With Roddy Piper’s passing last year, I thought it came time for me to finally have my say about this amazing film. Despite being a big fan of both The Thing & Big Trouble in Little China, there’s quite a few other features from John Carpenter that I haven’t touched yet, mainly Halloween and his other horror classics (which will hopefully change soon). They Live was also in that category, but that all changed for me in 2014 and I’m all the better for it. The film is a triumph in so many ways that I find myself unable to write anything that would do it justice. However, I find that They Live’s greatest quality is also its most foreboding as it makes more relevance to us now than it ever did in 1988.
This quality that I am referring to is (if this makes sense) its timelessness. John Carpenter was NOT a fan of Ronald Reagan during the 1980s and wanted to create a sci-fi ‘fuck you’ film where we’re shown an impoverished L.A. full of haves and have-nots. The haves being a bunch of yuppies while the have-nots are the multi-ethnic working poor and homeless. Drawing inspiration from H.P. Lovecraft and a variety of other stories and graphic novels, John Carpenter decided to give this story a twist where our would be hero, a nameless, job-seeking drifter portrayed by Piper, stumbles onto a dark plot. One in which the working poor are bred as both labor and cattle for the 1%.
Little by little in the film, we’re shown an America that is depleted of hope and opportunity. Wherever Roddy Piper turns, he finds a lack of work, a whole lotta bums and the watchful eye of the Police on every corner. Yet when he looks up, he sees skyscrapers one after the other like watchtowers. His buddy Frank (portrayed with perfection by the legendary Keith David) tells him the score, but Piper says, “I just want the chance. It’ll come. I believe in America,” like he’s down, but not out. That line of thinking from Piper soon goes to the shitter once he stumbles onto a special pair of Ray-Bans. Once they’re on, these specs also allow Piper to see things no one else can. Colors go black and white. Billboards on the street carry subliminal messages. Store fronts bark out orders. Codes and rules are hidden in dollar bills and magazines, but the worse is when he sees those yuppie fucks for what they really are.
Starting off with a slow but focused build up in the beginning, They Live soon accelerates at a very tight but even pace which makes you wonder why movies these days can’t do more in only 90+ minutes. The film has great special effects, imaginative make-up, an awesome 5 minute fight scene and a ton of memorable, bubblegum-chewing one liners (which I won’t spoil here). In addition, the film accomplishes all of this under a tight budget without preaching to any choir (literally). Films nowadays seem to rely so much on spoken narration for everything that it’s awesome to see something that just lays it all out for you to decipher on your own.
Technical merits aside, we circle back to They Live’s most important quality again, and that is its relevance or timelessness. I first viewed the film as the protests in Ferguson, Missouri grew louder and louder, and the film’s raid scene in particular had an emotional effect on me as I started to wonder if the police depicted in the film were any different from the ones on Call-of-Duty mode around St. Louis. Trump and Cruz continue to wage their war of hate words on TV for the 2016 GOP nomination and I wonder if they truly are as ghastly as John Carpenter’s yuppies. And as the shadow of corporate power looms larger over the American political process, it makes me wonder why so much of this country’s disastrous greed continuous to ‘feed’ on us with impunity. They Live paints a surreal yet familiar landscape for us where the madness on-screen now becomes indistinguishable from the reality around us. That, my friends, is frightening.