuming excessively, championing apathy and rewarding self-centeredness surely cannot be done by humans to their fellow humans... right? Surely this has to be the work of inhuman creatures pulling the strings from the shadows, right? Please tell me that I'm right...

It feels almost like the film seeks desperately to make sense of all the chaos happening in society. Seeing no clearly discernable figures to point blaming fingers at it concocts a monster, or in this case a whole race of monsters, to serve as a fall guy to pin all this blame on.


They Live is a B-movie with an intelligent premise but suffers badly from a poorly written script but this didn't stop me from enjoying it thoroughly. Yes, there are plot holes and yes, the nutsy acting delivered by Roddy Piper but these only would only be detractors if you were expecting say a thought-provoking, cutting-edge dark sci-fi along the vein of The Matrix.

They Live is to be enjoyed as is, a popcorn flick with much potential but decided to just kick ass and chew bubblegum and ran out of bubblegum midway through scriptwriting. It is not to be taken seriously as a film but rather to be treated more as a video conversation piece of sorts.

I mean, really, what if we really were being hoodwinked by the major companies into buying stuff we don't need to impress people we don't like and being conditioned to achieve all that by spending long hours doing work that we don't enjoy? That can't be possible, right?

Even though this is idea; that aliens have invaded the earth in a truly unconventional way, is the actual beating entertainment heart of the film it is also its Achilles' heel. Like any movie They Live also has its fair share of plot holes and quirky, but hilariously original acting. I find it so strange that a planet-spanning Illuminati-level conspiracy could be toppled overnight by the combined might of a blue-collar mullet-topped everyman and his equally tough, trash-talking token black cast member. I also found it strange that many of the aliens seem to have also bought into their own lie. Several scenes feature aliens enjoying expensive salon treatments, gourmet food items and yes, even sleazy sex from high end escort services. Perhaps they were doing this to keep up the act but it seems to me that somehow the aliens have also learned to enjoy the stuff they pander to the hapless humans... much like the way a drug pusher enjoys the occasional snort of cocaine.

However one must ask the question: did the aliens truly conquer humans in the traditional sense or was it more an issue of lack of vigilance that caused humanity to fall? Was humanity the victim of a very clever wide-scale bait-and-switch routine or were the aliens simply waiting for humanity to dull itself with insipid entertainment and become clumsy with leisure? These for me were the more critical and poignant questions which was sadly never answered as somewhere towards the middle of the film it turned into well... an odd hybrid of slugfest and a sci-fi western. Then again, I wasn't really surprised. The film after all did use Roddy Piper as its protagonist and became as a result the template for videogame macho-heroes like Duke Nukem.

If you were to ask me though, I would have to say that the aliens didn't really have to do much. Although aliens are to blame in the film, the sad fact is this: we've no one to blame for the maladies of the world but ourselves.

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