They Live

They Live (titled onscreen as John Carpenter's They Live) is a 1988 American science fiction action film written and directed by John Carpenter, based on the 1963 short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" by Ray Nelson. Starring Roddy Piper, Keith David, and Meg Foster, the film follows an unnamed drifter[b] who discovers through special sunglasses that the ruling class are aliens concealing their appearance and manipulating people to consume, breed, and conform to the status quo via subliminal messages in mass media.

They Live
A close-up of a man's face. The man is wearing sunglasses, and the face of a skull-like alien is reflected in one of the lenses.
Theatrical release poster
Directed byJohn Carpenter
Screenplay byJohn Carpenter[a]
Based on"Eight O'Clock in the Morning"
by Ray Nelson
Produced byLarry Franco
Starring
CinematographyGary B. Kibbe
Edited by
  • Gib Jaffe
  • Frank E. Jimenez
Music by
Production
companies
Distributed by
Release date
  • November 4, 1988 (1988-11-04)
Running time
94 minutes
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
Budget$3 million
Box office$13 million (North America)[1]

The film was a minor success at the time of its release, debuting #1 at the North American box office. It initially received negative reviews from critics, who lambasted its social commentary, writing and acting; however, like Carpenter's other films, it later gained a cult following and experienced a significantly more favorable critical reception. It is now regarded by many as a largely underrated work. The film has also entered popular culture, and notably had a lasting impact on street art (particularly that of Shepard Fairey), while its nearly six-minute alley brawl between the protagonists has made appearances on all-time lists for best fight scenes.

PlotEdit

A homeless drifter, credited only as "Nada" ("nothing" in Spanish) comes to Los Angeles in search of a job. While out on the street, he sees a street preacher warning that “they” have recruited the rich and powerful to control humanity. Nada finds employment at a construction site and befriends fellow construction worker Frank, who invites him to live in a shanty town soup kitchen led by a man named Gilbert.

That night, a hacker takes over television broadcasts, claiming that scientists have discovered signals that are enslaving the population and keeping them in a dream-like state, and that the only way to stop it is to shut off the signal at its source. Those watching the broadcast complain of headaches. Nada secretly follows Gilbert and the street preacher into a nearby church, and discovers them meeting with a group that includes the hacker. He sees scientific equipment and cardboard boxes inside, and hears Gilbert worrying that the Hoffman lenses they made won’t be enough without "strong people" to help them. Nada is discovered by the blind preacher and escapes.

That night, the shantytown and church are destroyed in a police raid, and the hacker and preacher are beaten by riot police. The following day, Nada retrieves one of the boxes from the church and takes a pair of sunglasses from it, hiding the rest in a trash can. Nada discovers that the sunglasses make the world appear black and white, but also reveal subliminal messages in the media to consume, reproduce, and conform. The glasses also reveal that many people are actually aliens with skull-like faces.

When Nada mocks an alien woman at a supermarket, she alerts other aliens via a wristwatch-like device. Nada leaves, but is confronted by two alien cops. He kills them and steals their weapons. Nada enters a bank, where he sees that several of the employees and customers are aliens. After taunting them by saying, "I have come here to chew bubble gum, and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubble gum", he kills several aliens with a shotgun and escapes by taking Cable 54 employee Holly Thompson hostage. At Holly’s home, Nada tries to get her to try on the glasses, but she knocks him out of the window and down a hill, and then calls the police.

The next day, Nada returns to the alleyway and retrieves the box of sunglasses from a garbage truck before Frank meets Nada to give him his paycheck. Nada tries to get Frank to put on a pair of the glasses, but Frank thinks Nada is a murderer and wants nothing to do with him to protect his family. Frank and Nada get into a long and violent brawl, after which Frank is too tired to prevent Nada from putting the sunglasses on him. After seeing the aliens and a flying saucer, Frank agrees to go into hiding with Nada.

Frank and Nada find Gilbert, who leads them to a meeting of the anti-alien movement. At the meeting, they are given contact lenses to replace the sunglasses, and learn that the aliens are using global warming to make Earth more like their own planet, and are depleting the Earth’s resources for their own gain. They also learn that the aliens have been bribing humans to become collaborators, promoting them into positions of power. Holly arrives at the meeting, apologizing to Nada, with information on the source of the signal. However, the meeting is raided by police and the vast majority of those present are killed, with the survivors (including Frank, Nada, and Holly) scattering into the night as the police surround the area. Nada and Frank are cornered by police in an alley, but they accidentally activate an alien wristwatch, opening a portal through which they escape.

The portal takes them to the aliens' spaceport, where they discover a meeting of aliens and human collaborators, celebrating the elimination of the "terrorists". They are approached by a former drifter they briefly met in the shanty town, now a collaborator, who gives them a tour of the facility. He leads them to the basement of Cable 54, the source of the signal, which is protected by armed guards. Nada and Frank find Holly and fight their way to the transmitter on the roof, but Holly suddenly kills Frank, revealing that she too is a human collaborator. Nada kills Holly and destroys the transmitter, but is fatally wounded by aliens in a helicopter. Nada gives the aliens the middle finger as he dies.

With the transmitter destroyed, humans all over the world discover the aliens hiding among them: in the final scene, a woman realizes that the man with whom she is having sex is in fact one of the aliens.

CastEdit

ThemesEdit

Carpenter has said that the film's political commentary derives from his dissatisfaction with the economic policies of then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and increasing commercialization in both the popular culture and politics of the era.[2] Upon the film's release, he remarked "The picture's premise is that the 'Reagan Revolution' is run by aliens from another galaxy. Free enterprisers from outer space have taken over the world, and are exploiting Earth as if it's a third world planet. As soon as they exhaust all our resources, they'll move on to another world... 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." To this end, Carpenter thought of sunglasses as being the tool to seeing the truth, which "is seen in black and white. It's as if the aliens have colorized us. That means, of course, that Ted Turner is really a monster from outer space."[c] The director commented on the alien threat in an interview: "They want to own all our businesses. A Universal executive asked me, 'Where's the threat in that? We all sell out every day.' I ended up using that line in the film." The aliens were deliberately made to look like ghouls, according to Carpenter, who said "The creatures are corrupting us, so they, themselves, are corruptions of human beings."[3]

Some neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups have described the film as "an allegory for Jewish control of the world," a reading which Carpenter has strongly condemned, calling it "slander and a lie" and saying that the film "is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism."[4][5][6]

ProductionEdit

DevelopmentEdit

The idea for They Live came from a short story called "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" by Ray Nelson, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in November 1963, involving an alien invasion in the tradition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which Nelson, along with artist Bill Wray, adapted into a story called "Nada" published in the Alien Encounters comics anthology in April 1986.[3] John Carpenter describes Nelson's story as "... a D.O.A.-type of story, in which a man is put in a trance by a stage hypnotist. When he awakens, he realizes that the entire human race has been hypnotized, and that alien creatures are controlling humanity. He has only until eight o'clock in the morning to solve the problem."[3] Carpenter acquired the film rights to both the comic book and short story and wrote the screenplay, using Nelson's story as a basis for the film's structure.

Because the screenplay was the product of so many sources—a short story, a comic book, and input from cast and crew—Carpenter decided to use the pseudonym "Frank Armitage", an allusion to one of the filmmaker's favorite writers, H. P. Lovecraft (Henry Armitage is a character in Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror).[3] Carpenter has always felt a close kinship with Lovecraft's worldview, and according to the director "Lovecraft wrote about the hidden world, the 'world underneath'. His stories were about gods who are repressed, who were once on Earth and are now coming back. The world underneath has a great deal to do with They Live."[3]

CastingEdit

For the crucial role of Nada, the filmmaker cast professional wrestler Roddy Piper, whom he had met at WrestleMania III earlier in 1987. For Carpenter, it was an easy choice: "Unlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him."[3] Carpenter was impressed with Keith David's performance in The Thing and needed someone "who wouldn't be a traditional sidekick, but could hold his own."[3] To this end, Carpenter wrote the role of Frank specifically for Keith David.

FilmingEdit

They Live was shot in eight weeks during March and April 1988, principally on location in downtown Los Angeles, with a budget only slightly greater than $3 million.[3] One of the highlights of the film is a five-and-a-half minute alley fight between actors Roddy Piper ("John Nada") and Keith David ("Frank Armitage") over a pair of the special sunglasses. Carpenter recalls that the fight took three weeks to rehearse: "It was an incredibly brutal and funny fight, along the lines of the slugfest between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen in The Quiet Man."[3]

MusicEdit

Music for the film was composed by John Carpenter & Alan Howarth.[7]

ReleaseEdit

The film was theatrically released in North America on November 4, 1988, and debuted at #1 at the box office, grossing $4.8 million during its opening weekend.[1][8] The film spent two weeks in the top ten.[9] The film's original release date, advertised in promotional material as October 21, 1988, had been pushed back two weeks to avoid direct competition with Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (coincidentally, a sequel to a Carpenter film).

ReceptionEdit

Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an approval rating of 85% based on 65 reviews, and an average rating of 7.20/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "A politically subversive blend of horror and sci fi, They Live is an underrated genre film from John Carpenter."[10] Metacritic gives the film a weighted average rating of 55 out of 100 based on 22 reviews, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[11]

In his review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, "Carpenter's wit and storytelling craft make this fun and watchable, although the script takes a number of unfortunate shortcuts, and the possibilities inherent in the movie's central concept are explored only cursorily."[12] Jay Carr, writing for The Boston Globe, said "[O]nce Carpenter delivers his throwback-to-the-'50s visuals, complete with plump little B-movie flying saucers, and makes his point that the rich are fascist fiends, They Live starts running low on imagination and inventiveness", but felt that "as sci-fi horror comedy, They Live, with its wake-up call to the world, is in a class with Terminator and RoboCop, even though its hero doesn't sport bionic biceps".[13] AllMovie contributor Paul Brenner gave the film three and a half out of five stars.[14]

In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Since Mr. Carpenter seems to be trying to make a real point here, the flatness of They Live is doubly disappointing. So is its crazy inconsistency, since the film stops trying to abide even by its own game plan after a while."[15] Richard Harrington wrote in The Washington Post, "it's just John Carpenter as usual, trying to dig deep with a toy shovel. The plot for They Live is full of black holes, the acting is wretched, the effects are second-rate. In fact, the whole thing is so preposterous it makes V look like Masterpiece Theatre."[16] Rick Groen, in The Globe and Mail, wrote, "the movie never gets beyond the pop Orwell premise. The social commentary wipes clean with a dry towelette – it's not intrusive and not pedantic, just lighter-than-air."[17]

The 2012 documentary film The Pervert's Guide to Ideology, presented by the Slovene philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek, starts with an analysis of the film They Live. Žižek uses the main trope of the film, the wearing of the special sun-glasses reveals the truth of that which is perceived, to explain his definition of ideology. Žižek states:

They Live is definitely one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood Left. … The sunglasses function like a critique of ideology. They allow you to see the real message beneath all the propaganda, glitz, posters and so on. … When you put the sunglasses on, you see the dictatorship in democracy, the invisible order which sustains your apparent freedom.[18]

LegacyEdit

They Live was ranked #18 on Entertainment Weekly magazine's "The Cult 25: The Essential Left-Field Movie Hits Since '83" list.[19]

Rotten Tomatoes ranked the fight scene between Roddy Piper's character, Nada, and Keith David's character, Frank Armitage, seventh on their list of "The 20 Greatest Fights [sic] Scenes Ever".[20] The fight scene influenced The Wrestler, whose director, Darren Aronofsky, interpreted the scene as a spoof.[21] Shepard Fairey credits the film as a major source of inspiration, sharing a similar logo to his "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" campaign. "They Live was…the basis for my use of the word 'obey'," Fairey said. "The movie has a very strong message about the power of commercialism and the way that people are manipulated by advertising."[22]

Jonathan Lethem called They Live one of his "favorite movies of the eighties, hands down". He said, "It's a great movie...Look at what it does to people, look at how it emboldens and provokes...It's disturbing and ridiculous and outrageous and uncomfortable, but I think it's the kind of great movie that doesn't really need defense, it just needs to be given the air." Lethem wrote a book-length homage to the movie for the Soft Skull Press Deep Focus series.[23]

Rock band Green Day paid homage to They Live in their music video for "Back in the USA" from the album Greatest Hits: God's Favorite Band.[24] Similarly, punk band Anti-Flag used the film as inspiration for their 2020 music video, "The Disease".

In July 2018, the film was selected to be screened in the Venice Classics section at the 75th Venice International Film Festival.[25]

The film is noted for a popularly quoted line spoken by Nada: "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum."[26]

Home mediaEdit

StudioCanal released a Blu-ray on March 2, 2012.[27]

On November 6, 2012, Shout! Factory released a Collector's Edition of the film on both DVD and Blu-ray. On January 19, 2021, they released another Collector's Edition of the film on Ultra HD Blu-ray.[28]

In 2014, Universal Studios released it on DVD along with The Thing, Village of the Damned, and Virus as part of the 4 Movie Midnight Marathon Pack: Aliens.[29]

Awards and honorsEdit

Award Category Subject Result
Fantasporto International Fantasy Film Award Best Film John Carpenter Nominated
Saturn Award Best Science Fiction Film They Live Nominated
Best Music John Carpenter and Alan Howarth Nominated

Proposed remakeEdit

In 2010, there was development on a remake of the film, with Carpenter in a producer role. In 2011, Matt Reeves signed on to direct and write the screenplay. The project also shifted away from being a remake of They Live to a re-adaptation of 8 O'Clock in the Morning, ditching the satirical and political elements.[30] Since then, there have been no new announcements.

NotesEdit

  1. ^ For the screenplay, Carpenter was credited by the pseudonym "Frank Armitage".
  2. ^ The character is referred to as "Nada" in the film's credits, which is Spanish for "Nothing"; in the original short story, the name of the character is George Nada. "Nada" is also the name of a short comic book published in Alien Encounters in 1986, which was adapted from the same short story as They Live.
  3. ^ Turner had received some bad press in the 1980s for colorizing classic black-and-white movies.

ReferencesEdit

  1. ^ a b "They Live". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Archived from the original on April 4, 2016. Retrieved April 28, 2016.
  2. ^ Clark, Noelene (May 11, 2013). "John Carpenter: 'They Live' was about 'giving the finger to Reagan'". Hero Complex. Tribune Publishing. Archived from the original on September 18, 2015. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Swires, Steve (November 1988). "John Carpenter and the Invasion of the Yuppie Snatchers". Starlog. pp. 37–40, 43.
  4. ^ John Carpenter [@TheHorrorMaster] (January 3, 2017). "THEY LIVE is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism. It has nothing to do with Jewish control of the world, which is slander and a lie" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  5. ^ White, Adam (January 4, 2017). "John Carpenter condemns neo-Nazis who have co-opted his cult 1988 satire They Live". The Daily Telegraph. Archived from the original on January 8, 2017. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  6. ^ Raftery, Brian (January 4, 2017). "Bigots Are Trying to Ruin the Movie They Live, Because of Course They Are". Wired. Condé Nast. Archived from the original on January 8, 2017. Retrieved January 8, 2017.
  7. ^ "They Live Soundtrack". theofficialjohncarpenter.com. 2017. Archived from the original on January 25, 2021. Retrieved May 21, 2020.
  8. ^ "'They Live' tops the weekend's box office". Sun Journal. Associated Press. November 9, 1988. Retrieved July 3, 2018 – via Google News.
  9. ^ "They Live: Weekly". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Archived from the original on July 4, 2018. Retrieved July 3, 2018.
  10. ^ "They Live (1988)". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Archived from the original on April 15, 2021. Retrieved June 6, 2021.
  11. ^ "They Live Reviews". Metacritic. CBS Interactive. Archived from the original on June 29, 2021. Retrieved June 29, 2021.
  12. ^ Rosenbaum, Jonathan. "They Live". Chicago Reader. Archived from the original on July 28, 2011. Retrieved May 12, 2009.
  13. ^ Carr, Jay (November 4, 1988). "What if we're cattle for aliens?". The Boston Globe. Boston Globe Media Partners. Archived from the original on February 10, 2015. Retrieved July 3, 2018.
  14. ^ Brenner, Paul. "They Live". AllMovie. RhythmOne. Archived from the original on February 7, 2010. Retrieved December 13, 2010.
  15. ^ Maslin, Janet (November 4, 1988). "A Pair of Sunglasses Reveals a World of Evil". The New York Times. Archived from the original on December 1, 2010. Retrieved May 12, 2009.
  16. ^ Harrington, Richard (November 5, 1988). "'They Live': (R)". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on November 11, 2012. Retrieved May 12, 2009.
  17. ^ Groen, Rick (November 5, 1988). "They Live". The Globe and Mail.
  18. ^ "THE PERVERT'S GUIDE TO IDEOLOGY (15)". British Board of Film Classification. June 19, 2013. Archived from the original on October 5, 2013. Retrieved June 19, 2013.
  19. ^ EW Staff (August 27, 2008). "The Cult 25: The Essential Left-Field Movie Hits Since '83". Entertainment Weekly. Time. Archived from the original on July 13, 2016. Retrieved August 16, 2016.
  20. ^ Ryan, Tim (April 17, 2008). "Total Recall: The 20 Greatest Fights Scenes Ever". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Archived from the original on February 19, 2020. Retrieved December 14, 2016.
  21. ^ Frannich, Darren (July 31, 2015). "Remembering Roddy Piper's rowdy film career". Entertainment Weekly. Time. Archived from the original on June 3, 2016. Retrieved June 1, 2016.
  22. ^ Lussier, Germain (June 9, 2011). "Cool Stuff: Shepard Fairey's 'They Live' Mondo Poster". /Film. Archived from the original on May 17, 2013. Retrieved March 8, 2013.
  23. ^ Kachka, Boris (October 28, 2010). "Jonathan Lethem on John Carpenter's They Live and His Own Move to California". Vulture. New York Media. Archived from the original on October 29, 2013. Retrieved July 29, 2012.
  24. ^ Kreps, Daniel (November 17, 2017). "See Green Day's 'They Live'-Inspired 'Back in the USA' Video". Rolling Stone. Archived from the original on December 14, 2017. Retrieved December 13, 2017.
  25. ^ "Biennale Cinema 2018, Venice Classics". labiennale.org. Archived from the original on 23 July 2018. Retrieved 22 July 2018.
  26. ^ "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum". Sovereign Man. 2015-08-03. Archived from the original on 2019-03-02. Retrieved 2019-03-02.
  27. ^ "They Live". StudioCanal UK. Archived from the original on July 5, 2018. Retrieved July 3, 2018.
  28. ^ "They Live". Shout! Factory. Retrieved July 12, 2021.
  29. ^ 4 Movie Midnight Marathon Pack: Aliens (DVD). Universal Studios. 2014. Stock #61142800.
  30. ^ O'Neal, Sean (April 11, 2011). "'They Live' Remake is No Longer Technically a Remake". The A.V. Club. The Onion. Archived from the original on July 2, 2018. Retrieved July 3, 2018.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit