Earlier this month, director John Carpenter took to Twitter to correct a theory about his 1988 film They Live. "THEY LIVE is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism," he tweeted on Jan. 3. "It has nothing to do with Jewish control of the world, which is slander and a lie." Apparently, anti-Semites on the internet had convinced themselves that the campy vehicle for pro wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper was a coded warning about Zionist conspiracy. This reading of the film is infuriating, given how relevant its real message is today.
Carpenter directed several iconic films of the Reagan era, including Halloween, Escape From New York, and Big Trouble in Little China, but They Live is not among them. Although it opened No. 1 at the box office, it went on to become a commercial and critical failure. At the time, Carpenter complained that people "who go to the movies in vast numbers these days don't want to be enlightened." This hypothesis became more convincing as They Live became a cult classic over the next three decades. But the simpler explanation for the movie's tepid reception is its tone.
They Live is simultaneously campy and earnest. Piper plays a nameless, homeless working man who catches a glimpse of a mysterious underground movement just as it is raided by police. In the chaos that ensues, he acquires a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the alien beings who live among us—hideous trans-dimensional ghouls who look like ordinary people, thanks to a mind-control broadcast operating out of Los Angeles.
When Piper puts on the sunglasses, he can see these ghouls and the messages they spread through advertising. An ordinary billboard, for example, becomes a sign reading, simply, "OBEY." This scene provided the inspiration for Shepard Fairey's Obey Propaganda line of streetwear. Deciding whether that is ironic, and how, gives you some idea of the challenge audiences faced when this movie was released.
The monsters that have taken over Earth in They Live are not scary. They look like Martians from a '50s B movie, and they act like worried yuppies, using their alien watches to call the police and disappear whenever Piper confronts them. The dialogue is campy, too. When the newly enlightened Piper enters a bank to shoot secret aliens with a gun, he announces that "I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass, and I'm all out of bubble gum."
That line—reportedly an ad lib—has taken on a pop-culture life of its own. But it doesn't jibe with the suspenseful horror Carpenter led audiences to expect in Halloween or The Fog. They Live is bad on purpose. It continually uses wooden dialogue and cheesy effects to remind us that we're watching a movie. The German playwright and theorist Bertolt Brecht called this approach verfremdungseffekt—"alienation effect" or "distancing effect." It describes the practice of keeping viewers from losing themselves in the story so they think about what the story means. They Live presents itself as a horror movie, but really it is satire.
In a 1988 interview, Carpenter told the science fiction magazine Starlog that the inspiration for They Live came from his disgust with Reaganomics. "I began watching TV again. I quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something," he said. "It's all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money." This frustration with consumerism had been a central element of the countercultural critique since Carpenter was a teenager. But it took on new resonance in the late '80s.
The secret aliens in They Live are women in fur coats and businessmen in smart suits. They congregate in banks and fashionable restaurants. Rather than attacking Piper and the other humans who see through their disguises, they call the police, preferring to let the apparatus of state power do their dirty work for them. These qualities reflect the soft cruelty of the Reagan era, when an increasingly wealthy professional class voted to cut social services and punish crime, making life harder for poor people even as they cheered an ostensibly booming economy.
That Americans today would watch this movie, see the ghouls in power suits and think, "Ah yes, Jews," is a bitter irony. We are in the midst of an '80s revival. Donald Trump, the very symbol of Reagan-era greed, has ridden to the White House on a wave of economic frustration brought on by the unrestrained capitalism They Live tried to warn us about. Trump's supporters on the alt-right, worried about the rising cost of living and the increasing power of large corporations, see this warning and blame... Jews.
This is the problem with anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry: They become the first idea, the easy joke, the default explanation when people don't understand what's going on. "Jews run the world" is an easy narrative to grasp. "Thirty years of lower taxes on the rich, financialization of the economy and reduced social services sucking money away from working people and giving it to the upper class" asks people to think a little more.
To catch the critique of consumer capitalism in They Live, you need to notice that all the aliens live in mansions and wear fancy clothes. Instead of futuristic death rays, their power lies in law enforcement and advertising. They don't want to devour our flesh; they just want to sell us things. This motif makes They Live an incisive satire of its time. The tragedy of our time is that Carpenter's critique of popular greed and corporate control is more relevant than ever, but it's been coopted by ethnic nationalism.
We were supposed to look at the alien conspiracy in They Live and see big business. Instead, we see Jews, or whatever other superficial distinction will distract us from what's really going on. Today, the most relevant part of They Live may be its infamous fight scene. When Piper tries to get his friend to try on the sunglasses, they get into a fistfight that goes from fun to brutal to excruciating over the course of six minutes. The message is clear: Some people will do anything to keep from seeing the truth.