I picked up They Live from the library and watched it for the first time in about 30 years.
A while back, I read C.J. Henderson’s diatribe from his Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies From 1897 to the Present: [They Live] “depends for its success on the audience’s complete and unreasoning hatred of Republicans. The film’s premise is that the American right-wing is completely made up of alien creatures bent on the destruction of humanity. Those not ready to blame the GOP for every single thing that has ever gone wrong in the history of man might want to skip this movie.”
From what I remembered, Henderson was off the mark. That changed when I re-watched They Live. Henderson is more than off the mark, he is indefensibly wrong.
For a movie with a central theme of class warfare, They Live is aggressively apolitical. Characters take pains to point out that all politics and mainstream media is controlled by aliens. Not just Republicans but also Democrats. Not just AM radio (They Live came out before the inception of Fox News) but NPR. And most tellingly, not just rich people but turn-coat working class humans as well.
Several left-wing publications attacked John Carpenter for a perceived lack of focus. The New York Times wrote “Since Mr. Carpenter seems to be trying to make a real point here, the flatness of They Live is doubly disappointing. Another critic claimed: “The social commentary wipes clean with a dry towelette – it’s not intrusive and not pedantic, just lighter-than-air.”
The liberals miss the point as much as the conservatives.
At one point a character protests that the aliens are trying to make the public think that the rebellion are “commies.” He spits out the word as if it was worse than the aliens. The audience is reassured that left-wing politics have no truck in this film.
What Henderson and right-wing critics missed is that the movie is not promoting liberal politics but a mindset that would appeal to general wrestling fans (having the protagonist played by a famous wrestler might have been a tip-off).
Years ago I heard David Letterman talk about Bobby “the Brain” Heenan. It was early in Heenan’s career but he knew how to work an audience. When he fought on a Thanksgiving day match, he had himself announces as “hailing from Beverly Hills, California” and the working class crowd went nuts (IMDB still has his place of birth as Beverly Hills but even the most gung-ho wrestling sites admit he was really from Chicago). Just by fudging his place of birth, Heenan took control of the crowd. John Carpenter did the same thing.
Just as the blue-collar crowd hated Beverly Hills but would have hated someone from Moscow even more, They Live is a fantasy about “taking this job and shoving it,” not Das Kapital. Henderson and the others are not only grossly misreading the theme but the genre.
To paraphrase an old saying, superheroes aren’t about darkness; superheroes are about people flying.
They Live has a social commentary which could make some of its viewers think about the way they live their own lives but it’s also about punching each other for six solid minutes for not putting on a pair of sunglasses. They Live appeals to a demographic rarely served social messages. Carpenter might not have changed wrestling fans into social activists but he at least tried to make them think.
I found the short story that They Live was based on: “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson. Like the movie, it’s about a protagonist named Nada who wakes up to a world where parasitic invaders are secretly infiltrating our lives. Unlike the movie, it doesn’t have a hook that would grab a particular demographic.
John Carpenter’s movies seem to be misinterpreted more than any other director I can think of. Maybe that’s a good thing.