I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Hunks, Hofmann, and Hand Grenades

by Paige Brocious
Nov. 2, 2011

Intrigued yet? What if I told you that sexpot Canadian wrestler "Rowdy" Roddy Piper says things like "Life's a bitch, and she's back in heat." The 80's sci-fi classic They Live! features all of that...and much more of that. The film is a pseudo-apocalyptic thriller, where a bad-ass loner struts around town with a shotgun killing what seems to be everything in sight. But in this lies the kicker: all life on earth still exists, controlled by an alien race disguised as humans, and George Nada, played by Piper, begins to see the world for what it really is. A latent segregation of oppressor and oppressed, where the oppressed ignorantly live in a state of artificial sedation. Famed director John Carpenter, who created horror movies like Halloween and The Thing, uses some seriously overworked themes like government conspiracies and American consumerism, and succeeds in making them appear hilarious yet deranged.

The film is loosely based on a short story by science-fiction author Ray Nelson called "Eight O'Clock in the Morning." The short story begins as the protagonist George Nada wakes up from a hypnosis performance. But instead of just waking up to business as usual, he wakes up to find that his world is infested with evil aliens who control his every action. They Live! largely borrows this idea of voluntary sedation, where people allow themselves to be desensitized out of a want for personal gain. Another factor that is consistent in both the story and the movie is the subliminal messages conveyed through the media like "Marry and Reproduce" or "Obey" or "Keep Sleeping." These commands control the state of the human race, who have no power against it other than through the enlightening consciousness that George Nada happens upon.

In "Eight O'Clock in the Morning", the chief of police (one of the alien "Fascinators") calls Nada and says that tomorrow morning at eight o'clock his heart will stop. Nada mechanically repeats what the invader tells him, then realizes that he has the power to prevent it. He kills the aliens broadcasting these messages and hijacks their system, telling everyone to wake up. Although he initiates a revolution, he dies of a heart attack at exactly eight o'clock the next morning. Similarly, in the movie, Roddy Piper dies defending the cause but his death is not predetermined by his enemies. Nelson's story portrays a more cynical outlook on individual thought than the movie. Can we really ignore the multitude of pervasive ideas that are being crammed into our brains everyday? Does free will even exist? Nada.

The movie begins with Roddy Piper as a mysterious rambler, wandering the streets of Cleveland. He can't seem to find a job or make enough money to get on his feet, but remains optimistic about chasing the American dream. "I believe in America. I follow the rules," he says, "Everybody's got their own hard times these days." Soon thereafter the film's political motivations change his perspective completely, and he has no choice but to break all the rules. The aliens are described as free enterprisers who gain complete control of society by assuming the highest positions of wealth and authority, recruiting anyone who wants a cut of that wealth, and subjugating the lower class. Sound familiar? Throughout the movie there are subtle and explicit references to the greediness of Americans that is perfect for alien exploitation. They "keep us asleep, keep us selfish, keep us sedated."

Another difference between the story and the film is how people are able to see the aliens and their hidden propagandistic messages. In the story Nada gains this sight naturally. But in the movie, he puts on the glasses which allow him "to see". Although it's not specified in the film, it is believed that these were inspired by Albert Hofmann the first man to create and personally test LSD. Piper's drug comment aside ("Wearing these glasses gets you high, but you come down hard), his whole experience does emulate a bad trip. The whole effect is enhanced in black and white, and by the metallic Terminator-looking "formaldehyde faces." The aliens would actually be terrifying if the movie didn't have such a kick ass, gung-ho vibe to it. Plus, the glasses are sometimes referred to as "Hofmann lenses." So. Yeah.

And now to the best scene in the entire film. After wreaking havoc all over the city, annihilating aliens in his sunglasses, Nada runs into his friend Frank. He wants to share the glasses with him and to wake him up from the delusions he has been living in. But Frank stubbornly refuses, and what a beautiful mistake that is. He proceeds to punch Nada in the face, and then hilarity ensues. It takes five and a half minutes of fighting and intermittent one-liners until both characters are beaten to a nice bloody pulp and Frank finally puts on the glasses. The fight scene was meant to only last for 20 seconds but it was so well choreographed and acted, clearly due to the skills of Rowdy Roddy, that they maintained the full-length scene.

They Live! is undoubtedly a classic for many reasons, and I highly recommend that everyone see it. On another note, I may be wearing sunglasses right now. Do you see what I see?

Paige Brocious is studying English at Northeastern University. She is an avid lover of all things food (especially seafood) and Red Hot Chili Peppers-related. She currently works part-time as an editorial assistant at Aptara Inc., a textbook publishing company. Her favorite hobby is dancing, both performing on stage and taking classes (and sometimes for no reason at all). She also really likes pickled things.