Sure, They Live is a science fiction movie based on the 1963 short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, but isn’t it really just another western by way of John Carpenter? Nada (Roddy Piper) is a man who Carpenter can work his hatred of the end of the Reagan era out with. So how did he decide to make that into a movie from a major studio? Television.
“I began watching TV again,” Carpenter told Hero Complex. “I quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something. It’s all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money.”
Carpenter also saw the story in Alien Encounters, a comic book that Nelson appeared in, rewriting his tale and working with artist Bill Wray. He acquired the film rights to both the comic book and short story and wrote the screenplay himself.
Carpenter made the movie for $3 million and selected Piper because he looked like he had lived a life. Keith David’s part was written just for him, as Carpenter had enjoyed working with him on The Thing.
Nada’s name means, of course, nothing. He has nothing, he has no one and yet, he is the man that humanity must rely upon when facing an enemy that is already us. When he views the world through special glasses, he can see the messages that the unseen they have kept hidden from us for so long.
How long? Why? And to what end? Well, look. This is an exploitation picture through and through. You can see it from the left — that’s where Carpenter seems to be coming from — as the aliens are terraforming our world through pollution and global warming. Or maybe you can see this as the original fake news if you’ve on the other side.
This is a film with both a sad and happy ending. I guess you can just call it a John Carpenter ending, a place where tough men see a middle finger until the closing curtain as the only way to end up on the winner’s side of the balance sheet.
Despite being critically savaged — you can xerox that line for nearly every post-Halloween Carpenter movie — time has been beyond kind to this movie, which seems more and more based on real life and less a work of fiction.
There’s been a lot made of the fact that Roddy Piper claimed that this movie was based on fact. He’d bring up — it’s on the commentary track he did — that in the 1950s, a company manufactured a TV that planted subliminal messages in women’s brains and he’d seen a doc about it. Well, he may have seen that movie, but he didn’t realize that L’affaire Bronswik was a parody.
Speaking of different groups seeing this movie in their own light, several white supremacist groups have taken to this film as an allegory for how Jewish people run the world. Carpenter even responded to this on Twitter by saying, “They Live is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism. It has nothing to do with Jewish control of the world, which is slander and a lie.”