Logline: A drifter acquires a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see that the ruling class is in fact made up of aliens who are concealing their appearance and using subliminal messages in mass media to manipulate humans.
“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick some ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum.” They Live was the last film that John Carpenter made in the 1980s and it stands as one of his best. A delicious mix of science fiction, satire, and ’80s macho action, They Live is Carpenter’s most political film. Its social commentary provides an important message that is just as pertinent today.
Written, directed, and scored by Carpenter, They Live pays homage to 1950s sci-fi films, namely Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). The film is based in part on Ray Nelson’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning.” Self-indulgent 80s action aside, They Live has some important messages that are undeniably relevant. The film criticizes mass consumerism, media manipulation, displacement of the lower classes, and inequality of wealth and power. In an interview conducted recently, Carpenter stated, “The ’80s never ended. The consumerism has gotten bigger since then. It’s all still going on. That’s why it seems prescient.”
They Live stars Roddy Piper, a professional wrestler turned actor and Keith David, who also appeared in The Thing (1982). They Live came at the tail end of a decade that heralded macho action heroes and the film is well aware of this fact. Laden with testosterone, They Live features one of the best fight scenes ever committed to celluloid. The fight, between Piper and David, lasts more than six minutes and is funny, visceral, and extremely well choreographed. My favorite sequence in the film, though is the first time the nameless Piper character puts on the sunglasses and sees the world as it actually is. Billboards, magazines, and other forms of media are in fact subliminal messages, like “CONSUME,” “OBEY,” and “NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT.” A wad of cash in a vendor’s hand reads, “THIS IS YOUR GOD.” It is a quiet, brilliant sequence that reaches absolute sublimity.
They Live may be cheesy but it is lots of fun. Produced on a limited budget with B-movie aesthetics, this Carpenter classic is often overlooked and deserves more attention. It seems fitting that They Live was the final film that Carpenter made in the ’80s, as it criticizes the excessive consumerism that defined the Regan era and remains with us to this day.
Rating (out of ****): ***1/2