They Live (1988)

They Live
Director: John Carpenter
Writer: Ray Nelson, John Carpenter
Cast: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George ‘Buck’ Flower, Peter Jason, Raymond St. Jacques
Seen on: 22.9.2022

Nada (Roddy Piper) is looking for a job, and also, if he can get it, housing. He finds the former at a construction site where he meets Frank (Keith David) who shows him to the local charities where he can get a hot meal and a roof over his head. Nada, curious and observant, notices that something is going on at the charity and stumbles upon a box of special sunglasses that he tucks away – just in time before a police razzia flattens the entire tent village and goes after the charity. When Nada puts on the sunglasses, he realizes why: the glasses show him a secret world filled with creatures that seek to control humanity – and are very successful at it. Nada needs to do something about it.

They Live is another Carpenter classic and definitely still a banger. It’s not subtle in its criticism, and that’s quite awesome, actually. I really liked it.

The film poster showing a close up of Nada's (Roddy Piper) eye. He is pulling away sunglasses. In their glass, a skullfaced creature is mirrored.

They Live has become quite the cult classic, so there’s probably no shock anymore in what Nada discovers when he puts on the sunglasses. What is still shocking though, is how little the anti-capitalism criticism in it has lost of its actuality. If anything, it has become more accurate, more timely. And that is both sad and infuriating and just makes They Live still necessary. Unfortunately the ending is a little too optimistic: the monsters have long shown their real faces, and it hasn’t changed much in the power balance. But I’d rather take the optimism than a feeling of inevitability.

Some parts of it are rather cheesy, especially from today’s perspective. And I have to admit that the scene where Nada beats Frank into putting on the glasses – that seems to go on forever and ever – had me rolling my eyes a lot. It seems such a dudebro way of handling a disagreement and I do wonder whether there hadn’t been a better way to do it. At least it does serve to show how hard people will fight not to see the problem(s) around them. Anyway, if that’s my biggest gripe with the film, that’s not much. And I loved Holly’s (Meg Foster) reaction to Nada in her car and her home.

Nada (Roddy Piper) putting on sunglasses in a bookstore.

They Live takes its time to show how dire the situation is in a realistic way before really going into the speculative element. That also includes the solidarity people show each other and how they’re willing to help, if you let them. And how little that solidarity can be left to stand by the powerful and the authorities.

In any case, They Live is a good time, criticism and all. I really liked the creature design and the outlandish turn the story takes that should feel much more absurd than it does. The soundtrack – by Carpenter again – has its charm but isn’t his best work. They Live, as a whole, is among my Carpenter favorites though.

Two skull-faced creatures talking into their watches.

Summarizing: still worth seeing.

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