They influence our decisions without us knowing it. They numb our senses without us feeling it. They control our lives without us realizing it. They Live!
John Carpenter’s cult classic They Live is headed for special edition Blu-ray and DVD this November. The announcement comes amidst ongoing speculation that the movie is to be remade -- or rather rebooted -- in the near future by Cloverfield director Matt Reeves.
Based on Ray Nelson's 1963 short story Eight O'Clock in the Morning, Carpenter’s 1988 movie depicted a blue collar drifter (played by Roddy Piper) who finds a pair of sunglasses that allows him to see the stark reality of corporate America, where shops are covered with subliminal signs that say “Submit,” “Stay Asleep,” and “Do Not Question Authority.” The world is being secretly run in this Orwellian fashion by invading aliens who are allied with the US establishment -- the human elite having been promised tickets off-planet when Doomsday arrives.
Carpenter pulled no punches in describing the film's politics. “I looked at the country and thought we were in really deep trouble. This seems like fascism to me, the rise of the fundamentalist right and the kind of mind control they're putting out, the kind of presidency Reagan has had. We haven't got a chance.”
Unfortunately for Carpenter, his film’s searing vision may have been a key contributing factor in its undoing at the box-office. They Live was pulled just two weeks after its November 4th, 1988 release date. While Carpenter blamed audiences who “don't want to be enlightened,” co-star Keith David had a more conspiratorial take on the film’s failure: “not that anybody’s being paranoid,” said David, “but it was interesting that They Live was number one at the box office... and suddenly you couldn’t see it anywhere -- it was, like, snatched.”
They Live opened at number one at the US box office and easily made its $4m investment back over its first weekend. By the second weekend, it had dropped to fourth place but still made $2.7m. It also received good reviews, with the notable exceptions of the two newspapers at the very centre of power -- the New York Times and the Washington Post.
It’s easy to see why Keith David was suspicious of higher level involvement. As part of the film’s marketing campaign, the distributor, Universal Pictures, published an advert that showed a skeletal alien standing behind a podium in suit and tie, with a mop of hair strangely similar to that of the Vice President-elect of the United States -- the much maligned Dan Quayle -- who Carpenter elsewhere called “a prototype: mindless.” The ad was headlined: '”I know human beings. Human beings are friends of mine. You sir, are no human being!'” The Presidential election had taken place just a few days prior on November 8th prompting one major US paper to comment: “If the new administration is starting a list of enemies, Carpenter may have put himself at the head of the line.”
Regardless of the circumstances of They Live’s abrupt termination, it is clear that it was way out in the blue yonder politically, leaving it exposed and defenceless. Sponsors were unwilling to provide product placement, including Rolex, who Carpenter had asked to be associated with the wrist watch used by the aliens as a two-way radio. “We tried to use real advertisements; I wish I could get a little of that,” Carpenter said, “but it's a film that's anti-advertising; no one wanted to give their permission.”
So, will Matt Reeves’ rumoured upcoming They Live reboot face similar obstacles? Unlikely, as the director seems to be opting for a de-radicalized take on his source material, telling Deadline:
“I saw an opportunity to do a movie that was very point-of-view driven, a psychological science fiction thriller that explores this guy’s nightmare… Carpenter took a satirical view of the material and the larger political implication that we’re being controlled. I am very drawn to the emotional side, the nightmare experience with the paranoia of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or a Roman Polanski-style film.”
A disappointing approach, perhaps, but a logical one. If the radical politics of Carpenter’s original vision struggled to breathe in the corporate Hollywood of yesteryear, today they wouldn’t stand a chance.
They Live Special Edition arrives on Blu-ray and DVD on November 6. For details, see here.