They Live cast: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster, George ‘Buck’ Flower, and Peter Jason director: John Carpenter 89 minutes (18) 1988 widescreen ratio 2.35:1 Momentum DVD Region 2 retail [released 21 October] RATING: 8/10 reviewed by Peter Schilling

Though ostensibly based on Ray Nelson’s 1963 short story Eight O’Clock In The Morning, this distinctive SF thriller by John Carpenter (the credited screenwriter ‘Frank Armitage’ is one of the director’s pen-names), is also derived from Behold, Eck! (1964), an episode of TV anthology series The Outer Limits, in which an optician finds he can see invisible beings when he wears special glasses. That TV sci-fi episode was, at least in part, developed from Edwin Abbott’s celebrated proto-SF novel, Flatland: A Romance Of Many Dimensions (1884), which was about perception of other worlds. Furthermore, Carpenter’s They Live explores themes sourced from the work of genre author Philip K. Dick as, with its ordinary working class hero, this movie can be regarded as a more authentically Dickian scenario than all the overblown action of Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall (1990), based on Dick’s short story We Can Remember It For You Wholesale. It’s also worth noting here that Nelson collaborated with Dick on his debut novel The Ganymede Takeover (1967) and, if we consider the collected science fictions of these two writers, it’s clear they shared many of the same interests and anxieties.
They Live stars wrestler turned actor Roddy Piper as John Nada, a penniless American drifter who stumbles into a bizarre conspiracy. He’s the nice guy caught up in a very bad situation, trying to do the right thing despite the crushing forces stacked against him. He’s the loner who makes a stand against brutal oppression. In this case that means wisely running away from sadistic uniformed cops when riot police raid a disused church opposite a makeshift camp for homeless people in Los Angeles. Of course, the charity mission from the church is responsible for interrupting television broadcasts with talky counter-propaganda revealing that there’s an overpowering alien invasion in progress. When he investigates all this, Nada discovers the alleged revolutionary terrorists using the church as a hideout were, in fact, smuggling… sunglasses! These shades have unique lenses designed to filter out media prompts and subliminal commands to reveal a black and white reality dominated by an inhuman enemy…
Made during the Reagan administration, They Live has much thinly disguised socio-political anguish, reacting against the wretched yuppie ethos of the 1980s, packaged in a rousing sci-fi plot. Humans are hypnotised into abject passivity by hidden psychic persuasion, omnipresent in TV programming and consumer class advertising. Independent thought is discouraged, and people are ordered to ‘stay asleep’. Aliens are here, among us, hiding their hideous faces and their advanced mind control devices beneath masks of authority and wealth. The movie suggests that pollution and global warming are part of an alien scheme to make our Earth suitable for nonhuman requirements. This is decidedly post-Quatermass SF with a satirical twist that makes Independence Day (1996) appear depressingly clichéd and unexciting by comparison.
Nada takes a stolen shotgun into a bank, and announces: “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum.” Much to his credit, Carpenter avoids foregrounding his movie’s message, preferring to bury meaning and significance beneath apprehension throughout early scenes, followed by wall-to-wall action sequences. The legendary five-minute street fight between Nada and his friend Frank (Keith David, who appeared in Carpenter’s The Thing, 1982) has been interpreted as representing a White man struggling to convince a Negro that he is being exploited. As a fight between two friends, it also signifies a condemnation of macho inflexibility and an affirmation of human tenacity. In the end, Frank submits to wearing those all-seeing sunglasses, anyway, and the men cooperate with remnants of the rebel gang from the church to launch an attack on a cable TV station, where Nada destroys the rooftop machine beaming the aliens’ brainwashing signals across America. The movie ends right there, quite abruptly, with the aliens’ conspiracy suddenly exposed to the general public, making clear the full extent to which aliens have infiltrated human society with the final shot – a boldly prurient joke about sex with aliens.
They Live was produced on a small budget, but Carpenter makes the most of limited resources, channelling the poignancy of American liberal conscience into an intelligent yet emotive little movie that stands up to repeat viewings very well. The deployment of some fascinating visual designs to awaken urban paranoia and a knowingly science fictional sense of wonder, albeit diluted by this genre literate director’s assuredly tongue-in-cheek spin, provides fantastic entertainment.
The DVD boasts a menu design in keeping with the movie’s cloaked messages motif (obey, consume, watch TV). There’s a satisfactory anamorphic widescreen transfer enhanced for 16:9 TV, Dolby digital 2.0 sound (in English, German and Spanish), and nine subtitled languages. Disc extras include a standard making-of featurette (eight minutes), and an exclusive audio commentary by Carpenter and Piper. The packaging mentions a trailer but that is not here and, disappointingly, there is no stills gallery, either.