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Released thirty-five years ago, one of John Carpenter’s finest, “They Live”, remains as chillingly relevant today as it did upon its release.

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John Carpenter’s They Live is thirty-five years old, and it might be fair to say this biting attack on “Reaganomics” and greed told through a science fiction lens has become all too frighteningly real.

Based on the short story by science fiction writer Ray Nelson, “Eight O’clock in the Morning,” this classic science fiction tale involves an unseen alien invasion. It explores the idea that some “other” lives amongst us, controlling everything from behind the scenes.

The story is told from the perspective of the unsuspecting Nada, a career-best performance from professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. He’s a man who has been made homeless and forced to travel to find work wherever he could. However, after donning a pair of special sunglasses, he discovers that the world has been overrun by skeleton-faced aliens who seek to keep humanity asleep and numb while they plunder the planet.

They Live comes at a very particular point in Carpenter’s filmmaking career; it also marks his last box office success.

His previous films, although now considered classics and highly influential, had not been financially successful films. It’s hard to believe that The Thing (1982), Christine (1983), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and Prince of Darkness (1987) all received mixed reviews and performed lukewarmly at the box office. These are all films  I love that have had a massive influence on me. I also feel that They Live and the wonderful In the Mouth of Madness are the last truly great efforts from Carpenter.

Tightly structured and shot, They Live has all those classic John Carpenter touches.

Shot on a budget of approximately four million dollars, it feels far more expensive, and Carpenter really squeezes every penny of his meager budget.

With his use of matt paintings and model work, Carpenter creates an immersive and interesting world. Although some of the special effects seem a bit dated and cheesy by today’s standards, with the flying saucers and spinning radars, it all seems to work really well for the universe of the film and adds to its effective B-movie aesthetic and considerable charm. I’ll gladly take that any day over CGI.

The action scenes are staged and executed in tight and claustrophobic environments. Many employ an almost first-person shooter style as Nada and Frank battle their way through corridors and alleyways.

One of the stand-out set pieces of the film is the police raid on the homeless camp. Carpenters’ use of hand-held camera movement, along with the clever lighting trick of using pink neon flares, creates a tangible feeling of desperation and fear as a faceless police force sweeps away this small shanty town. In one striking moment, you witness a group of police officers beating the elderly scientist along with the black preacher, somewhat foreshadowing the awful events of the LA riots in the early nineties.

There are points during They Live, particularly at the beginning of the film, where you feel that maybe the alien invasion is taking place all inside Nada’s head. This is especially true during the scenes where Nada begins to shoot aliens indiscriminately. Could Nada be having a psychotic episode? Are the aliens and subliminal images he is seeing through his “magic” sunglasses all in his head?

As previously mentioned, Roddy Piper is exceptional.

They Live

Know in the professional wrestling world as one of the greatest heals and talkers of all time, Piper delivers a true masterclass in acting, drawing on his own experiences of being homeless and having to stay in youth hostels as a young man.

The success of his character goes beyond throwing punches and one-liners — though, he excels when he gets to do that. In fact, one of the film’s most quotable lines, “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass… and I’m all out of bubblegum,” comes directly from a conversation between Carpenter and Piper during pre-production.

It would be easy to overlook the other cast members given the tour de force that is Roddy Piper. But Carpenter put together a relatively small cast of fantastic character actors, including the marvelously duplicitous Meg Foster, who manages to walk that line of whether she can be trusted or not in true femme fatale form.

We also get a genuine favorite actor of mine, the criminally underrated (Carpenter regular) George ‘Buck’ Flowers.

The other stand-out turn in They Live is Keith David, whom Carpenter had tailor-written the part of Frank for after working with him on The Thing (1982). David is very much the fiery yang to Nada’s stoic Yen. Both David and Piper have fantastic chemistry together on screen.

Whenever anybody talks about They Live, the one scene that always comes up is the fistfight between Nada and Frank.

Originally, the fight was only meant to be two minutes long, but after watching Piper and David rehearse, Carpenter allowed it to run for five minutes.

This fight is certainly up there with some of the very best on-screen dustups. With rib-snapping body blows and bone-crunching suplex, this scene also manages to incorporate great humor. But more importantly, the fight manages to tell a story, and that I feel is the secret to a great on-screen battle.

As with all of Carpenter’s films, They Live has a fantastic synth score.

Composed by Carpenter and his long-time collaborator Allan Howarth, the score has an almost western feel to it — particularly the opening credits with its use of whistle and harmonica. This is particularly interesting as They Live could easily be viewed as a modern Western as it has many of those classic troupes. A nameless drifter enters town, dressed in his plaid shirt and boots, only to find himself cleaning up the town. Only in this case, it isn’t bank robbers or bandits; it’s aliens.

The influence of They Live can be seen everywhere, from t-shirts and posters proclaiming in stark block letters “Obey” to music videos from Green Day and Anti-Flag.

For many, the film serves as a stark warning against an out-of-control globalized economy where multinationals turn into hegemonies. It perfectly encapsulates Carpenter at his acerbic best, his pessimism towards consumerism, commercialism, and economic inequality.

Like Carpenter’s other great anti-hero, Snake Plissken (Escape From New York), Nada ends the film perfectly, giving the middle finger to the man.

They Live is a film that has quietly, almost subconsciously, influenced pop culture for thirty-five years; long may it continue to do so.

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