It is extremely rare for a film with B-Movie aesthetics to be a timeless classic, it’s even more rare when a film which contains corny one-liners is important to cinema and society. John Carpenter’s They Live is just that; an oxymoronic, crude yet brilliant science fiction masterpiece, and if you haven’t seen it I urge you to seek it out.
What makes the film a classic is the storyline, which surrounds the lead character John Nada (played by the late Roddy Piper) finding a pair of sunglasses which allow the wearer to see the true world; a place overrun and controlled by an alien social elite who make all the decisions and sit in all places of power. The humans are oblivious to these lies and blind to the falsities of their existence, most of the ordinary folk are unwitting slaves of the system and a few even sell-out their human brethren in order to move up the hierarchy (toward but never equal to the alien overlords). This world is not too dissimilar to our own, and if you take a closer look at our own existence you’ll begin to notice that certain people, certain bloodlines, and certain classes control almost all aspects of our lives. The upper class are constantly chipping away at the lower classes as the divide between the rich and poor increases and the only way people from working and middle class backgrounds can become “equal” to their masters is by attaining fame and money. This societal construct has been true for centuries if not millennia, so regardless of the fact that They Live is filmed in the eighties (where mullets are rife and TV Station control rooms are analogue and antiquated) the plot itself is and always will be relevant to us whether our technology, style, or leadership changes.
When Nada looks through the glasses at the stark, monochromatic real world in the film, this is a great metaphor for the underpinning of our own life. All of our products including advertising, magazines, and television programmes may look stylish, appealing, and even contrasting, but if you take a closer look, the message and propaganda behind them is usually the same. So when you see the black and white “Obey And Conform” or “Marry And Reproduce” adverts or the text “This Is Your God” on the dollar bill in the movie, you can see a parallel in our lives. Take a look around and you’ll begin to see the real motive and message behind the goods in our own money-centric world.
As you would expect with a Wrestler playing the lead role, there’s an exaggerated and overlong fight scene. There’s also the memorable line “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum” (which seems to be mentioned every time They Live is brought up) but if it weren’t for aspects such as these, this film would probably be mentioned alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner. Because of the film’s aesthetics, instead of being overrated like these two aforementioned films, They Live is usually relegated to cult status; it may be mentioned by John Carpenter fans like myself (or die hard science fiction or horror fans) but the majority of people have never heard of or seen the film.
Despite They Live being relatively profitable (for a low-budget movie) it only spent a fortnight in the Top 10 in 1988. Carpenter once said about the film’s commercial failure that people “who go to the movies in vast numbers these days don’t want to be enlightened”, and I guess that’s been the truth since the inception of cinema. Along with all other forms of entertainment, the masses are never supportive of left-field or unconventional points of view until the product itself ages and becomes retrospectively accepted by the mainstream. Even though They Live is now quite rightly considered a classic movie, it has been undervalued and underrated for many years, and despite the fact that it has been almost three decades since it was made, it remains hugely subversive and highly relevant to this day. For a film to make such important comments about society, class, hierarchy, advertising, and consumerism is rare, in fact I haven’t seen many movies, especially low-budget science fiction movies make such bold statements about our world (Virtual Nightmare is probably the only exception). They Live may be cheap and it may even be corny at times, but it is definitely up there with the greats when it comes to sentiment and courage of opinion, it is still and always will be a hugely enjoyable watch.
They Still Live.