Dave's They Live Rewatch
THEY LIVE Re-watch
In November, I got a sudden desire to watch THEY LIVE again. I wanted to watch for free and searched Netflix, Amazon and HBO for it. It wasn’t on any of those. Then one day, while enjoying Entertainment Weekly, in their movies to stream section, it listed THEY LIVE as coming to HBO on Dec. 1st. What luck!
THEY LIVE opens with a shot of a train passing and as it leaves frame it reveals our hero, Nada (Roddy Piper) on the other side of the tracks, looking straight at us, with challenging bemusementon his face.
He’s come to LA to find any kind of work, which he does at a construction site, where he meets
Frank (Keith David), a guy who has migrated from Detroit for work to send money to his wife and children back home. Frank’s a good guy. We know this because without even knowing who he is, Frank invites Nada to join him down at a shelter next to a church. It’s a kind of shanty town sprawled across an empty lot.
There, while they watch TV, the transmission is hacked and, who I think of as a young George R. R. Martin tries to wake up the people by warning that humans are asleep and being slowly taken over by an alien race. As the locals complain about this nut case, Nada notices how a blind preacher in front of the church is mouthing the words of the bearded man, as if he knows the script. He also notices what can only be suspected shenanigans at the church. Men sneak in and out throughout the night.
Nada is a persistent busybody, so he sneaks into the church to see what is happening. Natch! He discovers that it’s just a false front and that the sneaky men are making sun glasses and boxing them up. When the jack boots arrive to break up the whole operation and tear down shanty town, Nada grabs a pair of glasses and hot foot’s it out of there.
Walking the streets, Nada puts the glasses on and is awoken and sees the real world is a front for all the subliminal messages that the aliens use to keep humanity asleep. And of course he can see the aliens for what they are, not human but bug-eyed, jaw jetting slime faces. Or as Nada describes, “You know, you’re head looks like it fell in the cheese dip back in 1957”
This sets off Nada’s one-man war against the aliens. He goes on a bullet spewing spree, taking out the cheese dip heads anywhere he sees them. The aliens report him via Dick Tracy wristwatches that also double as high-tech transportation devices. Now Nada is enemy of the state #1.
He car jacks Holly (Meg Foster), Assistant Director of Programming at Cable Channel 54. More luck! He forces her to take him to her home. She refuses to wear the glasses saying that she would only see what he wants her to see because he has a gun. If I were in that situation, I think I would be all, let me try them on Jack! But Holly is a fighter and she pushes him out her Hollywood Hills window where Nada proceeds to fall what seems to be 4 stories, hits the hill and rolls down it. All terrible falls in movies can be survived if there is a hill to roll down.
The manhunt on, nowhere to turn, Nada goes to Frank who wants nothing to do with the fugitive, but he’s a good guy, so he offers Nada a week’s pay and to keep him out of it. But Nada wants Frank to wear the glasses. This leads to the best and longest alley way fist fight ever to be laid to film. In the end, Nada forces the glasses on Frank who becomes awake.
With more luck, they run into the leader of the resistance, who invites them to a meeting. At the meeting, there’s enough guns, ammo and grenades to go around to really arm themselves to the teeth. Not to mention that they get a handy dandy Go-Go Gadget wristwatch as well. Also Holly is there. Apparently she awoke from her dream. Nada and Holly make googly eyes at each other just before the police raid the meeting, taking out everyone. Everyone that is except for Nada and Frank who escape via wrist watch portal.
They end up in the heart of the villain’s lair. As they wander around, they stumble onto a gala of tuxes and gowns, the rich and the beautiful, a kind of corporate financial report meeting that lays out the plans for world domination. For some reason, no one questions why two plaid shirted, working class guys are there. Not even the drunk dude who is more than happy to give them a tour of the whole place and reveal everything to the dynamic duo. Lucky luckity luck! When confronted by the no-nonsense Nada that the drunk dude is betraying his people, the drunk guy proclaims, “it’s business that’s all it is. They’re aint no countries no more. They own everything. The whole goddamn planet.”
They discover that the signal that puts everyone in the dream state is RIGHT IN THAT BUILDING! They also run into Holly who has somehow survived the raid. Now all the have to do is blow up the transmitter and escape to their happy ending.
Well, the transmitter is stopped at least.
As I watched, it became abundantly clear why this movie boiled up out of my subconscious and took hold of my conscious like the nagging need for nicotine. It’s a story about the haves and the have-nots. Today the aliens and their human sympathizers would be known as the 1%. Their tactics might be called alt-right propaganda. The drunk guy even says, “we all sell out every day. Might as well be on the winning team.” The alien human helpers must be so tired of all the winning. It’s a very simple story with a straight forward ideology.
The plot too is simple, as I’ve hinted, it relies on a lot of good luck to go Nada’s way. At every turn a bucket of luck lands in Nada’s lap. But one could argue that he was open to waking out of his sleep therefore there was no chance that he wouldn’t stumble over all this. Remember, I was trying to watch the movie via one of my many movie subscriptions to no avail. And then there it was, served up by Entertainment Weekly and HBO. Just like shit, luck too also happens.
Though his name is never mentioned in the movie, it only appears in the credits, the name Nada seems to sum up his existence pretty succinctly. He is a nobody not born into the world, but revealed to it by a moving train. Where did he come from? The film never offers it up. Except for a small bit of back story about being beaten by his father on religious grounds, he has no history. He just appears, runs out of bubblegum and starts kicking some ass. As if to drive home the point that he has no history, Nada wears a wedding ring throughout but never mentions having a wife, alive or otherwise. Even as he face-flirts with Holly the ring just sits on his finger as an unanswered question. Nada, with no past, is only in the here and now. He is present.
His present-ness is introduced in the beginning, as the bearded man pleads for people to wake from their sleep, we are seeing that Nada is already awake, noticing, questioning, looking for answers to problems that he doesn’t even know exist. When Nada shares his suspicions about something happening at the old church, Frank wants nothing to do with it. Frank is the equal and opposite reaction to Nada’s sense of being in the present. Frank, frankly put, wants to keep his head down and do the work and stay out of trouble, until he too puts on the glasses and sees the world for what it really is.
As simple and straight forward as the story is, for a sci-fi/action movie, THEY LIVE bangs the war drums of the fight between the haves and the have-nots. If you’re a human asleep at the wheel, you’re in the service industry. Hell, even Holly who works in television is only an ASSISTANT programming director. The humans are usually maids, day-workers, saloon workers, street vendors, people who keep the machine going and wait hand and foot on the upper elite – usually the aliens, sometimes other humans who sold out for the American Dream sic to get rich.
And there is no contrast to that “American Dream” bigger than the community at the shelter that Nada first joins. They share their food, their living situation and their entertainment. It’s almost an utopia where everyone works together and equally. They are hardworking people who welcomes anyone with open arms. This same community is literally bull-dozed to the ground by the 1%, flattened into non-existence it’s populace either taken by the police or chased away to go somewhere else. Maybe they’ll go occupy Wall Street.
Though blunt, the subliminal messaging that keeps humanity enslaved is still pointed. Ads for the Caribbean are actually encouragements to marry and reproduce. Radio transmitters atop of traffic lights constantly, with a dry monotone voice, tell everyone to sleep, sleep, sleep. And money straight up has written on it “this is your god.” With the sunglasses on, these messages are revealed in stark black and white.
That’s the movie’s key to staying relevant. It has no grey area. The glasses reveal that the world is black and white and that the people at the top want only one thing, domination and subservience. Humanity is either awake or asleep. You’re either chewing bubble gum or kicking ass.
Which leads to this: THEY LIVE wouldn’t be a John Carpenter film without a host of brilliant one liners. If Nada were to make a self-help book, “HOW TO LIVE WITH NADA” I think these would be the chapter titles.
NADA ON OPTIONS: “I’ll give you choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.”
NADA ON LOOKS: “You know; you’re head looks like it fell in the cheese dip back in 1957. You? you’re okay. This one. Real fucking ugly.”
NADA ON COMMUNICATION: “The world needs a wakeup call. We’re going to phone it in.”
NADA ON FATE: “Life’s a bitch and she’s back in heat.”
NADA ON HOBBIES: “I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”
NADA ON LAST WORDS: “Fuck it.”
Honestly, the movie gives me both hope and despair. Hope because the same issues were happening back in 1988. And if they made it through, then we have a chance of making it through too. Despair because the same issues were happening back in 1988. And nothing has really changed in the 28 years since then.
THEY LIVE is a movie that begs to be remade with the knowledge of all that has happened since 1988. How a re-make could imbue movements like the protests at Standing Rock with new meaning. Or turn mass-shootings into something completely different, a controversial thought, I’m sure. Wouldn’t you want to smell the Rock cooking up a batch of kick-ass bubble gum to give the world a wakeup call? Would Hollywood be able to stay true to the movies no-grey area mantra? THEY LIVE, with its stark black and white clarity, is a must re-watch.