THEY LIVE (1988)
Directed by John Carpenter
Nada, a drifter, finds himself in the middle of a war between a group of activists on his camp site and the police. After everything calms down enough to return to his temporary lodgings safely, he manages to whip a box of what the activists were stashing in the local church and distributing to the neighbourhood but inside the box all he finds are sunglasses. Eventually deciding to slip on a pair, he discovers the world as he has never seen it before; slogans plastered all over billboards, magazines, signposts and even dollar bills, instructing people to obey and be submissive. The glasses also reveal the true faces of the elite who walk around him and they’re definitely not of this world! With the true reality finally dawning on him, Nada seeks to find other unenlightened individuals and the surviving activists to help spread the word and awaken fellow humans to the horrific reality of their existence. However, it seems that the aliens themselves have a few tricks of their own and will do everything in their power to keep their identity a secret and humans in their place.
John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE may have been made 30 years ago but it’s relevance could not be truer today. With its lead character discovering that we are actually all being brainwashed by capitalists via consumerism to keep us distracted from the real truths fuelled by money and power, THEY LIVE is not only a sci-fi action bonanza but a scary reflection of the world we live in. Granted, our versions may not be aliens (or maybe they are), but one things for certain: it’s definitely those that have (power, wealth, political standing) controlling the have-nots, and what’s frightening in Nada’s world is that most people are oblivious to this notion and are merely just trying to survive to realise the truth. In the movie, the alien overlords that walk amongst us cannot be seen by the naked eye as their signals infect our senses via radiowaves, TV and visual stimulants. The only way to see the truth without jamming their signals is to use the sunglasses which the resistance activists have created. The glasses themselves don’t look special, just some standard black plastic shades, which is why Nada is bewildered by his find initially. It’s only when he wanders out onto the busy street with them on does he realise what he’s seeing.
I remember first watching THEY LIVE and was in awe at the statements it was making. It seemed so switched on to reality and has been the subject of many discussions I’ve had regarding media brainwashing and swaying opinions of its viewers, especially lately. The material is prime to be adapted as a TV series but it seems director John Carpenter may be looking at a sequel instead. Either way, there’s scope for the plot to be explored further than what is has been in the movie and I’d very much like to see what either John or someone else staying true to the narrative could come up with.
On the surface of the film itself, not much really happens in THEY LIVE. A blend of action, sci-fi and thriller, I always watch it expecting there to be more to the screenplay than there actually is. Besides from Nada chewing bubblegum and kicking ass (and he’s all outta bubblegum), and fighting his way out of the shitstorm he discovers, the film lacks real character depth and feels as though it’s only just scratched the surface. Not that it matters much though because the key elements are already in place to get you thinking. The reveal of the billboard slogans and the aliens themselves are enough to keep you glued to the screen, especially with their skull-like features, huge bauble eyes and advanced watch technology (I’m waiting for Apple or Huawei to add teleportation to their smart watch devices). If you were to slip on a pair of shades and be greeted with a sighting like that, I’m sure you wouldn’t act rationally either and lead character Nada is no exception.
With NWA and WWF professional wrestler ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper starring as drifter-cum-construction worker Nada, it’d be a crime for him not to show off his wrestling prowess and so we’re treated to one of the longest fistfights in cinematic history as he and Keith David punch, grapple and slam each other into the floor as Piper’s Nada tries to convince David’s Frank to put on the sunglasses. The fight outstays its welcome by more than a few minutes – even as a fight fan myself I wished it was shorter. However, this elongated brawl is jam packed full of humour and daftness in its presentation and has become one of the most memorable scenes in the movie and only adds to the film’s oddball charm. It’s even been spoofed several times in popular culture such as Duke Nukem and South Park.
There’s a lot of love out there for THEY LIVE and it’s great to see Studiocanal giving it a 4K release to be proud of. The DVD version only sports a commentary so it’s recommended that you opt for the limited edition 4K release instead which comes with 4K Ultra HD disc, a Blu-Ray disc featuring the films, a special features Blu-Ray and the soundtrack CD. This four disc collection also comes with a collectable booklet and art cards.
Thrilling, thought-provoking and with just the right amount of 80’s cheese, THEY LIVE is one movie I’m happy to consume and obey.