John Carpenter burst onto the genre scene in 1978 with Halloween, but the bulk of his great films came in the 1980s with classics like The Fog, Escape from New York, The Thing, Starman, Big Trouble in Little China and Prince of Darkness. His final film of the decade was a bit of an odd duck though and one that saw his trend of releasing a new movie every year or two come to a halt.
They Live was released, not coincidentally, in the last year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Sold as a sci-fi/action hybrid the film is a not-so thinly veiled critique of the growing class divide engendered by a Republican mandate that favored a corporate culture and rampant consumerism. The rich were getting richer, the poor were getting poorer and the middle class were doing very little to stop it all.
Roddy Piper plays a drifter who arrives in Los Angeles desperate for work and relegated to live in a homeless encampment. He finds a pair of special sunglasses that reveal a world of subliminal messages and alien invaders masquerading as humans and discovers a stunning conspiracy behind America’s economic and social downturn. And, being Roddy Piper, he proceeds to clean house.
Nada (Piper) comes to LA hoping to find a paycheck and a place to rest his head, but what he finds is an economy and a populace in disarray. Forced to accept some shady construction work he makes his home in an encampment of other men, women and children in similar financial straights. He has little concern for anyone else though as his sole goal is self preservation.
That changes when his curiosity about late-night happenings in a nearby church leads to the discovery of an underground resistance and some very special sunglasses. Putting on a pair for the first time the world around him loses color but increases in clarity. Magazine covers and billboards are revealed to contain subliminal messages telling people to continue consuming, to obey authority and to accept the status quo. Worse, the lenses reveal the truth about some of the “people” sharing our world.
They’re aliens. Ugly aliens. Ugly, rich aliens who are keeping the rest of America down though manipulation and electronic hypnotism. Nada takes serious issue with this and joins forces with the rebels to end the enslavement and rescue humanity from institutionalized poverty.
They Live is a goofy movie with some cheap-looking effects at times, but it’s also legitimately funny, socially aware and visually entertaining action film. The story retains its relevance today thanks to our current financial crisis, rising debts and the appearance of the Occupy movement complete with pop-up tent cities that are routinely bulldozed by police. That social context adds a layer rarely found in genre films, but it never threatens to derail the fun.
Carpenter isn’t known for wringing the best performances from his casts, but while Piper is no thespian he’s charismatic enough and delivers Carpenter’s dialogue on cue. The scenes where he first experiences the sunglasses abilities are fairly priceless as he walks the streets in shock and disgust at the de-skinned alien faces. After being cornered by and dealing with two alien cops he loads up and enters a nearby bank to deliver the film’s most iconic line… “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.” Seriously. It never gets old.
The supporting cast is populated with some of the director’s regulars, and they’re joined by Meg Foster and Keith David (who would return to work on Carpenter’s The Thing). David shares the film’s most memorable scene with Piper when the two get into an alleyway fight that lasts five full minutes. It’s ridiculous, but it’s exactly the right kind of ridiculous. The fight is a bloody brawl using some of Piper’s old wrestling moves, and both actors give it their all.
They Live isn’t Carpenter’s best film, but it deserves a higher profile than it’s had over the years. It’s a fun movie with serious undertones, but as fun as the ideas at play are here the script’s biggest issue is the pass it gives to people for the consequences of their lives. It’s not their fault they can’t support their families… it’s space aliens masquerading as right-wing conservatives! The story plays into conspiracy theories that we’re not to blame for our own worst woes, but the underdog mentality overcomes that concern handily.
Shout Factory’s new horror label, Scream Factory, continues to dole out the awesome with this beautiful HD transfer of They Live. It comes with a reversible cover featuring new (and awesome) art from The Dude Designs as well as the special features listed below.
- Audio Commentary with writer/director John Carpenter and actor Roddy Piper
- Independent Thoughts – An Interview with writer/director John Carpenter (10:07) – Short but fun interview with Carpenter talking about the production, his thoughts on the ongoing theme and stunt coordinator Jeff Imada’s role as almost every alien in the film
- Woman of Mystery – An Interview with Actress Meg Foster (5:20)
- Watch, Look, Listen – The Sights and Sounds of They Live (11:14) – Collection of interviews with some of the behind-the-scenes talent including the DP, the stunt coordinator, co-scorer Alan Howarth and more
- Man vs Aliens – An Interview with Actor Keith David (11:12) – David talks about his feature debut in Carpenter’s The Thing, his career and this film’s epic fight scene
- Original EPK – The Making of They Live (8:02)
- Never Before Seen Footage – From the Commercials created for the film (2:34)
- TV Spots, Still Gallery, Trailers
The Bottom Line
They Live is an underrated entry in Carpenter’s canon and his second to last truly entertaining film (after In the Mouth of Madness). It’s low budget at times to be sure, but Carpenter’s script manages to be pointed, fun and highly quotable. The film has never looked better so fans should definitely pick up a copy next time they run out for some bubblegum.