They Live!: Re-Examining John Carpenter’s Sci-Fi Epic
After a hectic Horrortober, I have to tell you, I’m tired. But not so tired that I can’t go through the rounds of editing on my new book. This one’s gonna be a doozy.
Sometimes, when the fates see you need a hand, they deliver. Today, I’m featuring a post by Spencer Mitchell about one of my favorite directors, John Carpenter. We waxed poetic about JC on the Monster Men some time back (Episode 37 to be precise. Click here to see it). They Live has always held a special place in my heart, mostly because Rowdy Roddy Piper was my all time favorite wrestler.
Well, here’s Spencer’s take on They Live, giving this old writer a much needed rest. Take it away, brother…
The prevailing image of filmmaker John Carpenter remains that of a “master of horror.” The problem with that perception is that it doesn’t acknowledge his depth as a filmmaker. He’s dabbled in multiple genres, and he’s also shown time and time again that he can make compelling films, whether they’re made inexpensively with few performers, or big-budget star vehicles with lots of special effects.
Carpenter first gained recognition when he edited a film that won the Oscar for Best Live-Action Short in 1970. The film, entitled The Resurrection of Broncho Billy, told the story of a contemporary young man who fantasizes about being a cowboy during the days of the Wild West. Four years later, his own feature film would debut and introduce him to the public as a sci-fi force to be reckoned with .
In his first major work, Dark Star (1974) and the following film Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), Carpenter established his ability to make films effectively (however crudely) with only provisional resources at his disposal. Dark Star was a science fiction comedy (co-written by and starring Carpenter’s classmate Dan O’Bannon), while Assault dealt with the defense of an abandoned police station. Both films were made on meager budgets with unestablished actors, and with Carpenter doing all or most of the musical scoring himself.
Carpenter had his first “breakthrough” hit with Halloween (1978). The name of bloodthirsty “Michael Myers” came from the name of the British film distributor who helped Carpenter release Assault on Precinct 13 in the UK. “Laurie Strode” was the name of an ex-girlfriend. The first big film for Carpenter, it also marked the on-screen debut of actress Jamie Lee Curtis. After the success of Halloween, however, Carpenter began to find himself being pigeonholed into the confines of the horror genre. Despite this, or perhaps to counteract it, he began working on projects such as a television biopic of Elvis Presley with former child star Kurt Russell. They would collaborate several more times on films such as Escape From New York (1981) and Big Trouble in Little China (1983).
Over the next few years, Carpenter continued to establish his reputation as an imaginative, genre-defying auteur. Capable of concocting the right blend of the suspenseful, the terrifying and the spine-chilling, his work on The Fog (1980), The Thing (1982) and Starman (1984) helped the horror genre attain box office prominence and respect from critics. Employing the concept of aliens in both The Thing and Starman, he explored more advanced themes of paranoia and control. Both films are not necessarily about what the alien, or “Thing”, symbolizes, but rather the unrelenting acknowledgement that such unknown threats exist, and that we should be afraid of them. The fears explored in these films ultimately led to the production of 1988’s They Live.
The film involves another alien conflict, this time led by a drifter who puts on special sunglasses that allow him to see how government entities are subliminally influencing the thoughts of all citizens. The otherwise-normal looking political leaders are seen by the drifter (via the magic sunglasses) as horrific beings bent on complete control of their citizenry. Unpopular amongst critics upon its release, the film has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years. As a viewer, you might recognize uncanny similarities between They Live’s apocalyptic narrative and the problems inherent in our own society today.
Carpenter also accurately depicts the continuing rancor over the issue of climate change. One character in the film rails against the increase of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, saying about the aliens, “They’re turning our atmosphere into their atmosphere.” While advancements in alternative energy have been made recently with the gradual adoption of natural gas powered vehicles, solar panels, and wind turbines, global politics continue to prevent the implementation of real change. And as the world tries its best to come to terms with the reality of global warming, many are left feeling alienated themselves – adrift in a society that teaches little else than how to contribute to an endless cycle of spending, wasting, and consuming.
While the unconventional casting choice of professional wrestling villain Roddy Piper in the lead role garnered the film some unique attention when it came out, some fans of the film will also note a connection to the writings of David Ickes, and the multitude of conspiracy theories he posited. Ickes himself commented on how perceptive Carpenter’s vision of the future in the film was in relation to his own conceptualization of actual reality. In an America devastated by economic collapse and disillusioned by the subsequent NSA scandals, a government interested in total mind control doesn’t seem like such a stretch.
In some respects, They Live is also reminiscent of 1976’s Network, which was written as a parody of the television industry but whose scenes now mirror what modern media has devolved into. As for Carpenter, he made his name eliciting powerful (often terrified) reactions from his audiences, continuing to both scare and inspire to this day. And for those that tried to pigeonhole him as nothing more than a purveyor of popcorn horror flicks, may they someday see through the propagandistic, consumerist veil of humanity’s alien overlords.
That’s some good stuff, right? Check out all of the links Spencer provided and get the full story. He can be reached on Twitter at @bspencerblohm.
What are your thoughts on They Live?
Still one of best drawn-out slugfests on film. I believe the street brawl between Piper and David clocks in around 7 minutes. And of course the immortal punchline: “And I’m all out of bubblegum.”