They Live (1988) dir. John Carpenter
Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David
I must have watched this film over 2 dozen times in my early teen years. My Brother and I memorized every shot, every cheesy line, every music sting, every grunt. Why? It’s no technical masterpiece, it’s not particularly innovative, not particularly scary, but somehow it has an unmistakable mystique. It wasn’t until many years later with the advent of the internet which gave film geeks a venue to discuss these types of films, that I realized we weren’t alone.
“They Live” is an intriguing high concept sci-fi film. What if Earth was being colonized gradually over the years by an alien species, and slowly subverting our species by infiltrating our media, politics and military? Roddy Piper, a soft-spoken drifter with no name, walks into town looking for work. He befriends a do-right/never-you-mind construction worker, Frank (Keith David), who gives him a job and a place to stay at a homeless shelter. There Piper comes into possession of a pair of sunglasses that reveals the alien world we, as humans, are unknowingly living in. Like those red glasses you get in cereal boxes that reveal secret codes, Piper is able to see the alien humanoids walking among us as well as subliminal messages such as, “obey”, “conform”, “consume”, “sleep” etc. hidden in our radio frequencies, billboards and television broadcasts.
Piper enlists the reluctant help of Frank to prove he’s not crazy. Frank and Piper discover an underground of like-minded freedom-fighters who have organized to rebel against the alien takeover. In hopes of awakening the entire world to their silent threat, Frank and Piper decide to attack the local television studio which has been broadcasting the subliminal messages. Action ensues when the alien police discover their plot, and it becomes a fight to the death to save humanity.
Without getting too serious, there is a subtext to the film. It’s essentially about our growing social disconnect with each other as humans. Remember, this is pre-internet times, and so Carpenter and short-story author Ray Nelson were putting the urban sprawl and conservative Reagan-era economics to blame. In fact, in the late 80’s, early 90’s there was niche movement of similarly themed anti-urban films including “Falling Down”, “Do the Right Thing”, and more (suggest more please).
Despite this, the film is all camp and can’t be taken seriously whatsoever. The acting is bad at times, and the score is adequate by Carpenter standards, and the romantic subplot of Piper and a television news journalist is downright laughable. But it is paced well, starting out very slow and setting up the characters and the environment they live in, with a slow atmospheric hypnotic mood. And most importantly the film never takes itself seriously and provides as many gags as it does action.
“They Live” is in keeping with his other camp-classics “Escape From New York” and “Big Trouble in Little China”, but unfortunately “They Live” is Carpenter’s last decent film, and sadly I don’t think we’ll see another good film from him. Please rediscover this campy little gem. Enjoy.
Buy it here: They Live