John Carpenter's sci-fi dystopia They Live opened in 1988, and given our current political climate, feels more relevant than ever.
Based on the short story Eight O'Clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson, the film tells that tale of a man whose down on his luck and looking for nothing more than a stable job and a place to stay. When he follows the sounds of people arguing, he discovers a pair of sunglasses that, when worn, reveal that the world is a living nightmare.
In addition to the sunglasses revealing subliminal messages on money, magazines, and billboards that remind citizens to "OBEY" and "STAY ASLEEP," the glasses reveal that even other humans' identities aren't as they seem, as some are actually hideous aliens.
Starring wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, the film earned a cult following for its allegories between this fictional society and its not-so-subtle social commentary about capitalism. Much like Carpenter's previous work, the film is full of compelling cinematography and a pulsating, driving musical score, brought to viewers by Carpenter's musical stylings.
Following the election of a businessman and former reality TV show host as the president of the United States, many film fans have noticed that the same critiques the filmmaker made about American culture in 1988 have taken prominence once again.
Another one of the film's stars, Meg Foster, celebrates her 69th birthday today.
In honor of Foster and the continued relevance of the sci-fi film, scroll down to learn more about the iconic They Live!
Despite Roddy Piper's character being the main protagonist, he is never actually given a name. In the film's credits, he is merely listed as "Nada," which no one ever calls him, but translates to "Nothing" in Spanish. Carpenter might have done this to represent that his character could truly be anyone, with nothing unique about him, even his name.
Although Piper gave a great performance in the film, he wasn't the initial actor approached. Rather, Carpenter envisioned the character being played by Kurt Russell, but considering Carpenter had worked with Russell three times prior (Escape From New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China), the direction went with another choice.
Piper might not have been the original choice, but one of the film's most iconic lines, "I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubble gum," was his own idea. He originally planned on using it in one of his professional wrestling promos.
At one point in the film, Piper's character tries to get one of his construction co-workers, Frank (Keith David), to put on a pair of sunglasses to see the alien threat. When Frank refuses, Nada gets physical, leading to a lengthy street fight between the two.
Piper and David became so dedicated to this one sequence, they choreographed and rehearsed for three weeks, trusting one another so completely that they served each other real blows, minus shots to the face and groin.
The initial sequence was only ever intended to last 20-30 seconds, but Carpenter was so impressed by the actors' commitment to the struggle, he decided to keep the entire fight in the film. At five minutes and twenty seconds, the conflict has become iconic as one of the longest and most drawn-out hand-to-hand battles in cinema history.
[H/T YouTube, Brian Millhorn]
The image of aliens has been represented in a variety of different ways through cinema history, with Carpenter even having already tried his hand at creating extraterrestrials. With 1982's The Thing, the alien threat could replicate any living thing it encountered, resulting in deformed and mutated humans the represent transitional states of the otherworldly beings.
Rather than a smooth and sophisticated visage for the aliens in They Live, Carpenter tried to make them look like rotting corpses that could walk and talk. Juxtaposed against other high-tech or elegant looking entities, the creatures in They Live were meant to represent the image of corrupted human beings, as the creatures themselves were attempting to corrupt humanity.
When characters in the film put on the alien-revealing sunglasses, the world becomes black-and-white, revealing the extraterrestrials for what they really are.
Describing this decision, Carpenter explained that the real world is "is seen in black and white. It's as if the aliens have colorized us." During the interview with Starlog, he also joked, "That means, of course, that Ted Turner is really a monster from outer space." These comments were made after Turner caught flack for colorizing old movies.
Carpenter also revealed an anecdote about the process of pitching the movie to Universal Studios. To describe the threat, he said, "They want to own all our businesses. A Universal executive asked me, 'Where's the threat in that? We all sell out every day.' I ended up using that line in the film."
Carpenter has never shied away from explaining exactly what he was trying to achieve with the story, considering it a "vehicle to take on Reaganism." He felt as though the growing consumerism and rise of the concept of subliminal advertising was taking a toll on the American people, which is why he adapted the original story to the screen.
Although Carpenter had no problem discussing the film's politics, Piper wasn't so keen on discussing those themes. Piper was living in the United States thanks to a green card, which made him feel out of place when discussing the political elements of the movie. He had also noted during interviews that he had met with President Reagan and liked him personally, so he avoided discussing the political subtext at all costs.
In recent years, neo-Nazis tried to twist Carpenter's original message of capitalism into a message of anti-Semitism. The hateful message gained so much traction that John Carpenter addressed the issue on Twitter, explaining, "They Live is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism. It has nothing to do with Jewish control of the world."