"You see them on the street. You watch them on TV. You might even vote for one this fall. You think they're people just like you. You're wrong. Dead wrong."
Unable to find steady employment, good-natured doofus John Nada (surprisingly well played by rasslin's own Rowdy Roddy Piper) is brought to an inner city homeless camp by fellow construction worker Frank. After witnessing a mysterious nighttime police raid on the church next door, Nada investigates only to find the structure empty save for a few crates of sunglasses. Trying a pair on, Nada is horrified to discover the glasses actually block an alien transmission which has been hiding subliminal messages in our media, as well as preventing humans from seeing the true appearance of the aliens already living among us. Realizing many of the authorities are in on the conspiracy, and incapable of coming up with a more intelligent plan, Nada initially goes on a killing spree, taking out any alien the glasses reveal to him. Eventually joined by a reluctant Frank, Nada hooks up with a small underground resistance force of humans who have managed to track down the source of the alien transmission. Before they can act, however, a surprise attack by the aliens and their human allies eliminates most of the rebels. With their days numbered, Nada and Frank decide to make one last desperate assault on the alien headquarters in an attempt to destroy the transmitter and reveal the aliens to the rest of mankind.
In a 2005 interview with the A. V. Club, director John Carpenter was asked what makes the horror genre so suited to political comment? He responded, "Well, that's always been the case with the "B" genres. Not to say that horror movies are always "B," but they usually are. Because they're supposed to be about horror and blood and all that horrible stuff, it's easier to sneak in little subversive messages." And that's usually just what you get with a Carpenter movie, social themes snuck in here and there, but rarely in such a way that they get in the way of the fun. For instance, you're more than welcome to watch Escape From New York and reflect on whether or not America is headed towards a police state, but you'll likely save that for later, after you've watched Kurt Russell clock some big goon upside his skull with a spike-filled baseball bat. And yeah, you can watch The Fog and ruminate on the effects of sin on future generations, but that can probably wait until after you've watched a gaggle of soggy worm-ridden ghosts chase Adrienne Barbeau up the side of a lighthouse. They Live is kind of different, though. When asked if the messages in They Live were a little bit more overt, Carpenter's answer was typically quick. " Yeah" he said, "that's more overt."
I'll say. About as overt as a spike-filled baseball bat upside the skull! You see, They Live came out in 1988, a time when one of the social issues public attention was focused on was the homeless population. And it's easy to see why. Although HUD's official study estimated there were somewhere around 300,000 homeless in the mid 80s, some advocate groups like the Community for Creative Non-Violence were insisting (very loudly) in the press that the number exceeded two million. Obviously somebody was counting wrong, but no matter which organization was ultimately closer to the truth, neither number was really anything to feel good about. Especially during a time which has come to be known as, fair or not, the decade of greed. Using this environment as a backdrop, John Carpenter filmed what is likely his most political and satirical movie to date.
But, don't fret, this is still a Carpenter movie we're talking about. Anybody expecting a 90 minute long political screed or heart-tugging sermon should look elsewhere. The majority of the movie consists of Carpenter doing one of the things he does best, which is making a whacked-out testosterone-drenched movie. If you have any doubt, then keep in mind that this is a film whose centerpiece is a bare knuckle fist fight with no special effects in sight. Nada, on the run after his ill conceived murder spree, attempts to convince Frank to try on the sunglasses. Frank wants nothing to do with any of it and since neither guy is a big conversationalist, they settle the issue by beating the snot out of each other. In a scene which clocks in at over 5 minutes (and that's a long time in a movie) the pair use their fists, elbows, knees, foreheads, some 2x4s, a trash can, and even the asphalt they're standing as weapons in a battle to simply determine whether or not Frank puts on the specs. Cerebral no, but fun to watch, oh yeah. (I would venture a guess that if the tediously political Lions For Lambs had included a fight scene in which Tom Cruise got kneed in the groin six consecutive times, a lot more people would have bought tickets to see it. I know I would have.)
And the rest of They Live is no less tongue in cheek than the fight sequence. Once Nada discovers the aliens' presence, he's almost amused to find that the so-called invaders' actions consists primarily of shopping sprees, "going for it" in the workplace, and occasionally running for political office. "They" are not engaged in a military siege, but rather a hostile corporate takeover. Far worse than just being your typical bug-eyed aliens (and these guys are seriously bug-eyed), the titular "They" are, in fact... YUPPIES! If you have any doubts, just take a look at their wrist communicators, they're made by Rolex. Oh, what a giveaway! And as you may know, there wasn't a stereotype the general public enjoyed hating more in the 80s than yuppies, that bunch of money-hungry espresso-sipping quiche-eaters who held to a philosophy "that makes profit the exclusive norm and ultimate end of economic activity."
That's why it's not just about politics in They Live. While the film is in no way friendly to the Republican administration which was in charge at the time of filming (an alien giving a televised speech directly quotes Reagan), They Live is ultimately another in a long line of Carpenter movies in which a few maverick individuals rail against an oppressive and corrupt system. It's the big guys versus the little guys, and the big guys always suck. One gets the impression that if the Democrats had been in office at the time, Carpenter would probably have given them the finger just as quickly. (Snake Plissken sure would have.) As explained in The Cinema Of John Carpenter: The Technique Of Terror by Ian Conrich and David Woods, They Live's "narrative is more complex than the 'Republicans as aliens' plotline and the action-hero shootout at the end might suggest. As Cumbow notes, the aliens' plan, which is to turn the Earth into a division of their wider business interests, is successful only because a large segment of the population is willing to go along with it. Comfort and complacency are the problem."
Fortunately, complacency in a Carpenter movie can easily be dealt with through the use of some well placed explosives. Our heroes do indeed destroy the transmitter, and in a final scene played mostly for laughs, the movie reveals that humans can finally see the threat they've (both metaphorically and quite literally) been getting screwed by. But then what? If there's a criticism to be had for They Live, it's that like many of Carpenter's other movies, there is no real long term solution presented for the problem. Carpenter is great at filming the tearing down of social structures, but not quite as good at indicating how he thinks they can be rebuilt. Maybe he feels that part of the process is just no fun to film or watch. But it does beg the question, if we accept They Live's premise that America is in danger of becoming, or already is, a place in which the sociopolitical system is unjust to the poor, how are we supposed to make it better? You know, besides blowing everything up and stuff like that.
Well, if we're willing to settle for something a little less exciting, but with the potential for a more lasting effect, then Christian teaching may be just what we're looking for. "The Church's love for the poor" states the Catechism, "is a part of her constant tradition. This love is inspired by the Gospel of the Beatitudes, of the poverty of Jesus, and of his concern for the poor. Love for the poor is even one of the motives for the duty of working so as to "be able to give to those in need." And, despite what modern politicians might say in order to get elected, we are expected to carry this social doctrine beyond our private individual situations and into our public lives. "Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment, and social assistance... Those in authority should practice distributive justice wisely, taking account of the needs and contribution of each, with a view to harmony and peace."
Distributive justice? Now there's a big word. Taken by itself it almost sounds like the Church is saying there is a divine commandment to institute income redistribution programs, doesn't it? Well, it's not quite that simple. Here's how Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk puts it. "Because we are human beings, we all have the right to share in certain fundamental resources. We all have the right to things like food and water and personal security and education, and other things as well... Everyone, each one of us, has a right to these things not because we have earned them or paid for them, but simply because we exist, simply because we are part of created reality. If everyone has a right to expect these things from society, then society has a obligation to see that these things are provided. Notice, however, that this kind of justice is not governed by arithmetic equality, but by proportion. We don’t all have a right to the same amount of food or water or personal security or education, but to the minimum share that we need in order to sustain our human existence."
(I can't believe I'm discussing economics on this blog. I'm starting to see why Carpenter sticks to explosions.)
Anyway, it's important to note that both the Catechism and the Archbishop use the word "society" rather than "government". The reason behind this is because of yet another big word, subsidiarity. The Compendium Of The Social Doctrine Of The Church by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace states that "subsidiarity is among the most constant and characteristic directives of the Church's social doctrine and has been present since the first great social encyclical." Basically, subsidiarity states that a government (or other large entity) should only undertake those initiatives or programs which cannot be carried out by individuals or private groups acting independently. Or to put it even more basically, the big guys should never step in as long as the little guys can handle the problem on their own.
(Carpenter would have set off a bomb by now.)
So let's see, it goes something like this. Jesus demands we care for the poor, period. Of course, different cultures can argue about just what constitutes being "poor", but for our purposes, if someone is lacking something they need to survive, then they qualify. Once we recognize them, we then have an obligation under the principle of distributive justice to reallocate to the poor the goods they absolutely need. It's the step after that where things often start to go wrong, because, under the principle of subsidiarity, the goods we're supposed to start with are our own. Only as the problem outgrows our individual capacity do we bring in others with the government actually being the last resort. Why? Well, as John Paul II wrote, "by intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energy and an increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending." In other words, the more you involve government, the more deadened individuals become to the situation, and the less help actually reaches the needy. Put another way, the more you neglect the idea of subsidiarity, the better chance you run of creating a sociopolitical system that John Carpenter will want to blow up.
The Compendium Of The Social Doctrine Of The Church does go on to recognize that there are situations in which the social imbalance is too huge or the economy so crippled that only the government can feasibly address the problem. The catch? "in light of the principle of subsidiarity... this institutional substitution must not continue any longer than is absolutely necessary." Government programs are supposed to be temporary. Riiiight.