Back to the Past : They Live


Each and every week film historian and veteran Movieholer Colin Moore revisits a classic from the VHS Video Library days.

For past Back to the Past entries click here.

“I have come to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum.” So proclaims our blue-collar hero, Nada (ex-wrestler Roddy Piper), armed with a shotgun, revolver and night-stick. And sunglasses, which is why he’s in this fix to begin with. Not only does anyone looking through them see the world in greyscale, but also the real reason behind humankind’s greed, its self-hatred and its ungulate-like willingness to be controlled. Aliens. They’re everywhere, didn’t you know? OBEY reads an unassuming billboard. MARRY AND REPRODUCE reads another, though without the glasses all we see is a shapely body stretched across a travel ad. We’re being subliminally subdued. The American dollar bill speaks to us too. THIS IS YOUR GOD it says. Nada’s had enough. If this is the reason why his life’s been such a struggle, fine. Now he can deal with it.

Another imperfect world in the hands of writer, director, composer John Carpenter. True, but this near-dystopia is more subtle, no where near ”Escape from New York”’s New York where Manhattan has become a penal colony for the city’s undesirables (scum!) or ”RoboCop” where corporate America, in the form of OCP, has taken on government-like powers in its control of the Detroit police force. Those are more obvious fantasies. They Live begins with a much more familiar world. Nada walks into the city from a railroad station carrying a backpack. He has tools and is looking for work. It’s a rough go though. After being denied at an employment center, he wanders, spending his first night with a group of street dwellers. But he believes in America. Others aren’t so happy with the system, like Frank (Keith David), a family man who’s come to California to look for work, and from Detroit! Times are grim indeed. They meet working at a construction site and Frank brings him to Justiceville, a sad shanty village where other have-nots live hand to mouth. Gloom and poverty, what else is new. But what’s this? A church choir that sings until 4 in the morning? Roaming helicopters? A face that cuts into regularly scheduled television programming with ominous warnings? “They have created a repressive society and we are their unwitting accomplices.” Strange. And so we’re strung along, and at a snail’s pace by today’s standards. But it’s hardly dull. From what we know of Carpenter’s work (”Halloween”, ”In the Mouth of Madness”), something more extraordinary is on the way. We have one of his famous minimalist scores to accompany us.

Of course people will define extraordinary in different ways. A slew of films since ”They Live” have dealt with the alien issue, some more obviously creative with the budgets to help them be (”The Fifth Element”, ”Avatar”) and others formulaic catnaps despite large bags of cash (”Fantastic Four 2”, ”Transformers 2”). ”They Live”’s strength is in its loyalty to its origins, especially those Cold War science fiction films where humankind is at the mercy of alien forces (”Invasion of the Body Snatchers”, ”They Came From Beyond Space”). There’s no Communist analogy here, however. If anything, these blotchy bug-eyed monsters are symbolic of how America has lost its way in pursuit of the good life. Which is what makes ”They Live” a cautionary tale we can better relate to (deliciously exaggerated fight scene aside). Unemployment is on the rise, street preachers sermonize about the corrupted human spirit, and TV stupefies the masses. Do we really need ads for press-on nails? You can easily see a point being made.

It’s fitting then that the story is told through Nada, another of Carpenter’s swaggering long-haired 80s heroes. The others are about as cool, occasionally as quiet, and often played by Kurt Russell: ”Big Trouble in Little China”’s Jack Burton, ”The Thing”’s MacReady, and ”Escape from New York”’s Snake, but you can call him Plissken. And you can also refer to them by occupation: trucker, pilot and ex-soldier turned felon. Carpenter seems to prefer his heroes at a certain pay grade, a certain class of citizen. It makes for a better contrast with the enemy. Nada is no different. His name in Spanish literally means nothing. But half the fun is knowing that this man has nothing to lose, and that he’ll go all out. He’s really fighting for us after all.


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Caffeinated Clint
Clint is the creator, editor and maintainer of Moviehole. Loves David Lynch, David Fincher... actually, any filmmaker by the name of David.