They Live directed by John Carpenter. Review by Jeff Burk
In 1988, to little fanfare, John Carpenter released They Live, a film that is now a cult classic and that many consider one of Carpenter's finest works. In addition to being directed by him, the film was also written by Carpenter under the pseudonym "Frank Armitage" (taken from Lovecraft's "the Dunwich Horror"), and loosely adapted from a variety of sources including the Ray Nelson short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning."
The movie follows John Nada, who, after being laid off from his job, travels to Los Angeles and gets a job as a laborer at a construction site. He spends his nights with a large group of squatters who feed, house and care for each other (based upon the real-life concept of
"Justiceville"). When Nada suspects something strange is going on in the building across the street from the squatter town, he finds a pair of sunglasses that enable him to see the truth behind our so-called real world.
It turns out that our world is run by Aliens who masquerade as human beings. Government, business, and law enforcement are all controlled by the alien invaders, who are getting rich off of the Earth's resources while humans suffer in poverty. All printed media is actually subliminal messages that control humans. Money contains the message "I Am Your God," and, in one of the films more memorable images, Nada sees a sea of billboards that really contain messages like "Marry and Reproduce," "Stay Asleep," and "Obey." Nada joins the rebellion against the aliens and the fight between free humans and the alien slave masters becomes the central plot of the film.
John Carpenter has never hid his political beliefs, particularly his criticism of Reaganomics and social conservatism. In They Live,
Carpenter wears his politics on his sleeve, casting the rich, the police, government, and big business and the villains of the story, as well as the primary victims of the film's hyper-violence.
Stars Roddy Piper (of NWA wrestling fame), Keith David (The Thing), and Meg Foster (Masters of the Universe and a really cool episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine entitled The Muse) are all excellent in their respective roles. All relay the proper amount of horror and humor for the story's disturbing and outlandish scenarios. Piper particularly stands out in his portrayal of the common man confronted with the seemingly impossible task of battling all of society.
John Carpenter's talents as a writer and director are on fine display.
With a limited budget, Carpenter does a surprisingly good job of portraying a reality completely different from our own. The alien menace comes across as genuine threat, with its insidious co-opting of humanity and its accomplishments. They Live also contains what may be the single best filmed scene in Carpenter's body of work—the five-and-half minute fight scene between stars Piper and David. Carpenter perfectly balances the scene with an appropriate amount of brutality and humor.
They Live is a frequently overlooked part of Carpenter's filmography, but it has rabid cult following and the film has made several impacts on culture. Video game hero Duke Nukem cribbed some of his one-liners from John Nada ("I'm here to kick-ass and chew bubble gum, and I'm all out of bubble gum"). Artist Shepard Fairey's iconic "Obey" picture with Andre the Giant was highly inspired by the film. South Park also once paid homage to the film by recreating the famous fight sequence with the characters Timmy and Jimmy.
Despite being dated though the character's fashion and hairstyles,
They Live contains a timeless element to it. The film is an unfortunately overlooked gem of Carpenter's because it easily stands alongside Halloween, The Thing, and In the Mouth of Madness. With constantly reoccurring scandals of business and government conspiring against America's working class, They Live stands just as relevant now as it was in the "Greed is Good" eighties.
Jeff Burk has been an avid fan of wierd fiction for longer than could
be mentally healthy. He also writes reviews at the Bizarro webzine the Dream People.