Six Damn Fine Degrees #104: They Live! (1988)

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

They are among us. An alien race, seeking to control us via finance, politics and the media. They are visible only to those who can See. They are everywhere. In the police force, on our newscasts, among our colleagues, and perhaps even in our beds. Some of us humans enable them, perhaps because they believe they can never beat them, because they are intimidated, or because it is in their own self-interest to do so. That is the plot of They Live! (1988).

Sound familiar? The fulminations of paranoid rabble-rousers like David Icke who, at the time of this writing, was even barred from entering Amsterdam to give a speech. The ubiquitous right-wing ranter Alex Jones, convicted of exploiting parents of dead children for his own financial gain. This film’s premise sounds rather like those bottom-feeders’ obsessive ramblings. But no. They Live! is an indictment of Reagan era politics by John Carpenter, himself a vaguely post-’60s left-leaning libertarian, who made it to give the administration the finger “because no-one else would”. Perhaps it should come as no great surprise that this film has been hijacked by conspiracy theorists on the far-right. Alex Jones is a big fan of the movie, and its star “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, was on his show, cheerfully confirming he was Jones’ “booster”. That these viewpoints are not why it was made is apparently neither here nor there, Carpenter’s irate tweets notwithstanding.

The film itself was a flop when it came out in ’88, only acquiring a cult following in later times. It is a kind of left-leaning Walking Tall (1973), in which two men single-handedly try to take down the corrupt, only in this case the corrupt are zombie-like aliens and their enablers. Betrayal comes from within their own ranks and there is, of course, a lot of fighting. They Live! is often unintentionally hilarious, as its protagonist Nada (Roddy Piper) woodenly chews out lines like “Life’s a bitch and she’s back in heat”, or the perennial “I have come to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.” The plot is equally to the point. Nada comes across an underground group who try to bring the alien hegemony to the attention of the public. In an attempt to do a little investigating of his own as to what this mysterious group is about, he takes a pair of very special sunglasses, which allow him to see the subliminal messages the alien overlords use to keep humanity placid and submissive. Behind the seemingly innocuous messages on billboards, orders appear such as “OBEY”, “SUBMIT”, “CONSUME”, “MARRY AND REPRODUCE” and “DOUBT HUMANITY”. Nada makes it his business to combat this alien race, but first he has to convince his friend Frank Armitage (Keith David), to see the Truth of it all.

In order to do so, both of them being the manly men that they undoubtedly are, the two proceed to punch the absolute crap out of each other. This scene is notable because it may very well be the longest scene that I have ever witnessed with two men, supposed friends, just… interminably hitting one another. Hard. Another example of the film’s immortal dialogue, “I’m giving you a choice: either put on these glasses, or start eating that trash can”, as fondly quoted by the aforementioned Jones on his show, apparently illustrates the reasoning behind this slugfest. Clearly all well-thought-out arguments are off the table where an alien conspiracy is concerned. Just put on the damn glasses already, or taste trash can.

Sarcasm aside, for all its campy silliness I have a fondness for the film. Its imagery is often effective and its message that consumerism is destroying the world, is an apt and prescient one. In an age of Reagonomics, currently in the guise of Trussonomics and other trickle-down theories of the modern economy, it seems timely. Social media has tripled the ante of the influence TV had in ’88, with exhortations to “DOUBT HUMANITY” in new and insidious ways. But mainly the movie is a fun, campy, b-movie-style science fiction flick that doesn’t deserve being co-opted by a political movement whose vile antisemitism is the antithesis of its maker’s intentions. It is The Matrix‘s dodgy old uncle, a movie which itself has had its fair share of addled, conspiracy-touting followers. I say we wrest this interesting little film back from the grasping talons of the humourless, make popcorn, and lead its alien conspiracy back to where it belongs: firmly in the realm of fiction.

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