How ‘They Live’ Speaks to Trump-Hillary Slugfest

The decade-old cult favorite, Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy,” has become a reference point for cinephiles. The box office flop was once deemed an unworthy follow-up to Judge’s “Office Space,” the timely satire of a literally dumbed-down future is more of a mirror than the out-there satire it once was.

Warren Beatty’s brilliant, crass and fearless 1998 “Bulworth” is another ahead-of-its-time comedy that feels very current. Beatty’s onscreen portrayal of a say-whatever-he-wants senator, whose often foul rhetoric on the campaign trail is viewed as refreshing, will remind many of … oh, what’s his name?

Although it sported Robin Williams in the lead and was directed by Barry Levinson, many have forgotten another decade-old political farce, “Man of the Year.”

Too Timely By Half?

Williams played a comedian who runs for President as a joke and is stunned to find himself elected. Released around the same time as “Idiocracy” and dismissed almost as quickly, Levinson’s film is far from perfect. Yet, in light of this farcical election season and our collective, ongoing mourning of the loss of Williams, the movie feels, like “Idiocracy,” more about right-now than anything in 2006.

If it sounds like this piece is leaning in any one political direction, here’s another example to provide balance: Meryl Streep’s portrayal of a driven, do-anything-to-win-The White-House political Machiavelli/monster mom in the 2004 “The Manchurian Candidate” has reminded many of, um … oh, what’s her name?

In a large way, film satires have caught up with the present and demonstrated how things haven’t changed much over the years. Also, that many of our worst fears have come true.

They Live [Collector's Edition] (1988) Official Trailer

Few movies capture the current voter anxiety better than the 1988 masterpiece, “They Live.” John Carpenter’s blend of sci-fi, action and sly humor was released, not accidentally, four days before the 1988 Presidential election.

The race between Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Michael Dukakis ended with a GOP win, which Carpenter indirectly (but obviously) lampooned in his film. Yet, even if one knows that Carpenter is a liberal and that “They Live” is aimed at “Reagonomics,” his film broadly addresses more up-to-date social problems in a prescient manner.

The late former wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper stars as John Nada, a drifter who makes his way into Los Angeles in search of work. Although Nada (yes, the last name is intentional) belatedly lands a construction job, he finds few will give him a chance or any semblance of respect.

They Live (4/4) Roddy Piper's Alien Glasses (1988)

He winds up at a camp for the homeless, deemed “Justiceville,” and befriends Frank (Keith David), a homeless man in a similar rut. John notes the vague warnings coming from strange pirate television broadcasts. Then there’s a violent raid on Justiceville, as the downtrodden are brutally assaulted by a squad of police officers (a disturbing scene with imagery that will remind many of recent news events).

Nada survives the attack, randomly acquires a new pair of sunglasses and, upon wearing them, discovers why his world is so unforgiving.

It’s now run by extraterrestrials who control everything.

‘Big Trouble’ Star MIA

Nada seems to be a role that frequent Carpenter collaborator Kurt Russell would have been wonderful in. However, Piper brings a gruff charm and unforced sense of desperation to “They Live.” Nevertheless, the rough edges in Piper’s performance are balanced by David, who gives a great performance as Nada’s only friend and eventual partner.

Nada has no past, which evokes the feel of a gunslinger walking into a town that needs him. Yet, we don’t know if Nada’s nomadic eexistence is due to lack of work, or if he’s a recovering drug addict, or has a wife and kid he left behind a few states back.

He may be an Everyman but there’s a danger to him, a survivalist demeanor that is polite, quiet but not immune to violence.


Russell is so likable, he may have made the character too accessible, whereas Piper, both in his performance and appearance, has an authentically rougher manner. Since Nada is in every scene and the audience shares his POV, it could be interpreted that the film is a Nada’s dementia-infused vision of America.

It would explain (and make all the more unsettling) his quick decision to become a gun-toting warrior who can see the truth through special sunglasses.

Occupy: The Movie

Nada is a walking embodiment of the 99 percent. He initially states, “I believe in America,” and carries an optimism for the system. This changes in the second act, with Piper’s now legendary “I have come to chew bubblegum and kick ass … and I’m all out of bubble gum” a take-charge war cry.

Although Piper’s movie career was brief, he’s more effective here than he was as “Rowdy” Roddy Piper.  In the era that gave us Andre the Giant in “The Princess Bride” and Hulk Hogan in “No Holds Barred,” Piper’s turn in “They Live” is the most iconic.

“They Live” is the best kind of B-movie: Carpenter’s film is uncompromised, rich with ideas, unapologetically brutal and fiercely entertaining. The moseying cowboy sound of Carpenter’s score is so laid back, it may give the impression that this is leisurely paced, but it isn’t.

The narrative is tightly configured, with each scene revealing essential character and plot building details. Carpenter may be a story-driven filmmaker but his touches of flamboyant stylishness are striking. There’s a stunning, abrupt moment where a character is pushed through a window: Carpenter films this bit in a similar manner to Hitchcock’s overhead shot from “Psycho” (an homage I somehow didn’t recognize until I read it in Jonathan Lethem’s terrific book on “They Live”).

Take a Bow, Mr. Carpenter

The sequence where Nada discovers that the world has been taken over by extraterrestrials is one of Carpenter’s best. A series of reveals, presented in a tongue in cheek but queasily nightmarish manner, shows the world to be masking a massive alien takeover.

Every billboard, sign post, newspaper and magazine masks a hidden message. The only way to see the truth is to look through a then-prominent form of social status: a pair of cool sun glasses.

Most of the film’s fan base will cite the film’s notoriously long fight scene as the film’s best and most noteworthy. The brawl is indeed lengthy, obviously choreographed and full of big moments. However, the scene is a raw expression of desperation, helpfully punctuated by moments of humor and has no score to tell us how to feel about it.

They Live (2/4) They Live Fight Scene - FULL (Explicit Language) (1988)

The first big tip off that Carpenter had more on his mind than action came not from the movie itself but the poster tag line. Tucked in between “You See Them on The Street. You Watch The on TV” is “You Might Even Vote For One This Fall.”

The aliens are numbing us to sleep through our technology. A telling, even prophetic touch: one of the first billboards that Nada observes with a hidden message is a front for computer software. Attired in suits like the villains of the Carpenter-produced “Halloween III: Season of the Witch,” the political aliens are interchangeable, faceless monsters. Even before we see who they are underneath, we often catch glimpses of the rude, arrogant indifference they carry.

Truth to Progressive Power

Carpenter was tapping into his frustrations with corruption of authority, mounting reports of police brutality and the jaw dropping “Get Out of Jail Free” card every politician seemed to carry. Carpenter’s film may have once been intended as a criticism of Republicans (apparently, that alien spouting “We Don’t Need Pessimism” on TV is Ronald Reagan) but today, it feels aimed at everyone in power.

The villains in “They Live” are corporate, materialistic, three-suited twerps who need everyone beneath them to submit and sell out. Carpenter is telling us to not become indifferent, stagnant citizens but mindful and concerned over those in power.

After all, you might even vote for one this fall.


  1. All of Carpenter’s movies are ridiculously overrated, and this is just behind The Thing as the most overrated of them all. I found it to be idiotic, boring and shoddy, and the only thing remotely scary about it is that Carpenter apparently thinks that anyone who disagrees with him is either a mindless drone or an inhuman monster. The way amateur pundits on the left and right alike try to appropriate the movie in order demonize their opponents only serves to demonstrate just how frighteningly pervasive this attitude is.

      1. No, but I got royally annoyed the way on one (now-defunct) film forum, every topic became an excuse to gush over Carpenter. Before the Internet, I would have probably said that either Jean-Luc Godard or Douglas Sirk was the most overrated director.

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