Revisiting . . . They Live (1988)

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VHS Revival revisits John Carpenter’s timeless dystopian allegory.


John Carpenter enjoyed considerable success throughout the late 70s and 80s, working within low budgets and tight schedules to produce unlikely box office hits that contradict their meagre outlay.

Though he is primarily seen as a director of horror movies, his science fiction releases represent some of his strongest work, harking back to the good ol’ days of the 50s with strong political leanings. Although The Thing, Escape From New York and even Starman have at least one foot firmly planted in the old black and white classics, it was his 1988 masterpiece They Live which literally swapped the bright and vivid colours for monotones to force us to take a deep, dark look at what the shallow, colourful 80s had seen us become.

They Live tells the story of a drifter, John Nada, who arrives in present day Los Angeles looking for work, eventually finding refuge in a local shantytown. It’s not long before our perceptive and curious hero notices some strange goings on in the local church, arousing his interest along with that of the local and national authorities, who attack the church and destroy the shantytown. All Nada finds is a pair of sunglasses and what he sees when he puts them on can’t be unseen, leading him down a path from which there is no coming back.

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Carpenter proves himself highly adept at weaving an intriguing premise and presenting us with the most political film of his career, delivering a spectacle that eschews most of the visceral terror of The Thing and the swashbuckling action of Escape From New York in favour of social commentary and one of the greatest reveals in cinema history. It does what all good sci-fi should do – makes you think about the world in a different way and question what’s happening around you. Based on the 1963 short story 8 o’clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson, Carpenter transforms the story it into a satirical attack on the ruling classes and their control over everything from the media and advertising to city banking; the cinematic equivalent of holding a mirror up to its audience. Carpenter wrote and directed the film, as well as creating the soundtrack, and was behind a remarkably shrewd piece of casting by placing WWF wrestler ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper in the lead role.

Nada – You see, I take these glasses off, she looks like a regular person, doesn’t she? Put ’em back on…formaldehyde-face!

Piper is superb and his performance exudes a world-weary, ‘seen it all’ persona that allows Carpenter to channel, through him, an inquisitive narrative that pulls us into the conspiracy that unravels as the film plays out. He delivers the sort of razor-sharp dialogue that would have made Tarantino proud, particularly the iconic ‘I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum’ which was reportedly ad-libbed. His character is beautifully contrasted by actor Keith David (reunited with Carpenter following ‘The Thing’) whose character Frank, unlike Nada, keeps his head down and blames society for his misfortunes. Ironically, through Nada’s discovery, Frank’s outlook is proven to bear an element of truth which encourages him to get involved and join Nada in making a difference and affecting change.

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In taking a swipe at the consumerist nature of 80s excess, out of control advertising, product placement and sponsorship, Carpenter is given license to present his own take on subliminal media messages. In glorious black and white we see a world where slogans such as ‘Sleep’, ‘Obey’ and ‘Consume’ adorn billboards, ‘This is your God’ is scribbled over dollar bills, whilst ‘No Imagination’ and ‘Submit to Authority’ can be seen across magazines and behind political rallies. This is a film about Reagan-era America and the opulence of the 80s, indulged by an elite at the expense of a working class oppressed by cleverly marketed media messages and authority bordering on a police state.

The film is very firmly of its era, but the message is perhaps more pertinent today in a world where we are bombarded with messages, both directly and indirectly, thousands of time a day. Do we choose to consume these messages because it reinforces our viewpoint or is our viewpoint formed and changed by what we consume? Do we even have a choice in how we see the world when unseen forces control the very messages we see and hear, and are social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook a reaction to that. This was brave filmmaking, and the point Carpenter makes only seems to have evolved with the passing of time. 

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You can’t talk about They Live without mentioning the epic fight scene between Piper and David. Just under six minutes of  bone-crunching, back breaking brawling. This is no choreographed James Bond style, high-skill jousting, but a low down dirty scrap between two working class heroes, neither of whom are willing to back down – the pair reportedly fought it out for real, Carpenter liking the end result so much he decided to include it. At one point Piper starts laughing after realising he may have gone a bit too far, only for David to retaliate in kind. It’s great fun to watch, especially when all that’s at stake is putting on a pair of sunglasses!

Bearded Man – They are dismantling the sleeping middle class. More and more people are becoming poor. We are their cattle. We are being bred for slavery.

Of course, the most memorable element is ‘the reveal’ and Carpenter spends a sizeable portion of the movie highlighting Nada’s reaction to it. I’ve avoided explaining it explicitly because the film works best as a surprise, even if the front and back covers to most video and digital releases show images that pretty much give it away. What I will say is that by presenting the reveal in black and white, Carpenter utilises a style reminiscent of those 50s sci-fi efforts which often had so much to say about American society and the state of humanity. It’s also a literal metaphor, highlighting the truth in black and white, stripping away all of the colour and gloss and the style-over-substance that typified 80s commercialism to lay out the bare facts, which are in stark contrast to the glitz and glamour…what’s behind the beautiful exterior is an ugly soul, corruption, exploitation and oppression of the masses. The film shows a serious distrust of authority and scenes such as the invasion and destruction of the shantytown and subsequent beating of minority groups resonates just as powerfully today as it did in the late 80s.

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Good sci-fi has the ability to transcend eras and bear up to reappraisal. John Carpenter recently took to Twitter to decry rumours that his film was anti-Semitic. We look for meaning in everything and read too much into things that aren’t there, creating our own controversy but frequently failing to see what’s right in front of us, just like Nada and Frank, who only discover what’s really going on once free from the distractions of magazine covers and billboards. It’s a fascinating question about whether or not there really is such a thing as freedom of thought and why we ignore some messages in favour of others.

Nada – You know, you look like your head fell in the cheese dip back in 1957.

Carpenter is clearly a film historian. He remade The Thing to keep 50s Cold War paranoia front and centre. Assault on Precinct 13 was a nod to Rio Bravo, and Halloween, despite ushering in a new era in slasher films, is basically an old fashioned ‘he’s behind you’, haunted house film. Similarly, They Live is a parody of those old black and white sci-fi flicks, a tribute to the era in which he grew up, and the film deserves its place as a classic of its kind. Smart, funny and offering something new with every viewing, it is a great ‘message movie’ that truly hits home. Far from sanctimonious in its delivery, this is entertaining, compulsive viewing, and if you haven’t yet had the pleasure (I hope I’ve managed to write this without spoiling it too much!) then hunt it down or look out for it on TV – but be sure to wear your sunglasses!

Simon Towers


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