Film Review: THEY LIVE (1988)

THEY LIVE ***** USA 1988 Dir: John Carpenter. 95 mins

Carpenter’s most enduring sci-fi movie is this frighteningly prescient Reagan-era political satire, following drifter Roddy Piper, who believes in America and is happy to follow the rules. He joins a working homeless community incorporating Carpenter regulars George “Buck” Flower and Peter Jason, who leads the subversives on a mission to expose the truth. Police helicopters offer constant Big Brother surveillance and dim-witted starlets dominate lowest-common-denominator television; a blind street preacher and the perceptive homeless are seemingly the only ones questioning the control of the rich and powerful. The poor are getting poorer, industries are dying and silent, zombie-like police subject key “subversives” to horrific beatings. All this before Piper gets hold of the mysterious sunglasses that allow him to see the reality behind their daily existence.

The consumerist satire inherent in modern horror / sci-fi like DAWN OF THE DEAD and NIGHT OF THE COMET is at the core of Carpenter’s script, depicting an alien race travelling between planets in the hope of finding widespread indifference and thus easily overpower the middle class, offering wealth in exchange for slavery. In a timely spin on INVASION OF THE BODYSNATCHERS, subliminal messages lurk in everything our materialistic, media-worshipping culture devours: billboards and products instruct us to Obey, Work Eight Hours, Surrender, Do Not Question and to have “No ideas”. Key subversives end up doing just that for the sake of a quiet life (“We all sell out every day – might as well be on the winning team”) and the film is as pessimistic as another Carpenter update of 50’s sci-fi, THE THING. It was initially famed for a brilliantly staged ode to male stubbornness in the form of a five minute fight sequence between Piper and THE THING’s Keith David in which both men end up looking sore and silly thanks entirely to David’s repeated refusal to PUT THE GODDAM GLASSES ON. In the decade of machine-like musclemen, mulleted Piper conveys likeability and vulnerability in a role that Kurt Russell might have played had the budget allowed, but the sarcastic “happy ending” casually kills him off all the same. The director’s final savaging of “The Man” takes the form of a hilarious closing montage involving a TV discussion of violent cinema that namechecks both Carpenter and Romero. In the age of Trump and co., this has never seemed so relevant.

Review by Steven West

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