Writer-director John Carpenter is synonymous with classic horror films like Halloween and The Thing and unconventional action movies like Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from New York. But perhaps no movie is more representative of his eclectic filmography than They Live.
The 1988 cult classic is a cosmic blend of the director’s zany comedic chops, action-minded writing, and thematic science fiction. They Live’s ominous messages about consumerism in Ronald Reagan’s America have only become more prescient.
Drifter John Nada (Roddy Piper) arrives in Los Angeles seeking employment. He finds shelter in a tent city outside of LA and works on a construction site with newfound friend Frank (future voice-acting royalty Keith David). Nada notices people gathering at unusual times at the church across the street from the tent city. Later, the church is raided by police, who beat its patrons and destroy the tent city.
With nowhere left to go, Nada wanders into the abandoned church and discovers a hidden box full of sunglasses. Wearing the sunglasses reveals an alien species living among us and subliminal messaging in our advertisements, telling humanity to obey, consume, and reproduce. Nada must help humanity break free from the aliens and live without bounds.
Piper, a former Canadian professional wrestler, brings an unexpected physicality to the lead role. Like countless others in his profession, Piper died relatively young at only 61 years old. They Live is inseparable from its idiosyncratic action hero.
At one point, while searching for an ally, Nada asks Frank to try the sunglasses on. Inexplicably, Frank refuses, and a six-minute fistfight ensues. Carpenter relied on his star’s charisma and WWF training to make choices that would have otherwise been impossible.
Even after the lengthy bareknuckle brawl, They Live barely cracks 90 minutes. Originally based on a 12-page short story titled “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, Carpenter had plenty of pages to fill. The final product contains very little fat, unless you’re willing to sacrifice the melee that gives They Live its B-movie charm.
The music by Carpenter and Alan Howarth—the same duo that composed Halloween’s iconic score—has not aged as well the surrounding accouterments. While the film separates itself with its quotable script, campy visuals, and absurdist humor, its score is entangled with the ‘80s flavor of the minute.
They Live isn’t the highlight of Carpenter’s illustrious career (it’s The Thing), but the film’s DNA is unmistakably the work of its legendary director. Carpenter bitingly channels Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World to castigate the pacified masses and those who would sell their souls to climb the socioeconomic hierarchy.