John Carpenter has crafted some classic films over his long career (Halloween, The Thing) and he has made some terrible, terrible films (Vampires, Ghosts of Mars) but there are a few that have slipped through the cracks. One of these unsung films is his 1988 science-fiction / horror / comedy They Live.
The film starts with a drifter named Nada (Roddy Piper) looking for work on a construction site. He befriends Keith David who shows him a shanty town where he can stay. Nada soon discovers a church near by where there is a group of resistance fighters staying there and he also discovers a box of mysterious sunglasses. He steals one of the sunglasses and soon discovers that the glasses reveal what the world really is. It seems that freaky aliens have taken over the Earth but are hiding among the population as the rich and famous. The population is controlled with subliminal messages that are every where. In advertising, on the money that people use and in the signals sent from TV. Conformity with consumerism.
This revelation leads to an awesome fight scene between Piper and David as Piper tries to convince David of the truth and the film has one of the more memorable movie tough guy lines ever uttered. “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum.”
They Live was just released on Blu-ray by Shout! Factory and it looks fantastic. Carpenter based on the film on a short story called Eight O’Clock in the Morning by Ray Nelson and another story called Nada from the Alien Encounters comic book. The political / anti-commercial elements came from his own distaste of the mass commercialization of pop culture in the 1980’s. “I began watching TV again. I quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something… It’s all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money.” While the film is really just a fun throwback to 1950’s fiction films it’s funny that the film’s anti-commercialism / anti-corporate bent is just as relevant today as it was in the 1980’s, perhaps even more so.