What if the world is secretly controlled by aliens and the only one who can see them is a cheesy guy with a mullet? I'm not sure if the characters in John Carpenter's 1988 film They Live
are poorly developed or are calculated to subvert heteronormative expectations without its stars or studio getting wise. The Sci-Fi concept is nice, its best distinction from something like Invasion of the Body Snatchers
is the daring to incorporate economic class, though this has had the unfortunate effect of the movie being co-opted by the alt-right, prompting John Carpenter himself to speak out recently against anti-Semitic interpretations of the film. I don't think the movie espouses bigotry, I do think it's a bit muddled. Its cheesy 80s action charm sits a bit oddly with the implicit ideology of its concept.
I don't like to foist a sexual identity on people or movies. I think of the Ani DiFranco song "In or Out"--"their eyes are all asking are you in, or are you out and I think, oh man, what is this about?" On the other hand, the movie makes a lot more sense if you assume Roddy Piper's John Nada and Keith David's Frank Armitage are in love.
The movie has the least interesting John Carpenter soundtrack I've heard--most of the time we hear the same three notes on guitar played repeatedly as we watch Nada walk around town, trying to get work or wandering. He finally catches a break with a construction crew though he's discouraged when it's mentioned that it's a union job, at which point the camera cuts to a group of Hispanic workers chatting.
Which seemed like it was playing on a right wing fear of Mexican-American labour unions. But maybe not since Nada does get the job and starts working shirtless, his improbable physique scoped out by Keith David's character Frank.
Nada needs a place to stay so he follows Frank to the shanty town where Frank lives across the street from a church. Frank later mentions having a wife and kids but we never see them. After Nada discovers the magic glasses that lets him see the aliens pretending to be humans, the film has its most perplexing scene when Nada and Frank get into a prolonged, five minute brawl.
It's a good fight scene, obviously Piper's in familiar territory. But it doesn't make any
sense. All Nada wanted was for Frank to wear the glasses and the fight erupts when Frank repeatedly refuses to do so. On Wikipedia, Carpenter is quoted as comparing it to the brawl between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen at the end of The Quiet Man
. That fight was not a fight to the death and was designed as a way for two characters to work out their issues in a form of cultural subconscious hyper-masculine communication. These issues built over the whole movie having to do with tradition and pride--Wayne's character trying to buy land that McLaglen's felt was his by right, the issue further complicated by Wayne's relationship with McLaglen's sister and--well, you can go watch The Quiet Man
. You should, it's a great movie. But Frank and Nada had nothing like that. They basically just seem friendly, if a little brisk, when suddenly Nada, who's anxious about the whole world apparently being taken over by aliens, puts everything aside to grapple with Frank, who apparently just can't put on a pair of fucking glasses.
When Frank finally puts on the glasses--seeing how things truly are--the two check into a cheap hotel room together, although they had to live in a shanty town before, and Nada says sarcastically, "Ain't love grand?" and starts telling Frank about how he was abused as a child. I am quite certain I'm not the first person to comment on what this seems like--I haven't even mentioned how encouragements to procreate through relationships with the opposite sex are part of the sinister subliminal messages Nada is able to see. The only female character is played by the sinister looking Meg Foster (most notable, to me, for playing the casino cashier in the new Twin Peaks
Like I said, I don't like to impose a sexual identity on anyone, but how does any of this make sense if Nada and Frank aren't discovering a physical love for each other? Either way, Frank is oddly underdeveloped. If the two really are meant to be taken as being in love, it would have been nice if the film explored it more directly.
Aside from the political allegory, the film seems to be well-known for Roddy Piper's line about how he's "here to chew bubblegum and kick ass and I'm all out of bubblegum." The bullshitting humour in this reflects the humour found in much of the film, its irony never quite meshing with the ghoulish beings taking over the world and the real threat this presents. Maybe the discord is supposed to be there, though--it's supposed to be discomforting that aliens and Meg Foster are crashing the bubblegum party.