Nada, a down-on-his-luck construction worker, discovers a pair of special sunglasses. Wearing them, he is able to see the world as it really is: people being bombarded by media and government with messages like “Stay Asleep”, “No Imagination”, “Submit to Authority”. Even scarier is that he is able to see that some usually normal-looking people are in fact ugly aliens in charge of a massive campaign to keep humans subdued.
Cult filmmaker and composer John Carpenter celebrated his 75th birthday this year.
Written and directed by Carpenter and released in 1988, They Live is perhaps his most enduring film in mordern culture, more so than Halloween or The Thing. It’s become the perfect fodder for a raft of memes. Roddy Piper putting on and then taking off his sunglasses is a shorthand across the internet for looking beyond cynical corporate messaging: Chase Bank, Mastercard and even the film Boss Baby have all been shown to be part of the alien conspiracy.
The plot is based off of a short story from 1963, Eight O’Clock in the Morning, by Ray Nelson.
Previously speaking on his inspiration for the film, Carpenter stated that the political overtones stem from his dissatisfaction with then president, Ronald Reagan and his controversial economic policies, known as Reaganomics.
Upon the film’s release, Carpenter acknowledged that its premise was the “Reagan Revolution, run by aliens from another galaxy.”
The film had to recently be reclaimed from the alt-right in America who have misunderstood the core conceit of the narrative to justify age-old antisemitic conspiracies. It took Carpenter himself to remind us once again that the film was very much taking aim at Reagan when no one else was brave enough.”
The film has amassed a cult following since being released, being mentioned in a variety of notable publications. In 2008, They Live was featured in Entertainment Weekly’s ‘Cult 25 The Essential Left-Field Movie Hits Since ‘83’ list, ranking in at number 18. Film review website, Rotten Tomatoes, ranked the fight scene between Roddy Piper’s character and Keith David’s character as 7th on their list of ‘The 20 Greatest Fight Scenes Ever.’
All of Carpenter’s work is nakedly countercultural. He isn’t trying to be any regular auteur. Even when he is given sizeable budgets and star power he is overtly setting out to make cult cinema. Something that is unabashedly made for the audience and not the critic.
It could be argued that he brought the modern slasher and its Final Girl trope into the zeitgeist. A sub-genre and a character that scores flock to the cinema to see still today.
However, Carpenter’s cinema could be seen as a meta-fictional critique of the blockbuster. He picks apart the tropes, conceits and narratives of the work he creates and delivers them to us not to undermine but to alert us to them. Or maybe he’s just someone who is comfortable creating films that are there first and foremost to be enjoyed.