Spoilers want some bubble gum.
I knew I would end up re-watching this one if I was doing a John Carpenter review. This is a classic 80’s movie that feels more like a short story for Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. It doesn’t have a ton of surprises, it’s got the conspiracy theorist seal of approval down to the shadow government level and yet it does have one aspect where it remains relevant to the day: It’s extremely subversive and anti-establishment at its core.
They Live (1988) was written and directed by John Carpenter based upon the short story “Eight O’Clock In The Morning” by Ray Nelson. It is the 80’s decade of excess and the world is divided in the people who have too much and those who have none. Roddy Piper plays Nada (literally “nothing” in Spanish), a drifter and newcomer to the city who is unemployed and searching for whatever he can get. He meets Frank (Keith Davis) who befriends and introduces him to a community of people surviving with scarce resources. Eventually he notices that some of them are harboring a secret in the nearby church which will reveal the world is not what it seems.
Spoilers, aliens are living amongst us and use hidden messages to keep as all compliant, consuming and law-abiding. Nada manages to find a box full of sunglasses capable of revealing both the messaging and the true nature of the aliens who pass as humans placed in the highest spheres of society. The messaging is literally revealed as phrases telling you to obey, consume, reproduce and stay asleep. When Nada learns this, it doesn’t take long until he’s targeted by law enforcement, who he learns by sight are mostly aliens as well.
It is subversive to the point that the social commentary it has can turn a little problematic. After he kills a few police officers, Nada goes in a rampage where it seems he’s almost having fun. He ends up taking a hostage, Holly Thompson (Meg Foster), who happens to work for a local TV news station and calls the cops on him. The image of Nada forcing Holly to drive away at gunpoint doesn’t make us want to empathize with him as a hero. Of course, this is Roddy Piper so we will get a pseudo-wrestling match when he tries to get Keith Davis’ Frank to put on the sunglasses. That five-and-half brawl is considered a highlight of the film.
I don’t hate it, but it does seem to drag along a bit. The social commentary feels patronizing and rather oversimplified. It hasn’t aged well. Nada is the all-american guy, working class, optimistic and well-intended. Everyone else needs his help because they’re scared. The moment he discovers the truth, he’s basically a superhero in the savior role (although he’s not the one that has been organizing the resistance, or discovering the tech, or broadcasting the signal, or anything). There are scenes like the one involving several police officers beating up a blind street preacher (Raymond St. Jacques) that can be quite disturbing to watch nowadays.
Recommended with reservations. It makes for a half-good late night watch, both for the comic feel and the campy silliness. I don’t want to write off the social commentary because it’s there and relevant even though it doesn’t always land. I do find the flow a bit stifling. Some moments are more fun than others. I don’t mind the 80’s cringe, but it does drag a bit after a while especially as it approaches the end. I believe it would’ve been better suited for a short format rather than a full feature but it has its classic lines and moments.
That will do for now.