They Live Review
John Carpenter is one of my favourite directors, and while everyone knows Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, and The Thing, They Live is one that tends to fly under the radar for a lot of people. A weird sci-fi action satirical blend and starring a wrestler it sounds like a weird one to get your head around, but its themes remain relevant.
A drifter, whose name is only given as “Nada” in the credits of the film, arrives in Los Angeles looking for work. The social situation is tense and after finding a pair of sunglasses Nada tries them on and sees that things are not rose-tinted. Aliens have secretly taken over and hidden themselves amongst the rich and powerful, brainwashing the general public into complacency and ignorance. While they live, we sleep.
This isn’t exactly the most subtle movie ever. Carpenter was, and still is, pretty upfront about the fact that this is a criticism of the Reagan Capitalist American landscape, Carpenter even had the film released in the election season to emphasise this. Homeless and down on their luck lower class people struggling to get work and an increasingly corrupt upper class exploiting them and doing everything to make sure those lower classes stay in “their place”. Is this 1988 or 2018 we’re talking about here? Perhaps this is why They Live is one of the few Carpenter films that a modern sequel or remake would work for - after the new Halloween - as its message is still very much relevant.
The themes of the film also extend to the look of the aliens themselves. Instead of something sleek or classically science fiction they are essentially rotting corpses; the corruption and decay at the root of society. The use of black and white visuals - once the shades-wearer sees the truth - gives the movie moments that seem to be referencing classic science fiction serials or The Twilight Zone, a show which was no stranger to mixing fantasy with social commentary. Some of the first images of the aliens through the glasses, particularly the first seen by the newsstand and the slowly advancing group of them in the grocery store, are genuinely unsettling. The latter seems to be particularly evocative of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Also, by showing things in stark black and white in order to show us the truth of things implies how the aliens have colourised and covered over the true nature of what’s happening.
Whilst we are used to wrestlers making the transition into movies these days the choice of WWE, then WWF, star “Rowdy” Roddy Piper is one that works in the movie’s favour. Piper had only been in a couple of movies before this one and so the casting of him, intentionally or not, makes a statement of the unknown everyman, which is perfect for a story like this and is reflected in Piper’s performance.
The name Nada even literally means “nothing”, he is the lone hero standing against the mass in many ways. Carpenter composed the score, as with many of his films, and it has a Western vibe in places mixed with the Science Fiction riffs, which also fits with the character, think of the loner drifter archetype, in most Westerns, coming into town as something big begins to happen. It has an element that would have been lost had someone like Carpenter stalwart and bearer of the greatest hair in Hollywood Kurt Russell been cast in the role as had been considered at one point.
A familiar face does turn up, however in the form of The Thing’s Keith David - he plays Frank, Nada’s newfound friend. The single greatest fight scene in 80s cinema history follows as Nada tries to convince Frank to use the glasses and see the aliens. It was intended to be only about half a minute, but Roddy Piper and Keith David rehearsed extensively and with the exception of the face and groin shots each gave the other free reign to fully hit. When he saw the amount of material that David and Piper provided for him Carpenter extended the scene to six minutes and it remains one of the most curiously entertaining moments of the movie.
It is wonderful that They Live is getting re-evaluated by a lot of people, helped by its cinematic reissue, as it is a great film with some really entertaining and clever ideas, but one can’t help but wish it wasn’t looking so familiar to today’s climate.