They Live (1988)

They Live (1988)

They Live is a hodge-podge of sci-fi satire, B-movie maximalism and cheesy humour that spends half its time succeeding on its own merits, and the other half venturing into so-bad-it’s-good territory.

The film’s highlights are of a piece with director John Carpenter’s great horror films (Halloween, The Thing), as Nada (Roddy Piper) stumbles onto the chilling secret that the world is controlled by “formaldehyde-faced” aliens who bombard the proletariat with concealed messages like “STAY ASLEEP” and “OBEY” (You can only see these with ‘magic’ sunglasses, natch). It’s an unsubtle message about American corporatisation that taps into the same anxiety that Invasion of the Body Snatchers so memorably evoked. Carpenter is at his best when rendering the stark black-and-white imagery of this nightmarish otherworld.

Disappointingly, They Live isn’t interested in expounding on these ideas, but rather using them as an excuse to stage extended homoerotic wrestling sequences between Nada and co-worker Frank (Keith David) or to machine-gun away countless aliens after, infamously, running out of bubblegum. There’s silly fun to be had in these sequences despite some awkward pacing. Ultimately it feels like two different movies – one thoughtful, one absurd – soldered together clumsily, high concept ideas sacrificed for generic eighties action.

3 stars

6 thoughts on “They Live (1988)

  1. Carpenter knows a thing or two about satire; he also knows a whole heck of a lot about action and I think that’s definitely the best aspect behind this movie. Good review.

    • The action is definitely fun (in a very ’80s kinda way) but it really feels like a different movie to the satire, with its innate ridiculousness/jokeyness. Thanks!

  2. Good review Dave. This is harmed by ham and a very low budget but ye concept is great and Carpenter knows how to wrong out the goods. This is a real guilty pleasure for me. That lengthy fight scene is laughably bad, though.

    • Cheers. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a film that swerved so violently between something really amazing and then something really cheesy! I don’t think there’s any need to feel guilty about liking this, though.

  3. Nice job, Dave. I did a piece on “They Live” on my blog about 18 months ago, and the monogram written about it by Jonathan Lethem. The book is an interesting, sometimes minute-to-minute, analysis of the film. ML

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