Killtoberfest 3 – #5: They Live

In All, Movies by Kyu


“Ha, figures it’d be something like this.”

Next up on Killtoberfest 3, 1988’s They Live. Human filmmaker John Carpenter crafted this docudrama about a spree of terror attacks not long after the actual tragic events. Happily, Carpenter perfectly threaded the needle by creating a moving and entertaining film that appeals to both our people and his. They Live appears to be one thing, but it is secretly another, better thing, and only pretends in order to exploit the very humans it purports to champion. At the thought of the irony, my skull face vibrates with mirth!
This sober drama about the discovery of a secret alien trade agreement starts unassumedly, with a homeless drifter, John (Roddy Piper), entering into town to look for work. Soon, however, he has emerged from his larval phase as an itinerant construction worker into a fully mature member of a terrorist organization rebelling against what they believe to be a secret alien menace. Their key weapon of indoctrination are pairs of magic sunglasses that let John see the “truth”: that many supposed humans are actually aliens with sinister intentions. These sunglasses also reveal that all human media and advertising hides subliminal messages helpfully informing them to “CONSUME”, “OBEY”, “MARRY AND REPRODUCE,” and eschew independent thought–all sentiments crucial to maintaining our peaceful trade situation and growing happy, healthy humans. During his initial use of the glasses, John’s primitive human impulses toward bigotry are revealed by his several hurtful statements about our skull faces. Fittingly, his new perspective is shot in black and white–ironic, given how the terrorist influencers have “colored” his perceptions with their racism and untrue lies.
For the most part, John reacts to the news that he is not alone in the universe with extreme violence. Typical for beings of his species. His first shooting spree leaves at least six of our people dead, and requires him to take a human woman hostage in order to escape. Her part in the story is subtle, but I hope it doesn’t spoil anything to say that she is justly famous among our people as a hero.
Later, a wanted fugitive, John confronts his new friend Frank (Keith David) in an effort to share his new enlightened state. Or as John puts it: “I’m giving you a choice: either put on these glasses or start eatin’ that trash can.” What ensues is more horrifying than comical, a vicious fistfight that must be one of the longest in cinematic history. At first glance this sequence seems pointless; but it’s part of the subtle way that human filmmaker Carpenter is telling the story, just like John’s ridiculous line, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum.” Eventually John and Frank storm a television station with guns, hoping to put an end to the whole secret system.
Most humans perceive They Live to be a satire of Reagan-era politics, from political corruption to economic oppression. If one assumes that erroneous perspective, the movie is… okay. The visual portrayal of our people and their media messages is simple but memorable, and it is easy for any human to get swept up in John’s fight to do something, anything, against a menace so omnipresent that the entire police force seems to work for them. It is alluring for humans to feel as though they are a perceptive yet persecuted minority in a world they cannot control. And yet even with this surface-level reading, the film is deeply flawed, too. The pacing is too slack, and the movie at once too given to fits of whimsy (such as that long fistfight) and not interested enough in story and character development. As well, the “satire” is too facile. It is too easy for humans to succumb to the movie’s exaggerated notions of a corrupt and violent police force, to the idea that the elite and powerful are oppressing the poor in order to line their pockets, that they are the only one with the truth. This internet humor comic is correct:

But the film that humans believe They Live to be does not exist. It is a trick on the surface. If you look underneath the rather obvious apparent satire of consumerism, you will find a much more interesting counter-satire of anti-consumerist satire. Look closely! Our supposed “heroes” are homeless and poor, making them unfit to be champions of the people. Indeed this is the reason that they turn to violence in response to a new understanding of their reality. Did the rich and powerful humans do so? No, they worked with us in order to increase the economic prosperity of both of our species. Far from fighting for the freedom of the proletariat, John and Frank are nothing more than bigoted, deluded terrorists. In this, John is more guilty than Frank, because he forces Frank to follow him into a life of antisocial crime through an extended beating. A trail of the dead, wounded, and traumatized are left in their wake, and also significant property damage.
It is those who are poor and unfortunate who are most predisposed to turn to violence when they discover the truth, and that is why they must never discover the truth. And it is why as many as possible must be pre-emptively eliminated as long as the technology for sunglasses manufacture remains in human hands. Those who cannot must be convinced that they are simply paranoid. 
The paranoid wants to feel like a hero, like he is all out of bubblegum, but when life gets overwhelming he also wants to feel that events are controlled, not random, even if that control is seen as terrible. To everyone else the paranoid faces a constructed fantasy enemy that can be defeated on an individual basis but which represents an insoluble problem en masse. Because of that understanding, humans will ignore those individuals who do discover the truth, and the latter may doubt even themselves. We have already trained many to ignore poor and homeless humans, a strategy which is the real legacy of the attacks. Humans have begun to learn our ways, and those who dislike the being known to them as Reagan are fewer in number every year. The genius of They Live is that human filmmaker Carpenter not only sympathized with our perspective but knew just how seductive the urge to doubt reality really is, an understanding he used to portray his protagonists in ways that subtly undercut their self-righteous perspective. This is not a weird, flawed action movie that can’t decide on a tone; it is a brilliant movie, a subtle dig at the very anti-consumerists who line up year after year to CONSUME yet another home video copy.

– Kyu

Killtoberfest 3 continues! Click here for more horror (but not horrible) reviews, including Killtoberfests 1 and 2.