Retro Review: ‘They Live’


Director: John Carpenter

Cast: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster

Plot: A drifter arrives in LA and falls in with the homeless community, where he becomes aware of a sinister conspiracy controlling the masses.

Review: This might come as a surprise to anyone who knows me, but I hadn’t seen They Live until today. I love John Carpenter and I adore horror and sci-fi that features social commentary. Part of the reason I never saw this is because I knew the big reveal. The sunglasses scene features in many compilations, documentaries and video essays, so I didn’t feel a strong need to check it out for myself.

That was a mistake, because this movie is a banger. Not only is it John Carpenter in his prime, it’s a tightly crafted action thriller with iconic design and a message that only gets more relevant with every passing year. Amid the brawls and one-liners there’s a plot involving alien invaders who have infiltrated the human population and taken control of the working class through hidden media messages and playing upon people’s greed.

Our hero is Nada (Piper) is a completely ripped drifter looking to make an honest days wage. His suspicion is peaked when street preachers and TV signal hackers repeat the same talking points about the media and enslavement. During a police raid on their shanty town targeting the outspoken, Nada flees along with a box of sunglasses that reveal a disturbing secret. Every TV broadcast and printed publication is hiding messages about obeying, consuming, conforming and reproducing. More disturbing, the wealthy and elite milling around the populous are gnarly looking bug-eyed aliens.

The scene of Nada discovering this truth is an absolutely perfect sequence, only overshadowed by the subsequent rampage within a bank. Although it doesn’t have the flash and style of a modern sci-fi action flick, Carpenter puts together such a smart production that it continues to be a considered essential viewing. The insane and brutal brawl between real like wrestler and Keith David is almost worth the run time all by itself.

What’s mind-boggling are how accurate the details of the conspiracy ring true in the modern context. At the time it was in response to Reagan’s presidency, and it’s all the more disturbing in a world with President Trump. The manipulation of media to suppress the instincts of the people and turn them into obedient cattle, the compliance of the wealthy being driven by greed, the exploitation of the workers, even the societal segregation of minorities…it reads like a warning of things to come.

Whether you’re revisiting this gem or discovering it for the first time, this is a good week to check out They Live. It’s the middle finger to authority we all need to enjoy.

Rating: NINE out of TEN