John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) is the lefty filmmaker’s ultimate exploitation screed against all he deems wrong with the world – in this case, capitalism and consumerism and a media saturated culture driven to 80’s excess and upper class bigwigs keeping the little guy down and Reaganite government assholes turning the world into a mindless zombie void. Luckily, Carpenter (who wrote the screenplay under the pen name Frank Armitage after an H.P. Lovecraft character), finds the perfect allegorical explanation for his frightful dystopia on the brink – aliens have gone and taken over the world!
WWF wrestler turned actor “Rowdy” Roddy Piper is existential hero “Nada” (appropriately, we never learn his name in the film). This Man with No Name for a modern age comes walking into town and is quickly applying for non-existent work, doing under the table construction jobs, feeding off a soup kitchen and living outdoors. His only companion is a co-worker, Frank (Keith David of Carpenter’s The Thing, Spike Lee’s Clockers and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream), who just wants to provide for his family.
Meanwhile, a group of Good Samaritans who see what’s wrong with the world around them have formed an underground resistance movement which is breaking into the local Channel 54 News signal with their own televangelist-esque broadcasts in order to “preach” the truth to a calcified public. “Nada” soon discovers their box of special sunglasses which reveal the truth to the wearer (in sparking black and white no less!) and begins a one-man crusade to kick ass or chew bubblegum (the latter option is out, unfortunately).
And what are we to make of that iconic dialogue underneath its camp surface? He has the choice of kicking ass or chewing bubblegum. On the one hand, he could just buy some bubblegum, which would of course go against the film’s anti-consumerist, anti-zombie message. So he naturally goes with kicking ass, in this case taking out any aliens his glasses reveal to him. Unfortunate that he fails to take into much account the human element (namely, traitors who go along with the alien plotted holocaust of humanity).
The film is one of a series of Carpenter-helmed sci-fi/horror/fantasy exploitation narratives revolving around the existential themes of having one’s sense of reality and what’s true upended by something they cannot begin to fathom. As with Sam Neill’s John Trent in In the Mouth of Madness (1995), or Kurt Russell’s characters in The Thing (1982) or Big Trouble in Little China (1986), or Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasance in Halloween (1978), you think the world is one way, and then suddenly you have the rug pulled out from under you – or in this case, the veil removed from your eyes. “Once I was blind, now I see.”