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Review: They Live – “A film that becomes increasingly relevant over time”

For me, They Live will always be John Carpenter’s magnum opus, even though he made around half a dozen near to flat-out masterpieces in the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s, including Escape From New York and The Thing. They Live was the most political film of John Carpenter’s career, but he wore his politics on the sleeve since his debut film, Dark Star. It’s also a film that has only become more and more relevant as the gap between rich and poor increases each year. 

The film itself is based on the incredibly short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson. Nelson was an associate of Philip K. Dick (they collaborated on “The Ganymede Takeover”), and the man who allegedly introduced PKD to LSD. He also invented the propeller beanie. In adapting the story, Carpenter used the comic book adaptation Nada as the main source, even though he added a lot to the story including the famous “Hoffman glasses” (the original story had humans under a sort of hypnosis.)

The wrestler Roddy Piper plays the main character of John Nada, who is never named in the film until the end credits. Of course, it’s a nothing name: he is you, you are him, he is the ultimate everyman. Nada is a drifter who has arrived in Los Angeles trying to find some construction work, where he befriends a fellow worker Frank Armitage (Keith David). Armitage takes him a shantytown where homeless people live, something that is still commonplace in the States. He discovers some sunglasses, puts them on and discovers that the ruling classes are aliens who control the population through mass media and advertising. The sunglasses reveal the true messages of advertisements, like “OBEY,” “CONSUME,” “SLEEP,” and “MONEY IS YOUR GOD.” Naming them “Hoffman lenses” is an overt reference to Albert Hoffman, who synthesized LSD.

The end of the ’80s brought on a slew of genre films that commented on Reagan’s America, such as Society and Heathers—even Blue Velvet could be seen as one of these. Carpenter has been open about the fact that it was a deliberate statement about crony capitalism and Reaganomics: “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.” The entire concept of the sunglasses revealing the true meaning of media was heavily influenced by the Situationists and specifically Guy Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle,” I’m sure Carpenter would deny it, but the influence is clear. It’s a film that could be read as an anarchist film or a Marxist film; in recent years neo-Nazis have tried to claim it as an allegory for “Jewish control of the world.” Carpenter felt compelled to release a statement saying They Live “is about yuppies and unrestrained capitalism” to counter their offensive theory.

Carpenter doesn’t blame simply the aliens for the takeover of the US. There is indeed a human elite that was completely complicit in the takeover, selling out the human race just like big business does with the populations of third world countries. This is emphasized by George Buck Flower, who you first see as another homeless drifter, but who turns out to have sold everybody out to have the possibility of joining this exclusive club—just like your usual Trump supporter.

They Live remains a film that becomes increasingly relevant over time: as noted in the accompanying documentary, one of the great satirical images of the 2016 election was Donald Trump as one of the aliens from They Live. Carpenter has often joked that it’s a documentary about now, and he might be right, I wouldn’t be surprised if the ruling elites were indeed a race of malicious aliens. It’s also a film full of memorable lines, including the immortal and often parodied “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…And I’m all out of bubblegum.” And of course, there’s the extended fight scene, which is the longest one since John Wayne in The Quiet Man.

Studiocanal is releasing the film in a new 4K DCP, which will be playing your local cinema at the end of October through to the middle of November on selected dates, which will vary by location – details here. The Blu-Ray release comes out on the 29th of October. It includes a host of special features, including an excellent new documentary on the film with interviews cast and crew, Jonathan Lethem and other critics. The rest of the other features are archival interviews, mostly made initially for the US Shout Factory release, and of course, the hilarious commentary from Carpenter and the much-missed Roddy Piper is included. There is a 4KULTRAHD boxset that includes the film on both Blu-Ray formats plus a CD copy of Carpenter’s own bluesy electronic score.

You can find me over on Psychotronic Cinema.

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