Empire of the Sunglasses: How ‘They Live’ Took on Republicans and Won
Nothing can prepare you for this sequence, a near-wordless piece of sociocultural smackdown smuggled into a sci-fi flick. Brooklyn author Jonathan Lethem, a huge They Live fan, has called it “10 minutes of cognitive dissonance as sublime as anything in the history of paranoid cinema.” The moment has been rhapsodized by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek and appropriated by culture-jamming artist Shepard Fairey for his iconic Andre the Giant posters. Carpenter’s target was advertising but also a slick television-dictated lifestyle, putting his movie in the prickly company of media satires like Network (this is very much the training-wheels version). Mainly, though, the scene makes you gasp: Are we really going there? Even now, it’s easy to laugh at the idea of bros lining up for the next Big Trouble in Little China, instead being served up a heaping helping of media semiotics.
It’s that simple: yuppies are aliens.
They Live was a bridge for some of us, a bona-fide act of subversion from a filmmaker who invested his famous style of clean widescreen compositions and Hawksian gab with something larger, something flattering to the audience’s intelligence. You feel alarm and desperation emanating from the film: the passion of a director lunging for significance, maybe because he saw his crazy run of a career butting up against Hollywood indifference. It’s a sad movie, a Lorax-like cry.
This will not be the moment to make claims for the acting stylings of Roddy Piper, who bounded up to Carpenter’s skybox at WrestleMania 3 and landed the part. But let’s say this about him: He often played the villain and he often got trounced. Some of that beaten-down persona makes its way into Nada, himself having head west after fleeing a dried-up job market in Denver. “I believe in America,” the character says as he gazes into a pink twilight, alluding to a far-better movie yet still effectively milking that statement’s naïveté. (They Live makes pointed use of Los Angeles’s economic disparities: Those are real East L.A. homeless Carpenter paid a day’s wages to, the glistening downtown towers visible behind their shantytown.)