They Live is a 1988 film directed by John Carpenter. For the second time in a few years, he had been dumped by the big Hollywood production companies, he was angry and you can tell by watching this movie! The first time he had been accused of being a pervert for making that absolute masterpiece that is The Thing (1982). This time, he got in trouble (!) after Big Trouble in Little China (1986), a film that no one really understood at the time and whose comedic/action formula is still used and copied a lot today.
They Live is a low-budget film in which Carpenter poured all his bitterness with his usual irony plus a ton of delicious satire. This time he criticised the unbridled capitalism of the 1980s and the yuppie culture, as he has himself confirmed in more than one occasion. He did so by adapting for the big screen a short 1963 story by Ray Nelson entitled Eight O’Clock in the Morning which appeared in a 1986 comic version by Billy Wray entitled Nada (which happens to be the name of the protagonist of the film by Carpenter). Basically, the director attacked everything that he didn’t like about the United States, while at the same time paying homage to the classic post-war science fiction that he adored so much!
But let’s start from the plot. Nada (Roddy Piper, a wrestler – wrestling has always been one of Carpenter’s great passions) is a homeless man who arrives at Los Angeles and finds a job in construction site. He becomes friend with Frank (Keith David) who takes him to a community where he can sleep and find hot meals. There, Nada discovers that the leader of the place, Gilbert (Peter Jason), is part of a secret organization that has discovered that some extraterrestrial beings have infiltrated the human population and totally control it. When he gets hold of a special pair of sunglasses, he realizes that the situation is really out of control: around the city, he sees many aliens with monstrous skeletal features mixed with the unaware population and, above all, he sees the subliminal messages with which the aliens control the earthlings…
They Live is pretty much the very definition of a cult movie. Even if you haven’t seen it, I’m sure that you’ve seen the immortal images of the black and white world (some amazing matte paintings) full of subliminal messages such as Obey, Respect the Authority, Watch TV, Consume, Marry and Reproduce! And what about I Am Your God written on the dollar bills? Simply brilliant!
The five-minute long fight between Roddy Piper and Keith David is also memorable. The two actors prepared the scene for two weeks and choreographed it to perfection, and only a professional like Piper could have brought home such an excellent result. And speaking of memorable things: “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and to kick asses, and I’m all out of bubblegum“: I found it quoted so many times! Carpenter took it from a notebook written by Roddy Piper containing phrases he used in wrestling fights. He liked that one so much that he ended up using it in the movie!
Then, all the usual themes of Carpenter’s cinema are all present in this film in which the authorities are at the service of the aliens and beat up the workers and society’s poorest: it would be hard to be more explicit than that! They Live is about climate change and wasted natural resources, only it’s us wasting those resources, not some weird aliens, because we are slaves to capitalism and we are destroying our planet in the name of money and power… There’s even the usual beautiful woman with clear eyes, this time she’s Meg Foster, and the finale (that I won’t spoil) is bitter sweet 100% Carpenterian humor.
To conclude, this is an incredible and unmissable film, one of a kind, mixing love for cinema, satire, top quality action, a superfine direction producing wonderful images and scenes despite the low budget, and a bluesy soundtrack naturally composed by John Carpenter himself. I couldn’t recommend it more passionately, Ciao!
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