Review by J.T. Johnson
ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: November 4, 1988
DIRECTOR: John Carpenter
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Gary B. Kibbe
WRITER: John Carpenter
MUSIC: John Carpenter, Alan Howarth
Throughout the 1980s, director John Carpenter became the king of cult classics. His films often did poor to average business at the box office but would go on to find audiences on home video and have long-lasting legacies. The unabashedly campy B movie feel of a Carpenter film is one of the major draws, but the fact that Carpenter’s films also have an underlying social message is another draw.
“They Live” is no different. It is known for its hard look at commercialism and our easy ability to get lost into the capitalist system. The only real difference between the real world and the film, though, is that the corrupt politicians and the rich elite are actually aliens in disguise. They’re here to slowly suck us dry of our resources from behind-the-scenes instead of just raining down hellfire like the aliens usually do at the movies.
Wrestler Roddy Piper takes the lead in this film as John Nada, a drifter looking for work in Los Angeles. After he finds an area where the homeless can sleep and eat, he soon notices that there are people there trying to get out a desperate message about some unseen threat. Eventually, John gets his hands on some sunglasses.
When he puts them on, he is shocked to see a black-and-white world subtly hidden underneath our own and his reactions to this hidden world are pretty priceless. The billboards, magazines, and anything else that’s trying to sell you on something has a deeper, more sinister hidden message, mostly to “OBEY” your hidden alien leaders. Once John realizes what is going on, he realizes he must do what he can to save the world.
John Nada is cut from the same mold as other Carpenter heroes including Jack Burton and R.J. MacReady from “Big Trouble in Little China” and “The Thing”, respectfully. I’m actually kind of surprised that Kurt Russell didn’t play John. Instead, Piper takes on the main role confidently and gives a pretty decent performance overall. He even manages to make the cheesiest one liners work.
“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… And I’m all out of bubblegum.” Lines like this sing and remind you that you are watching a movie that is definitely not taking itself too seriously. Even so, it does have a great message about the peril of mindlessly following rapid commercialization of America.
In today’s world, it almost feels as though I could put on some sunglasses and see some hidden meaning behind the current change in the political and commercial climate. I’ve even seen memes and gifs that parody the Trump administration with the same hidden messages from the film.
As far as commercialization is concerned, just look at Black Friday every year. We just have to get that toaster that only cost $5. Another thing that the movie looks at is the increase in violence in our society. Again, just look at Black Friday and the fact that people have died trying to get that very same $5 toaster.
When you see things like that, you almost have to wonder if someone or something else is controlling us.
Since this is a low budget film, I must admit that the effects and the alien costumes are somewhat cheesy and very dated. When John has the glasses on, he sees the world in black-and-white and can see who is human and who is not. These scenes feel like a throwback to early 1950s B movies and while I didn’t really have a problem with it, these could be considered a turn off for some viewers.
In my opinion, “They Live” is the last great cult film from Carpenter. Only some are going to love the movie and the rest are going to hate it. With a solid and eerily timely story even for today’s world, “They Live” is a good little low-budget sci-fi film even with the intentional camp built into it by Carpenter.