Written & Directed by John Carpenter
Based on the short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson
Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, Peter Jason, and George “Buck” Flower
A drifter discovers a pair of sunglasses that allow him to wake up to the fact that aliens have taken over the Earth.
This is one of my favorite movies from this era and genre. I love me some Roddy Piper. I was already a huge fan of Carpenter, but adding Piper to the mix just made me love him that much more. They Live is an iconic film for a lot of reasons, but it’s mostly known for the cool Obey posters used as part of the movie’s subliminal mind control propaganda.
Nada (Piper) is a rugged, sad sack transient that comes to Los Angeles seeking a job. Transient, but clearly not a bum, Nada lands a job on a construction site. It’s there he takes his shirt off in the hot sun. Whatever contractual obligation wrestlers have to be shirtless is obviously policed with a heavy hand. Nada meets a friendly guy named Frank (Keith David) and he’s invited back to a commune of sorts, a kind of communal flop house. As the friendship grows, the subterfuge boils closer to the surface, giving our protagonists plenty of work.
Nada dons a pair of specially made sunglasses and suddenly all that was hidden is revealed. Taking a stroll down the street or watching a simple television commercial instantly becomes a test of will. The aliens and their cloaked mission becomes crystal clear. Posters, signs, and ads are everywhere, much like our real lives. The strange properties of the sunglasses show words and images not before seen. A poster for a new car might suddenly change to a black and white print with simple block lettering. You could see everything from “CONSUME”, “OBEY”, “SLEEP”, or even “REPRODUCE” with a cursory glance. The aliens have an agenda that quickly becomes clear when the sunglasses-producing resistance attacks.
Even in 1988 a parallel between the fictional CONSUME ad campaign and actual advertising looked eerily familiar. In this everything-now society where we carry thousands of ads a day in our purses and pockets, some would say the message within They Live is even more accurate in this new age of instant gratification. Are we a society of sleeping, placated knuckle-draggers? It gives us pause, does it not? Even if the message is lost on you (hopefully not), the film still has a bevy of killer fights and one-liners. No one forgot Piper’s classic “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum.” Now that’s a statement from a gun-wielding weightlifter you can worry about. Fans of fist fights and wrestling will enjoy the multiple types of suplexes used in one drawn out brawl.
I know many younger folks haven’t seen this classic, and that’s okay. I’m still catching up with films made before I was born, even after I was born. It’s cool as long as you swear to add this to your list. It’s Halloween season, there’s never going to be a better time.
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