Thursday, September 19, 2019

Off Script: They Live

Film: They Live
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

Why is it that John Carpenter doesn’t get the respect that he has clearly earned? Sure, some of his movies are terrible, but that’s true of just about every director you can think of. Carpenter has made some incredibly influential and important films as well. Horror wouldn’t be the genre it is without Halloween and The Thing, and movies like Escape from New York and Big Trouble in Little China are rightfully cult classics. That’s the position of the film The Live, a relatively low-budget science fiction/horror film that can be easily referenced by just about anyone with any knowledge of either of those two genres.

It’s also worth noting that the story itself is a classic. The film is based on a short story called “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, but it’s not an uncommon theme. There’s a little bit of Invasion of the Body Snatchers here, for instance. Stephen King fans might know a short story of his called “The Ten O’Clock People” that is a slightly different version of the same story—enough that it almost feels like plagiarism. Even The Matrix has its roots set at least partly in They Live. Its influence is in many ways all out of proportion to the film that we have.

An unnamed drifter (called Nada in the end credits and played by former WWF wrestler Roddy Piper) wanders into an unnamed West Coast city looking for work. He finds employment on a construction site, where he meets Frank (Keith David). When the work day is done, Frank invites Nada back to a place he calls Justiceville, which is essentially a shantytown inhabited by other drifters, homeless people, and bums, although it also appears to be more of a collective than anything else. The group seems to get some help from a nearby church, but a little investigation from Nada shows that the church appears to be a front for a subversive organization producing both a broadcast and what appears to be sunglasses.

That church eventually gets raided, and Nada escapes only to find a pair of the sunglasses. When he puts them on, two things happen. The first is that the world suddenly appears in black-and-white. The second is that Nada becomes aware of subliminal messages everywhere. Billboards, magazines, television, and just about everything else are, with the glasses on, massive signs with banners reading “sleep,” “obey,” and “consume.” Additionally, many of the wealthy people in the city are actually bug-eyed, humanoid aliens.

The second half of the film concerns Nada reacting to his new-found knowledge, which involves the killing of a couple of alien cops and an impromptu raid on a bank. He also temporarily kidnaps a woman named Holly Thompson (Meg Foster, the woman with the creepiest eyes in film history). He also manages to track down Frank and, after an epic fistfight, recruits him to fighting against the aliens that are infesting the planet.

There’s a great deal to like with They Live. In fact, there are a lot of good ideas here, and because of this, it’s easy to overlook the real problems that the film has. Virtually all of these problems (but not all) appear in the final third of the film. The issue is that the action scenes simply don’t work. Nada and Frank eventually find themselves in a series of firefights with the aliens, and these have the distinct ring of bad ‘70s action movies. Both are armed with machine guns, and when aliens are encountered, they spray bullets in all directions, killing everything they see and never being hit in return. Seriously, they don’t even aim. It becomes comic in its own way. Earlier, in his first violent encounter with the aliens, Nada kills two police officers in an alley in broad daylight and no one seems to notice.

But these problems, while I can’t overlook them, pale in comparison to just how much fun there is in this film. Roddy Piper, for a guy who is probably going to be best remembered as one of the greatest heels in professional wrestling history, is surprisingly compelling in the role of Nada. There’s a world weariness to his performance that works perfectly, and he’s a great counterpoint to Keith David, who I almost always like on screen. The fistfight, which goes on for more than five minutes, is a classic scene, and while it does perhaps go on too long, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

But it’s the ideas here and the execution of those ideas that really make the film work. The idea that American consumerism is actually controlled subliminally is hardly new, but the reveal of this is tremendous and chilling. Seeing “This is your god” written across the face of a dollar bill is a great moment, both effective in the scene and clear commentary on the Reagan era. They Live manages to be both wildly entertaining and as clear a condemnation of the greed-obsessed ‘80s as a film like Wall Street.

Despite its flaws, They Live is a hard film not to love. My guess is that most of the readers of this blog have seen it, but that for many of them, it’s been some time. Track it down and watch it again. Really. While the action scenes aren’t as good as you remember, the social comments are more relevant now and are better than you remember.

Why to watch They Live: It’s every bit the commentary on consumerism that Romero made with Dawn of the Dead, but easier to recognize.
Why not to watch: The action sequences are really, really weak.


  1. I love this film. In fact, I think Carpenter's run from 1974's Dark Star (very underrated) to 1988's They Live is untouchable. Even the TV films like Someone's Watching Me and Elvis all display that element of brilliance that Carpenter was known for. Add 1994's In the Mouth of Madness and you have the body of work of a filmmaker who I feel should be up there with the greats. I just love what he does.

    I love that fistfight between Piper and David and the fact that it even inspired a sort of shot-by-shot remake on South Park of all things.

    1. I have long contended that many horror directors don't get the respect they deserve, and the club of those with last names starting with C--Craven, Cronenberg, and Carpenter--are all perfect examples of this. Sure, Carpenter did some crap later in his career, but he made some films that still hold up today as well as they did when they were made.

      In the era you've covered, I've seen all but a couple (include the made-for-TV films), and I find it hard to disagree with you. Even the lesser films in this run like The Fog are worth seeing and retain a sort of camp joy to them.

      The fact that Halloween, Starman, The Thing, Escape from New York, and Big Trouble in Little China all came from the same mind from the same 10 or so years is pretty staggering.

  2. This is on my list of films to see, so I'm going to wait to reply until I've seen it. :-)