Written and Directed by John Carpenter
A drifter learns about an alien plot to control the human race and take over the Earth after finding some unusual sunglasses.
The character played by Roddy Piper is famously unnamed throughout the film and only gets called “Nada” in the credits. We are able to connect better with the character because of this. Names define a character and make them an “other.” We may cheer for them and support what they are doing but a name makes it difficult for us to step into their shoes. By never naming the character onscreen we are better able to identify with the character and his journey.
I do have an issue with Nada just suddenly going all in on fighting the aliens. I have difficulty believing that once he started seeing all that he would just go off like he did. I am not talking shooting the alien police officers. I am talking showing his hand so blatantly in general. It is a pretty foolish move that puts the target squarely on him. It helps move the story along but that is the only thing that really bothers me about this movie.
Keith David plays Frank. Frank represents the workingman barely able to get by who would prefer to keep their head down and ignore societal issues as they try to build and maintain a life. They are not bad people but choose to look the other way because involvement would or could hurt their world.
And the unusually eye colored Meg Foster is in it as Holly. She is the person who has sold out and is all about material wealth and possessions at the expense of everyone and everything else.
I saw the betrayal of Holly coming a mile away. Helen Keller could spot it, yet I was still curious how it would get to the end point. It was an entertaining journey to an obvious conclusion. Something so blatantly telegraphed should not have been enjoyable to watch but John Carpenter made it enjoyable.
George Buck Flower’s character is an unnamed collaborator. He is the person that wants the wealth and is willing to sell his soul to get it. Not only that but he forgets about the rest of society once he does get “what is his.”
Quite possibly one of the greatest lines in film history is “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.” Perhaps one of the best tough guy lines ever heard. Supposedly this was adlibbed by Piper and came from a notebook he kept during his wrestling days of things to say.
Another great line is “Where’s the threat in that? We all sell out every day” as said by one of the collaborators. Supposedly this line is a direct quote from a Universal executive when they were discussing the themes of the film.
That slow drawn out fight should have brought the movie to a crawl but somehow Piper and David make it work. This was originally supposed to last twenty seconds, but the actors went all in. It is nothing well-choreographed. I dare say it is perhaps one of the more genuine fights ever put on the screen. If you have ever been in a real fight you know they are never as cool as what you see usually in the movies.
They Live is quite possibly one of John Carpenter’s best films and definitely his most socially conscious film. I love this movie. Whether or not you may agree with the politics presented here, John Carpenter touches upon social justice and the forgotten working people. He frames those in power as unfeeling creatures and indifferent to the workingman. We are encouraged by the media and society at large to consume and buy, that material wealth and material things will make us happy when in reality we may at times be selling a piece of our soul just to be comfortable.
This was his attempt to make a film that was primarily against Reaganomics and mass consumerism. I think he missed the mark at times there, but he made something more enduring that still resonates today. I think if he had made something that directly struck at Reaganomics as was intended it would have been forgotten within a few years. We would not be talking about it and it would be a hard to find film for those interested in watching it.
Carpenter focuses on the downtrodden characters. We do not see too much of the aliens or their workings. We are shown just enough to for it to be obvious that they are everywhere. And honestly, who really cares to go in depth on the aliens? What is important is what they are doing. Carpenter is a man that apparently puts his money where his mouth is. During filming, he brought homeless people to the set for scenes and they received food and paychecks.
Truth is black and white. There are no shades of grey in it. To that end when we view through the sunglasses the world as it really it presents itself as such. Some have called truth a drug (in a positive sense) and this is referenced in the effects of extended use of the glasses and how they make someone feel.
In the world of They Live, humanity is encouraged to consume and multiply with no thought about the consequences as a means of attaining happiness when it really only benefits the aliens (the stand ins for the rich and powerful) who treat Earth like a Third World nation to be exploited in a reference to Carpenter’s view of American foreign policy and the aforementioned Reaganomics.
They Live is another amazing film from John Carpenter. It is filled with social commentary and a great work of science fiction. This is a must see that you will definitely enjoy. You may not agree with its message, but you will be left with things to think about. Watch it.
2 thoughts on “They Live”
Its a brilliant film, this- at the time when I watched this in the cinema it was just touted as another Carpenter b-movie (as if that was ever anything to shrug one’s shoulders at) but its lovely to see its status being raised over the years. Its such a clever film, and oh boy, that soundtrack! I spent a small fortune importing the CD back in those pre-internet days: a reminder of just how long ago the film was released, but also of how little the world has really changed, indeed it may even have gotten worse, politically, in the States. When Carpenter was aiming his sights at Reagan, he could never have dreamed of Trump. Its like the aliens have gotten even more alien.
I caught this originally on TV. Local stations back in the day would run three random movies in a row on Saturday and Sunday. I had wanted to see this in theaters but was shot down because of Carpenter’s association with horror which this clearly is not.
This film clearly had something to say and did it with a great story. The decision to cast Piper was definitely questionable but it somehow work.