THEY LIVE (1988)

they live
A drifter discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to wake up to the fact that aliens have taken over the Earth.

John Carpenter grew up on a diet of 1950s science fiction B Movies, where the rampaging monsters and invading aliens were playing-out the nation’s Cold War paranoia. But they were still great movies and left a big enough impression for Carpenter to remake The Thing (1982), updating of one of his favourites, The Thing from Another World (1951).

With They Live, Carpenter wanted to push the envelope of what a science fiction film could do and redress the balance by using the theme of alien invasion to highlight the threat of capitalism at home, instead of communism from abroad. In the midst of rampant Reaganomics, he felt impelled to fight against the insidious invasion of the ‘yuppies’ and the brand of money-motivated amorality they espoused. Along with Repo Man (1984), The Terminator (1984), and RoboCop (1987), They Live was at the vanguard of cyberpunk counter-culture cinema.

They Live is one of the most insightful and relevant films to come out of the 1980s, and still trumps most other political satires by being completely clear and upfront about its central message: consumers are willing victims of a capitalist elite and give up the responsibility of free will in exchange for easy comforts. Or, as the film puts it, “We are their cattle, we are being bred for slavery.” Sadly, it’s hardly dated at all! It could just as easily be a reflection of the western world today.

The short story Eight O’clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson was first published in a 1963 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Its central character is your average working Joe, going about his daily grind when he seeks some light relief at a hypnotist stage show. At the end of the act, when the hypnotist says “wake up!” he fully regains consciousness for the first time in his life. He sees multi-eyed reptilian creatures among the audience. He soon learns that humanity has become a slave race serving the Fascinators—parasitic space aliens who live among us. They use hypnotic suggestion to control us by constantly emitting a subliminal bird-like noise and repeatedly whispering “Obey. Work.”

Nelson’s story was distilled into a short graphic version, titled Nada, by Bill Wray for the Alien Encounters comic in 1986. It’s there that John Carpenter was reminded of the story and found his inspiration for They Live. Just like the movie, the comic features posters proclaiming “Work 8 hours” and “Marry and reproduce”—a signal is broadcast constantly over television and radio repeating the phrase “we are your friends”. The film also retains the main character’s name, Nada (Spanish for ‘nothing’), and builds to a similar finale in which he infiltrates the control centre broadcasting the hypnotic signal. The final frame of the comic matches the final frame of the film: as the signal ceases, a young lady realises that aliens and human have become bedfellows. In her case, quite literally…

Although clearly based on Nelson’s original story, Carpenter worked it up into a much more cogent narrative. The ideas are fleshed-out more effectively, and the film version of Nada is far more likable than the violently paranoid protagonist of the comic. Whereas the comic’s political stance is somewhat ambiguous, there’s no mistaking what Carpenter is saying. (Although recently, he did have to publicly denounce a neo-Nazi faction who had attempted to appropriate the film’s message for their own purposes!) The film credits the screenplay to ‘Frank Armitage’ which is, of course, John Carpenter working under a clever pseudonym. The name is a tip-of-the-hat to H.P Lovecraft’s character Dr Armitage, in recognition of the horror writer’s parallel ideas of perceptual awakenings and aliens existing in a dimension that overlays our own.

As a freight train passes, Nada (pro-wrestler ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper), is revealed as ‘the drifter’—perhaps a little visual nod to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), only here he’s even more clearly serving the ‘the loner’ trope as well—there’s no posse to greet him. Carpenter is riffing on the great American Dream that, with sufficient gumption, anyone can work their way up from ‘nothing’ in a land of opportunities.

To begin with, Nada champions this worldview and has come to L.A in search of work. His easygoing stroll through the city’s mean streets sets the tone and pace for the improvised electro-jazz soundtrack, not surprisingly composed by John Carpenter, in collaboration with sound designer Alan Howarth.

After being turned down flat at the overburdened unemployment office, Nada’s physique soon lands him a job on a construction site. There he meets fellow labourer Frank (Keith David), who helps him out by introducing him to Justiceville, a small shanty town sheltering the homeless. It’s not unlike the many that sprang up in cities during the Great Depression of the 1930s and a big indication that, although the film may be relatively low-budget sci-fi fun, it’s making a point about social injustice. It’s worth noting that the many homeless inhabitants of the ‘town’, seen in the background, weren’t extras but genuine homeless folk fed like the rest of the film crew and paid for their time.

Nada notices some suspicious comings-and-goings at the little church across the street involving Gilbert (Peter Jason), the ‘head-honcho’ of Justiceville, and a blind street preacher (Raymond St. Jacques). Suspecting some sort of exploitation of the homeless may be afoot, he is compelled to investigate further and finds that the church is indeed a cover for some sort of covert operation. He discovers that the choir-singing is nothing but taped playback and what’s really going on is the secret manufacture of sunglasses. What!?

When riot police clear Justiceville with bulldozers, raid and burn the church, he realises there must be more to this than meets the eye… and he recovers a box of the sunglasses from the ruined building. They just seem to be standard sunglasses until he puts them on and then suddenly sees the world in black and white. Weird, right? Weirder still is that when he wears them on the street, they reveal subliminal messages all around.

Every advertising poster bears a simple command: OBEY, CONFORM, CONSUME, STAY ASLEEP, SUBMIT… money is simply plain white paper with THIS IS YOUR GOD printed across it. It’s like having consumer society explained with subtitles for the hard-of-thinking. As Marshall McLuhan famously said, “The Medium is the Message” and this key idea is literally written all over the film.

What’s more, Nada also sees that not everyone is human. The aliens among us look more like horror film zombies: cadaverous, lipless and skeletal. Their corruption suddenly made visible. It’s like they’re all Dorian Gray and he’s finally discovered their portrait—in this case, it’s not hidden away in a dusty attic, but obfuscated by the hypnotic power of the media they control.

It’s one of the most effective attacks on yuppiedom because it does it so clearly and graphically. It doesn’t mess about with subtle metaphors but cuts straight through the BS and says it like it is. When the evil capitalist elite are finally revealed as aliens, this could distance the threat—making it easier for viewers to dismiss the film’s core message as a far-fetched bit of sci-fi fun. What it does, though, is to turn our parasitic overlords into ‘the other’—using the same psychology that mass manipulators have tried again and again on an unsuspecting public. If you dehumanise a stratum of society, the working class, the immigrant, those of a different faith or skin tone, etc. it makes it easier to view them simply as statistics, as a commodity. This, of course, is what the Nazi regime attempted to do with the races they deemed inferior, such as the Jews. To create a common enemy, they dehumanised sectors of their own society.

Here the aliens, who are quite explicitly the middle-class bosses and industrialists, are eventually revealed to be inhuman in their origin as well as in their conduct and, in no uncertain terms, are the enemy of humankind.

Wearing the glasses enables Nada to see, but also induces a kind of madness. (We later find that the sunglasses are called Hofmann lenses—obviously a reference to Albert Hofmann, the scientist who first synthesised and experimented with LSD.) When he is apprehended by police, he loses it, kills the (alien) officers and arms himself with their pistols and a check-riot shotgun from their patrol car, before inadvertently entering a bank whilst trying to escape. This is when he speaks the iconic line that has since become a cultural meme. “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass …and I’m all out of bubblegum.” Apparently, Roddy Piper kept a little notebook for catchphrases he could use in the wrestling arena and this was an unused one that John Carpenter liked.

The other iconic scene (and I think I’m justified in using that term) follows shortly after when Nada tries to convince Frank to wear the Hofmann lenses and see what’s truly going on. Understandably, Frank just thinks Nada is crazy and wants nothing more to do with him. It takes 10-minutes of brutal back-alley brawling before Nada manages to get the glasses onto the face of his reluctant accomplice. This fight has gone down as one of the most well-known fist fights in cinema history, one to rival the similarly extended brawl between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen in The Quiet Man (1952).

Here, though, the fight takes on another level of meaning as it’s not between rivals, but between friends that really should be working together against a common enemy. The fact that the adversaries are black and white could be a comment on racial tensions stoked by the media and political factions to divert energies from other problems. They waste their energies against each other instead of directing them against their unscrupulous overlords. The fight scene was extensively rehearsed between Roddy Piper, who of course was a professional fighter, and Keith David, who had trained as a dancer and boxer. It’s very effective and must have been genuinely painful and risky—that’s a real back-alley, with real concrete! But the actors had built up so much trust between them they manage to make it convincing whilst giving it an emotional heart and moments of humour.

This was just the second feature for Roddy Piper, his debut being the comedy weird-western Hell Comes to Frogtown (1988) and he went on to make more than 20 films and continued as a pro-wrestler, notching up 7,000 appearances in the ring—a world record! Keith David had already worked with Carpenter in The Thing and still enjoys a varied and prolific career on television and the big screen. Meg Foster is also perfectly cast in the unexpectedly tough female lead, Holly, which is another character that flouts Hollywood conventions. Foster was a bit of a cult actress in the mid-1980s and 1990s, notable for her strikingly pale blue-green eyes. I remember her best in The Emerald Forest (1985) and Blind Fury (1989). She too has enjoyed a long and varied career and currently has four films in post-production. I feel a special mention should also go to stuntman Jeff Imada who makes a spectacular fall from a Hollywood Hills villa as Nada, and also plays most of the alien ghouls, of both genders.

Considering how bleak the theme of They Live is, it’s a hugely enjoyable work of pure entertainment. Which is why it’s built up a devout cult following and, 30 years on, remains a much-loved fan favourite. It strongly influenced Dark City (1998) and The Matrix (1999) and has been visually quoted many times in promo videos, most notably “BYOB“, a 2005 single by System of a Down, and the Foo Fighters 2007 hit “The Pretender“.

In the late ’80s, I was working in a video rental store in London and I noticed a couple of things. Firstly, They Live was a very popular title and rarely did any copies remain on the shelf at close of day. Secondly, the notes used to pay for its hire often had ‘this is your god’ written across them!

John Carpenter had already built a following with low-budget-high-return hits like Halloween (1978), The Fog (1980), Escape from New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and Prince of Darkness (1987). They Live opened in the No.1 slot at the box office and rapidly made more than $13M out of its comparatively meagre budget of just under $4M.

Now it’s been given the 4K treatment by StudioCanal and a new run in the cinemas as part of a set of four John Carpenter classics, the other three being Prince of Darkness, Escape From New York and The Fog. It’s great to see them uncut and cleaned up, I only hope these are just the first from his back catalogue to be so lovingly restored!

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they live

4K Ultra HD & Blu-ray Collector’s Edition Extras:

  • 4 discs (1 UHD, 1 Blu-ray feature, 1 Blu-ray extras, 1 CD Soundtrack) The 2018 restoration of They Live was made using the original camera negative which was scanned at 4K resolution in 16bit and the ACES workflow was applied to the restoration process which resulted in the creation of a 4K DCP, UHD version and a new HD version which were produced with the same high technological standards as today’s biggest international film releases. The restoration and new UHD version was colour graded and approved in Los Angeles by the Cinematographer, Gary B. Kibbe (ASC).
  • Audio Commentary with John Carpenter & Roddy Piper. This was the only extra available at the time of review and it’s well worth a listen. It’s like watching the film with a couple of old friends who haven’t seen each other in a while reminiscing about making the film. John Carpenter is pretty low-key but informative and is nicely complemented (and complimented) by Piper who shares lots of asides and behind-the-scenes trivia and gives insight into how he approached the character of Nada.
  • Subversion: Exposing John Carpenter’s They Live. A brand retrospective documentary produced by Ballyhoo Motion Pictures and featuring interviews with Associate producer Sandy King, cinematographer Gary Kibbe, actor Peter Jason, actor Robert Grasmere, composer Alan Howarth, stunt coordinator/Ghoul Jeff Imada, author Jonathan Letham, music historian Daniel Schweiger, Blumhouse editor Rebekah McKendry, and visual effects historian Justin Humphreys.
  • Original EPK: The Making of They Live (1988).
  • John Carpenter profile.
  • Meg Foster profile.
  • Roddy Piper profile.
  • Independent Thoughts with John Carpenter. A 2012 interview with director John Carpenter.
  • Woman of Mystery: Interview with Meg Foster. A 2012 interview with actress Meg Foster.
  • Man vs Aliens: Interview with Keith David. A 2012 interview with actor Keith David.
  • Fake commercials in the film.
  • TV spots.
  • Photo gallery.
  • 1 poster.
  • 5 art cards
  • 48-page book.

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Cast & Crew

director: John Carpenter.
writer: John Carpenter (as Frank Armitage).
starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David & Meg Foster.

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