The Anti-Blockbusters: They Live

By | June 28, 2018

We are in the midst of Summer Blockbuster season (see our rundown at this link), but in case you would like a respite from the mega-dollar, CGI-overload films, here’s a look at some genre entries from the past decade or so that delivered great movies without relying on a big-budget or excessive special effects.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

Bottom Line: This one is very much a B-Movie, but one that successfully comments on the social climate of its time.

This movie from horror/sci fi cult icon John Carpenter flew mostly under the radar when it first hit theaters in the late 80’s, but it has developed a reputation the last few years, especially after its star Roddy Piper passed away.  It delivered an excellent paranoia-drenched action-flick that very much reflected its time and that is still quite poignant today. It takes place ostensibly in the 80’s, but definitely shows the underside of that decade and suggests a society at the point of severe deterioration (definitely a comment on the recession the country experienced at that time). The film focuses on a drifter who shows up in Los Angeles looking for work (we never learn his actual name, but he is referred to as Nada and is played by pro-wrestler Roddy Piper). He takes a job at a construction site and hooks up with another worker (Frank Armitage played by Keith David who had previously worked with Carpenter on The Thing) who brings him to a local shantytown where he can stay for the time being. Nada notices some strange activities in the church across the street (secret meetings covered by choir singing played on a tape recorder) then watches aghast as the police raid the church and destroy the shantytown. He also comes into possession of a strange pair of sunglasses and when he puts them on he sees a different world than the one that others see. On billboards and on television screens he sees hidden messages issuing commands like “Obey”, “Consume”, “Marry and Reproduce”, “No Independent Thought”, etc. He also sees that quite a number of people on the streets are really skull-headed aliens in disguise. As he learns more, he finds out that these aliens are controlling our world by establishing a privileged class among the humans who will cooperate with them and by transmitting the subliminal signals that control the minds of the rest of the population to keep them docile. He finds out that a signal from the TV Station Cable 54 is the source of the deception (at least locally) and seeks out Frank, as well as a woman working at the station, to help him destroy the antenna and reveal the truth about the aliens.

They Live is John Carpenter’s take on The Invasion of the Body Snatchers without retreading on the territory that classic movie already covered. He found inspiration from the short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson (as well as the comic book story “Nada” from Alien Encounters), but made the final film very much his own. Whereas in the Body Snatchers people were replaced by emotionless automatons generated from alien seed pods, in this movie the aliens turn people into docile servants through manipulation and consumerism. From this angle, the movie delivers a commentary on the 80’s similar to what Body Snatchers did for the 50’s (even though the producers of that film insist it had no underlying messages). Whereas Body Snatchers keyed off the shallow conformity that the American ideal of suburban life offered in that decade, They Live takes aim (much more overtly) at the “me first” decade and the threat posed by the corporations that had come to dominate and control our way of life (how little things have changed since then). And Carpenter makes no qualms about the fact that he is delivering a scathing satire on his contemporary world, even if it does not quite follow through to the end.

Carpenter overlays social commentary on They Live, but he also points the film in the action-movie direction which at times make it seem a bit schizophrenic. Interspersed with Kafkaesque, Orwellian imagery of a world controlled by alien directed subliminal commands, we also get your standard action-movie scenes with the lead characters blowing away aliens and spouting off Schwarzenegger-like quips such as “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I’m all out of bubblegum” (but still, you gotta love that line). Sometimes these work, sometimes they just fall flat, but at least the action-movie angle never derails the film, it just keeps it from fully exploring its more subversive themes. And it also gives you a feeling at the end of wanting more in the way of story development.

Still, They Live gives us an enjoyable sci fi/horror film that rises above its B-Movie roots (it was made on a relatively skimpy budget of $3 million) and asks you to use your brain at least a bit between the shoot-outs and explosions. It did not pull in a blockbuster tally at the Box Office when it was released (though not too shabby as it made back about four times its budget), and it has since developed cult notoriety. If you have never seen this one, then it’s time to give it a shot and if you have not seen it in a while then it’s time to revisit the fun.

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