Picture it: A famous director makes a movie based on a comic book. He creates a sci-fi action flick that’s a veiled middle finger at the current Republican celebrity president. The film sets a homeless tent city against an elaborate propaganda machine, vicious police officers, and a secret community of aliens using wealth, greed, and the media to keep humans compliant.
Sounds like the latest Jordan Peele horror flick. But They Live was made in 1988.
Before "woke" culture, Black Lives Matter, and “fake news,” John Carpenter’s classic B-movie touched on issues still pervading our culture. “They Live is more significant now than it was then,” says star Keith David. On the surface, this cult classic captures a specific moment of the 1980s. A typical '80s action hero, wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper's drifter protagonist (tellingly named Nada, or "nothing") confronts aliens with unlimited ammo and copious one-liners. The movie fits smoothly into Carpenter's '80s oeuvre - Escape from New York, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China.
But there’s a ton of cultural commentary hidden within. Carpenter has said, “You have to understand something: It’s a documentary. It’s not science fiction.”
Popularized by the Black Lives Matter movement, the buzzwords "woke" and "stay woke" hinge on being “awake” to social and race-based injustice, as well as remaining vigilant to their effects. The entirety of They Live is about waking up the populace to “reality.”
They Live's alien overlords use a radio signal to hypnotize humans into seeing the world they want people to see. Money is sheets of paper that read, “This is Your God.” Random billboards simply read, “Obey.” Everyone is glued to their TV. Trying to pierce this bubble, the resistance cuts into television broadcasts with transmissions telling the “truth":
The poor and the underclass are growing. Racial justice and human rights are nonexistent. They have created a repressive society and we are their unwitting accomplices. Their intention to rule rests with the annihilation of consciousness. We have been lulled into a trance. They have made us indifferent to ourselves and others. We are focused only on our own gain... Keep us asleep. Keep us selfish. Keep us sedated.
It's a scathing indictment of capitalism run amok. Carpenter has been upfront about how, with the film, he was giving the "finger" to the Reagan administration. But the aliens can stand as a metaphor for anything oppressive and conspiratorial: the patriarchy, white nationalism, corporate greed - you name it.
Decades before Black Lives Matter, They Live pulled no punches with its commentary on police power. The police tear up a homeless encampment with a military strike, bulldozers, and riot gear. They rough up and shoot at unarmed civilians, including children. They viciously beat a blind black preacher.
One of the resistance points out, “Most of the cops are human. They’ve been told we’re commies trying to take down the government.” It's interesting how similar language is still used to describe people whom the status quo deems problematic. Yet Carpenter shows that, despite the misconduct of some authorities, the officers are still human, and some have consciences.
In a later scene, Nada mouths off at a rude alien. She’s quick to report him using alien technology and, within seconds, the police arrive. The implied notion -- that the police are primarily there to "protect and serve" the elite -- remains a powerful one.
Given its short running time and B-movie status, They Live doesn’t deep dive into relationships or character motivations. But there's a personal moment between Nada and Frank Armitage (Keith David), in which they share their ideologies. The scene is a still-relevant summary of the conflicting perspectives that contribute to the race-based divide in America.
Nada’s philosophy is optimistic: “I deliver a hard day’s work for a little 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, a straight white cisgender male, has a perspective that's valid - for him. He thinks he'll get his piece of the pie.
Frank, a black man, is confronted with systemic prejudice and consequently more cynical:
The whole deal is 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 is out for themselves and looking to do you in at the same time. You do what you can, but I'm going to do my best to blow... [you] away.
The celebrated fistfight between the two characters is itself a microcosm of race relations in America - underclass blacks and whites, with more in common than they realize, whaling away at each other until they realize this conflict serves no purpose.
Clocking in at just over 6 minutes, the fistfight between Nada and Armitage is one of the best in movie history. It goes on for so long that it becomes part lunacy, part hilarity. In one corner, you have Nada wanting Frank to put on the sunglasses and see the world as it is. In the other, Frank wants Nada to clean his act up and keep Frank's family out of trouble. Despite both men being well-intentioned, they beat the daylights out of each other for an uncomfortable amount of time.
You can't chalk this famous dust-up to gratuitous B-movie mayhem. It was given structural weight from the story's inception. The script, penned by Carpenter under the pseudonym Frank Armitage, devotes five pages to the scene. Stunt coordinator Jeff Imada choreographed an elaborate sequence off the terse screen direction, “The Fight continues.”
This scene becomes a metaphor. Nada is challenging the status quo, while Frank is trying to keep his nose clean. It's also a fight between a black man, wanting to lie low and stay safe, and a white man, wanting to change the black man’s perspective... by force. Meanwhile, the fight keeps the potential allies distracted from the real enemy, the rich aliens colonizing Earth.