Revisiting They Live (1988)

theylive1Top three John Carpenter films, in order. Now there’s a subject for a lively discussion. While its widely agreed that The Thing (1982) is John Carpenter’s definitive film, any debate concerning what fans would rate as his second or third-best feature would likely be dominated (and with good reason) by those that pre-date The Thing; films like Assault From Precinct 13 or Halloween or Escape From New York. Most fans tend to agree that following The Things original critical and public misfire, Carpenter’s career never fully recovered and its debatable that he never realised his true potential in Hollywood. Maybe that’s true, I don’t know- it seems unfair to compare Carpenter with the likes of Spielberg or other mainstream Hollywood directors that worked well in ‘the system’. There always seemed something subversive about Carpenter at his best, of underground, ‘indie’ film-making. I like to think he had better films in him than The Thing, but he never had the opportunity to make them- hell, if that remains his most popular film then why not, its a hell of a film. While he made good films after The Thing, he never seemed to make a ‘great’ film, or anything that really measured up to his 1982 (eventual) classic. Amongst the very best of those post-The Thing films though is They Live.

I saw the film back in its first cinema run. I fell in love with it, and it’s wonderful bluesy soundtrack, immediately. Its up there with my very favourite Carpenter films and in some ways as the years have passed I’ve realised that it might even prove to be one of his most enduring. But I hadn’t seen They Live in years- not sure why exactly, but I just never returned to it. The sad news of the untimely passing of Roddy Piper, the American Wrestler who starred in They Live finally got me back to it. It’s a lousy reason to revisit a movie though.

theylive2Originally made as a reaction by Carpenter to the Regeanite economics of its time, the fact is that They Live perhaps resonates as much now as it did back then, maybe even more. The sad truth is that after so many decades, the divide between the rich and the poor is growing all the time and the films central conceit is as wonderful as it ever was; those politicians who seem to live on some other planet really do come from some other planet- the rich and successful are either aliens or money/power-hungry humans in league with those aliens, and the poor masses are the rest of us who are kept in line partly through subliminal messages and partly through poverty or social manipulation. Our hero, Nada (Roddy Piper) is an unemployed labourer travelling the country looking for work. Banks are closing, people losing homes. The country is a mess, and yet still the wealthy and powerful enjoy their penthouse suites looking down on starving masses below in food-bank ghettos. The poor masses have no idea of the truth, slaves to consumerism and the politics of greed as the middle-class is worn away and with it liberty and freewill. Nada stumbles upon an underground resistance network and discovers the truth- Aliens are here and they’ve already conquered the Earth. They live. We sleep.

Its a great film. Part social satire, part action thriller. The first twenty minutes or so are amongst the finest that Carpenter has ever done, depicting a world scary and familiar, and the ‘truth’ revealed by the sunglasses/Hoffman lenses is witty and shocking at the same time, a memorable sequence as Nada’s eyes are opened for the first time to the subliminal messages in books, magazines, billboard signs and money that have spun the aliens web of lies and injustice.

Its a great movie, and one of Carpenter’s most thought-provoking. Many times real-world events have made me think back to They Live and its premise.

Just hope it isn’t true. I mean sure, it’s patently ridiculous… and yet…


Prove to me it isn’t true.




One thought on “Revisiting They Live (1988)

  1. After this came up the other day, I’ve rented it from Amazon. Sounds right up my street, so I intend to get round to it sharpish (they give you 30 days, I have tendency to use them all!) Maybe this evening… though I’ve also noticed that The Swimmer (your recommendation of which has lingered at the back of my mind for the past 14 months(!)) is available on MUBI for just a couple more days. Time to use that free trial!

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