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They Live (1988)

May 2nd, 2007 · 9 Comments

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An unnamed drifter (Roddy Piper) wanders into L.A. looking for work. He finds no hope at the unemployment office, but after getting hired on at a construction site, accompanies a co-worker named Frank (Keith David) to a squatter’s camp located across from a church.

Amid destitution in the city, strange things are afoot. A blind street preacher prophesizes, “They have us. They control us. They are our masters. Wake up!” TV signals are hijacked by pirate broadcasters who warn, “They are safe as long as they’re not discovered.” The volunteer who runs the camp makes suspicious visits to the church, which our hero discovers is the source of the broadcasts.

The LAPD raze the camp. The drifter discovers a box hidden in the church, which contains sunglasses. He slips on a pair. Seeing in black and white now, all billboards, signs and advertising have been replaced with messages like “Obey,” “Marry and reproduce” or “Sleep.” Cash reads “This is your God.” He also notices that walking among us are bug-eyed aliens passing themselves off as human.

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The drifter is taken aback by this, and comes to the attention of the aliens. He grabs some firearms off some alien cops and finds himself in a bank, half human and half alien. “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass,” he announces. “And I’m all out of bubblegum.” A massive alien shooting spree ensues.

Our hero escapes with a woman (Meg Foster) and later, tries to convince Frank to put on the sunglasses. After a knock down drag out fight, Frank’s eyes are open. They find other insurgents and target the alien transmitter, which conceals the true natures of the occupiers, who want mankind to mindlessly consume and not ask questions.

Director John Carpenter had been burned at least twice by working for the major studios, and sought a return to his low budget roots. He signed a five-picture deal with Alive Films, a subsidiary of Universal. As long as he kept to a tight budget, Carpenter was guaranteed creative control. Only two of the five proposed films – Prince of Darkness and this one – ended up being made, and while flawed, both came from outside the studio system and were highly unconventional.

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They Live was based on a story from the Alien Encounters comic book called Nada, and a short story called Eight O’Clock In The Morning by Ray Nelson, which concerned a man being put under hypnosis by a stage magician. When he awakens, he discovers aliens are controlling our lives.

Carpenter adapted the screenplay – throwing in his feelings about America’s consumer culture – and employed the pseudonym “Frank Armitage” as a writing credit, due to the fact that so many sources were used to write the picture. Perhaps due to the lack of stars, or the content, it was not a hit at the box office, but became an instant cult classic, and remains a favorite among Carpenter fans.

Behind Escape From New York, The Thing and Halloween, They Live belongs up there with Carpenter’s best work. It’s one of the most unapologetically nihilistic films ever made, a success both as an exciting shoot ’em up, and a subversive thriller, like the type Paul Verhoeven stopped making after RoboCop.

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Released during George Bush’s run-up to election, the social climate in the picture is as harsh as you can get. The underclass are flashed an abundance of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” messages on TV and are implored to spend money. Carpenter clearly found the decade’s consumer culture reprehensible and made a pretty amusing critique of it.

It’s taken me a while to appreciate how cool this film is, but I love it. As in most sci-fi flicks, there is a definite element of cheese here, particularly the 5 minute long alley brawl between Piper and David that recalls something out of Wrestlemania. It takes a stretch of the imagination to see how any of that really fit within the film, but I thought it was pretty funny.

The music – by Carpenter and Alan Howarth – is appropriately down and dirty. Carpenter is one of the all time great filmmakers for making a dollar out of fifteen cents, and made $4 million go a long way here. Even the effects hold up well. Piper is surprisingly strong as the lead. His oft quoted “bubblegum” line was apparently his invention, a sound byte he’d thought up for interviews during his “Rowdy” Roddy days with the WWF.

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Tags: Alternate universe · Based on novel · Crooked officer · Cult favorite · Famous line · Femme fatale · Paranoia · Shootout

9 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Becca // May 3, 2007 at 8:22 pm

    I didn’t know that this was based on a comic! How interesting! Damn this is a great movie.

  • 2 Piper // May 5, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    This is among my favorite Carpenter movies, but probably towards the bottom. You’re right about the fight that it really has nothing to do with anything else, but it’s fun as hell.

    While I’m a huge Carpenter fan, I don’t know why he didn’t finish out his deal with Alive Films. Maybe because this and Prince Of Darkness didn’t do as well.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // May 5, 2007 at 3:46 pm

    Neither this film or Prince of Darkness were the return investment that Alive Films had been expecting, a la Halloween. Carpenter and his wife Sandy King had a script called Victory Out Of Time that involved time travel and particle physics or something along those lines that they had wanted to make after They Live. Alive wasn’t interested, breaking the deal terms they had made with the director. The lawyers got involved and this probably led to Carpenter directing the next best thing that came along, which was Memoirs of an Invisible Man.

  • 4 Piper // May 7, 2007 at 5:25 am

    Interesting. I had no idea.


  • 5 Jackson // Apr 2, 2008 at 8:32 pm

    “…particularly the 5 minute long alley brawl between Piper and David that recalls something out of Wrestlemania. It takes a stretch of the imagination to see how any of that really fit within the film, but I thought it was pretty funny.”

    I think it was a pretty crucial scene. Roddy was shocked and overwhelmed by what he saw when he wore the sunglasses. He wanted his new friend Frank to ‘just put them on”. Frank, like many Americans, wants no part of seeing the Truth; he just wants to keep his head down, do his job, send some money to his wife and kids, who have to live in another city. He really, really, really did not want to ‘see’. Hence the knock down, drag out fight to *force* him to put on the damn glasses.

    I think it was a statement about most people content to ignore the ugly truths around them, as long as they have a job, some food, some money.

    “I’m *not* putting on the damn glasses.”

    If Roddy had lost the fight (he almost did), the movie would have been over :-) And yeah, a lot of those moves looked painful, especially on pavement.

  • 6 voltare // Apr 3, 2008 at 7:12 pm

    yeah….a great movie; still one of favorites.

  • 7 overconsumer // Jul 24, 2008 at 10:35 am

    on some level, i think subconsciously, that’s where my stickers come from. the whole mindless consumption and waste that so many prescribe to everyday…

    anyways, that fight scene was so funny! I agree with Jackson, but that scene was long. I heard a rumor somewhere that it was staged (of course) at first but turned real toward the end…

  • 8 apostolos // Dec 30, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    This is the best film ever!Its all true and i wish carpenter or holywood should be making these kind of movies.No special effects stae wars crap
    thats it! i am out!

  • 9 bob // Jun 1, 2011 at 1:49 am

    i just got the b ray import i love this movie it all true the gov lies to u

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