Retro Reviews: They Live (1988)

A very special pair of sunglasses unveils a horrifying reality to John Nada. Hideous aliens have made humans their slaves. Yet only a few humans can see. Most of those are collaborators. Nada soon finds that people will do almost anything to avoid this terrible truth.

And as long as we sleep, they live.

Director John Carpenter.

Director John Carpenter. “I don’t want to be mainstream.”

Nada might have empathized with director John Carpenter. Asked about the box office failure of They Live, he said those “who go to the movies in vast numbers these days don’t want to be enlightened.”

They Live perplexed critics and audiences alike. It’s not scary as horror. As science fiction, it’s a throwback to 1950’s cheese. It’s low budget and looks it. It won neither awards nor critical acclaim.

Yet the film gains more fans and greater devotion as each decade passes.

Perhaps more film buffs are putting on their “truth” sunglasses. Carpenter’s bleak dystopia shows decent, hard-working Americans brainwashed into vapid consumerism and conformity. They barely even notice as they’re slowly forced out of the middle class and into homelessness. Though intended as a subversive critique of the Reagan era, the message rings true now more than ever.

There are plenty of holes in the plot, character development is often lacking, and the action scenes are mostly standard ’80s shoot ’em up fare. Yet John Carpenter never intended They Live as a standard horror, sci-fi or action movie. It’s his unique vision and should be judged on its own unique merits.

The director puts it well. “I don’t want to be in the mainstream. I don’t want to be a part of the demographics. I want to be an individual. I wear each of my films as a badge of pride. That’s why I cherish all my bad reviews. If the critics start liking my movies, then I’m in deep trouble.”

(John Carpenter shares his thoughts about They Live.)

It’s fitting that a film about disposessed outcasts and misunderstood visionaries appeals so strongly to “conspiracy theorists” and other non-conformists. They see their own experiences through the eyes of the lead character. Even better, Nada is no nutcase. He’s a disillusioned loner, yet he’s the embodiment of a true American hero, though he never asked for that role.

And the conspiracy is all too real.

The 1950s sci-fi kitsch is a fitting nod to similar-themed classics of that era, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Acting performances are strong by Roddy Piper, as John Nada, and David Keith, as his friend and fellow alien-battler Frank Armitage. Their interaction flows easily, naturally. There’s nothing conventional about Carpenter’s choice. He discovered Piper, a professional wrestler, at Wrestlemania III. “Unlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him,” the director explained. He envisioned Frank “not as a traditional sidekick, but (someone who) could hold his own.”

(David Keith discusses his legendary fight scene with Roddy Piper.)

They Live includes memorable lines such as “I’m here to kick a** and chew bubble gum. And I’m all out of bubble gum.” Piper ad libbed it. Three weeks were dedicated to rehearsing a famous, highly regarded fight scene between Piper and Keith.

It’s all pure fun as a late night movie. It isn’t meant to be overanalyzed or taken too seriously.

Or is it?

They Live is fine for teens and perhaps thoughtful ‘tweens. The comic book violence, profanity and ghastly alien faces are inappropriate for younger kids.

John Carpenter directed Halloween, Escape from New York, The Thing, Starman and Big Trouble in Little China, among others.

Image sources:’s_They_Live_(opening_credits_Logo).png/800px-John_Carpenter’s_They_Live_(opening_credits_Logo).png

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