‘They Live’ (1988) 30 Years On

 John Carpenter’s most nakedly political film is is not just about politics but about the cynical nature of humanity itself, writes Iain Macleod.

“It was designed as an attack on Reaganomics, a system of policies that resulted in grinding the working and lower classes down and it works equally well today as Donald Trump offers meaningless promises to a group of people who think he speaks for them but is only after himself, no matter what damage he causes to the world.”

There was usually an undercurrent of political commentary running through John Carpenter’s films. Whether it was the flower power generation finding themselves wandering aimlessly through the galaxy in Dark Star, the corrupt foundations of the town of Antonio Bay in The Fog or the near satirical conceit of the President of the United States of America stranded and imprisoned in the prison island of Manhattan in Escape From New York. Even in his most comedic film, Big Trouble In Little China, the film’s hero, Jack Burton, is all mouth, swagger and little else, a direct contrast to the exaggeratedly muscle bound action heroes of 80’s American cinema.

At the end of the 1980s, after two terms of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and the beginning of Bush Sr’s term, Carpenter removed any sense of undercurrent or subtext and tackled the upper and ruling classes head on with They Live, the most nakedly political film of his career. Watching it thirty years on it is hard to decide whether it is a science fiction film with political overtones or a political film with science fiction overtones. Today in 2018 there still isn’t a definitive answer, especially when it seems more prescient and relevant than ever.

Studio Canal’s lavish Blu-ray release highlights these concerns as well as everything else that often made Carpenter’s works a highlight of 80’s genre cinema; Dean Cundey’s cinematography, a score co-composed with Alan Howarth, a lean and punchy script, written under the pseudonym of Frank Armitage, that wastes no time in getting to the point, a no-nonsense protagonist and a neat premise, which boiled down to its essential components is as follows; homeless man gets sunglasses, discovers capitalist aliens run the world and isn’t in the least bit happy about it.

If for some reason you have yet to experience They Live and think that I have made it sound like a polemical piece more than anything else worry not, there are still vicarious thrills to be had; from the design of the aliens; bug eyed, fleshless and exposed teeth in 80’s power suits or police uniforms and one of the longest, greatest and most absurd fight scenes ever, which was later parodied to great effect in South Park. It is a fight scene that the lead actor, Roddy Piper, carries off in a brutally graceful way thanks in no small part to his wrestling background.

His hulking presence is complemented by a naturalistic and sympathetic performance of a man who finds himself in a situation way out of his control yet charges headlong into anyway. This is a man betrayed by the system; “I deliver a hard day’s work for my money. I just want a chance. It’ll come. I believe in America. I follow the rules.” He makes this statement to his fellow homeless construction worker Frank, Keith David, only to find there is nothing to believe in and the only rules are the ones meant to keep him in his place, down at the bottom with no hope of getting away from it.

This betrayal leads to an often cynical and subversive exercise in sci-fi action cinema. We are on Nada’s side as he finds himself in a bank declaring open season on the aliens and blasts away with his shotgun. He literally sees things in black and white, thanks to the truth revealing sunglasses, but innocent bystanders only see a lunatic opening fire on people withdrawing and depositing their wages and savings. The thin blue line of law and order is exposed for what it is as they demolish a shanty town and batter and cripple innocent bystanders under a barrage of riot sticks and body shields when confronted with no resistance. All the while television screens are in every other shot, keeping the general populace sedated with promises of a better, glamourous life that’s never going to come, while the real message of CONFORM, MARRY AND REPRODUCE keep us all in line while we slave away for dollar bills marked with THIS IS YOUR GOD.

It was designed as an attack on Reaganomics, a system of policies that resulted in grinding the working and lower classes down and it works equally well today as Donald Trump offers false hope and meaningless promises to a group of people who think he speaks for them but is only after himself, no matter what damage he causes to the world. It was no coincidence that posters depicting Trump as one of the aliens declaring to Make America Great Again surfaced throughout the U.S. on billboards in resistance to his presidential campaign in 2016. Sadly, not enough people took notice and “They” won and real life seems to get just as sinister as a John Carpenter film by the day. Minus the benefit of a cool soundtrack.

It is hard not to be reminded of this when watching They Live. One scene where Nada and Frank stumble upon a gala dinner where the aliens and their fellow conspirers “the human power elite” boast of “per-capita income… grown by an average of 39%” recalls the power and sway of the 1% here in the real world. By the time Nada is led into a television studio where the aliens sit behind a news desk the origins of fake news seem to become distressingly apparent, leading one to wonder if Carpenter was actually trying to warn us all those years ago. Too bad we were too busy enjoying ourselves too much to notice.

The more than generous helping of special features included on the Blu-ray pay testament to the film and its message. Carpenter is his usual delightfully irascible self, particularly when asked if he ever had concerns that the earlier mentioned fight scene was too long his reply is beautifully eloquent; “Fuck no!” In a brand-new documentary author Jonathan Lethem is just one of many contributors on hand to discuss the film and its influence and producer Sandy King underlines the dark heart at the centre of the film by stating that it is not just a film about politics but about the cynical nature of humanity itself. Being ground down and oppressed has never been so entertaining and exciting.


 ‘They Live’ 4K Restoration (STUDIOCANAL) received its theatrical release on 26 October 2018 and Blu-Ray Release 29 October 2018 including 4-disc Collector’s Edition.

 Iain MacLeod was raised on the North coast of Scotland on a steady diet of 2000AD and Moviedrome. Now living in Glasgow as a struggling screenwriter he still buys too many comics and blu-rays. Has never seen a ghost but heard two talking in his bedroom when he was 4.

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