John Carpenter’s ‘THEY LIVE’ Turns Twenty-Five

They Live!John Carpenter’s They Live (1988) doesn’t sound like a classic movie: A drifter wanders into Nowheresville USA — a Los Angeles neighborhood devastated by an economic recession. After witnessing some suspicious activity surrounding a strange church, the man discovers a box of special sunglasses which reveal that the reality he’s come to take for granted is anything but what it seems. Add a starring role for professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and one would assume They Live was potboiler sci-fi with a clever gimmick and a B-list “star.”

The problem with this assessment is that it forgets that this is a movie made by a man who practically created slasher films with Halloween and whose ability to infuse cliche-filled genres with deep, emotional and subversive content made him a legend.

They Live is a conspiracy-laden masterpiece of popcorn paranoia that manages to be as entertaining as it is startling. A class war battering ram of a movie, the flick makes the moneyed into monsters while elevating its blue collar lead to the status of a revolutionary hero.

No spoilers here. If you haven’t seen the flick, do! Whether you have or not, enjoy this take by Carpenter himself, talking about his inspirations for They Live in celebration of the film’s 25th birthday. The LA Times has the skinny:

Carpenter discussed his motivation in making “They Live,” a campy but subversive sci-fi flick that starred professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as the film’s blue-collar hero Nada, who discovers an alien conspiracy to mind-control the people of Earth using invisible messages. Carpenter called “They Live” his most political film and said it was his response to consumerism and class disparity in the 1980s.

“By the end of the ’70s there was a backlash against everything in the ’60s, and that’s what the ’80s were, and Ronald Reagan became president, and Reagonomics came in,” Carpenter told the sold-out theater at the Chinese 6 Theatres in Hollywood. “So a lot of the ideals that I grew up with were under assault, and something called a yuppie came into existence, and they just wanted money. And so by the late ’80s, I’d had enough, and I decided I had to make a statement, as stupid and banal as it is, but I made one, and that’s ‘They Live.’ … I just love that it was giving the finger to Reagan when nobody else would.”

Here’s the trailer:

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  • Anarchy Pony

    Awesome movie.

    • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

      I’ve loved it since the first time I saw it in the early ’90’s

  • Gergith

    Great movie!

    In terms of old movies that startle me how relevant they remain, They Live and Network tops my list in that regard!

    • Dingbert

      I’d tack “Brazil,” “Robocop,” and “The Running Man” on there, too. Heck, even “The People Under the Stairs” has relevant social commentary.

      • Gergith

        All awesome! It’s sad that Robocop seems to be an OPTIMISTIC outlook for Detroit :p hehehe

        • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

          Just talking about Robocop today. I’m from Detroit and its totally insane what a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure that place has become. I still love it though and refer to it as “The City that Brought you the 20th Century” whenever I can.

          • http://singedrac.livejournal.com Singe

            Not to mention the police actually do drive Ford Tauruses now.

            And this fake commercial from Robocop pretty much sums up middle east politics to this very day: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OmSSVt7Mfkk

          • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

            Thanks for the vid!

      • Anarchy Pony

        Love me some Robocop. “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”

        • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

          Although it’s lost on some people, Starship Troopers has its tongue boring a whole in its cheek throughout. The DVD commentary on that one is priceless.

          • http://registradus.tumblr.com/ Marcus

            never listened to the Starship Troopers commentary. will have to give it a listen

          • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

            It’s hilarious! Verhoeven and the writer totally frustrated that viewers didn’t “get” their satire. Really funny and insightful. Check it out and let me know what you think. Hope you enjoy!

      • wcarver

        “Brazil” is one of my all time favorite films, It and “Blade Runner” are the only DVD’s that I own. I’ve seen “They Live” twice – it’s a classic.

  • Hadrian999

    love that movie, he has made a lot of my favorite movies

    • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

      Thanks for the comment. Yeah, I as I wrote, I love his ability to imbue trashy genres with complex concepts and really lacerating – no pun – commentary :)

      • Hadrian999

        what he did with “Big trouble in little china” was great

        • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

          Totally! I also love what he and Russell did with Escape from New York.

  • Juan

    A classic, for sure. Loved this film.

    • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

      Instantly hooked

    • Hocketeer

      Now put on those goddamn funky shades!

      • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

        It’s for your own good! I’m not afraid to fight you in an alley for the next 20 minutes if that’s what it takes to make you understand…

  • Matt Staggs

    Anyone read Jonathan Lethem’s book on the film? I’m a big fan of both ‘They Live’ and Lethem, so I snapped it up. http://www.salon.com/2010/11/06/lethem_slide_show/

    • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

      Didn’t know about this, Matt. How’s it read? Thanks for the tip!

      • Matt Staggs

        Really good book. It’s a bit stream of consciousness, as it seems he wrote it while watching the film in real time, but you’d probably enjoy it.

        • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

          Hilarious review :) Thanks, Matt!

  • Tchoutoye

    Saw it for the first time last week. Simple yet strong concept that even a mullet-wearing wrestler b-actor in the lead role can’t detract from. A very welcome antidote to the style-over-substance fare we get nowadays. And even more relevant today than when it came out.

    Apparently it was leading the box offices but got mysteriously pulled from the theatres after 2 weeks.

    • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

      Glad the flick still plays for newbies. As someone who’s seen it multiple times over the years I’m still shocked and how angry and outrageous some of the criticism is. It reminds me of the first time I heard Bill Hicks and just couldn’t believe the shit that guy was saying and the rage he was saying it with. Thanks for the comment!

      • http://www.incunabula.org/ Ong’s Hat

        And the bonus question I always ask people in regards to this movie: “What was the name of the special glasses that revealed the true reality and what do you think this was a wink and a nod to?”

        • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

          Hoffman Lenses! Always assumed after Albert. Could it be that simple? :)

  • bsackamano

    We live in the world of this movie. Who controls the press, hollywood, finance, government, etc etc. Who controls the oil cartel, International bankster cartel, media cartel, entertainment cartel, pharmaceutical cartel, etc etc. We in America have been bred to dismiss as crazy “conspiracy nuts” anything the government and TV doesn’t approve of: we are brainwashed dupes fighting for Israeli Zionists in control of our country. Ever read the actual laws on the books in Israel? AIPAC? ADL? What about the “dual” citizens in almost every position in our government? Especially the Bush ones but just as many in the Obama one. WAKE UP. I expect better from this website unless it’s like Alex Jones, a Bronfman front.
    Obama=Goldman Sachs=Rothschilds=NWO Dictatorship. SLAVERY for non-Zionists(gentiles,
    goyim). We are their cattle.
    —————————–
    USA–>Economic Collapse(Rothschild Plan)AND/OR WW3(Via False flag)—> MARTIAL LAW
    DHS—–>IMF/World Bank NWO Rothschild “Bailout”——>”Austerity”(Slavery, camps, rations,
    etc) for ALL!!!

    • chipper

      Unfortunately what you say is true.

      The guys in the movie did something about it though.

      What are good ways to resist besides graffiti/art, stealing, meditation, and informing others etc.?

      • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

        Love your list of solutions :D “Steal something. Meditate…”

        • chipper

          Haha at least from big business anyway :)

          What Would Rowdy Do?

          • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

            WWRRPD? Make the shirt!

  • DeepCough

    This link will probably get taken down, and I think you will all know the reason why……

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hgShLYGORXQ

    • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

      Thanks for the comment (and the link…shh…) ;)

  • Ethan Celery

    The commentary track from John Carpenter and Roddy Piper is very informative, IMO.

    • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

      WOW. Never heard that! Thanks for the tip and for the comment. :)

      • Antonia Oakes

        Oh, I wanna hear that!

        • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

          I’ll make this my very first Blu-Ray

  • Dingbert

    Man, I need to start writing “THIS IS YOUR GOD” on my money again . . .

    • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

      Great idea! Lots of real lo tech creativity on display in this flick – that’s half its charm!

    • http://singedrac.livejournal.com Singe

      I prefer rubber-stamping it in UV ink. :D (see above)

  • Eric_D_Read

    Hot Rod!

  • believein1

    By far one of my favorite movies. Who knew Roddy Piper could pull off such a performance?

    • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

      It’s not the most challenging role in the world, but one that a lesser actor could’ve butchered. He done himself proud in this one.

      • believein1

        I just figured a pro wrestler would be severely lacking in the acting department…but then you think about what pro wrestling entails and…..

        • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

          Totally! Those guys are circus performers. It may sound odd, but I’ve never seen a bad, boring documentary about pro wrestlers. Always fascinating.

  • elvister crowley

    I like how they have to wear their “Hoffman shades” to see things as they really are.

    • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

      See @ongshat:disqus bonus question above.

    • http://registradus.tumblr.com/ Marcus

      does this mean that only hipsters see the truth?

      • elvister crowley

        Of course, it’s the lens free Sally Jesse Rafael glasses that cause hipsters to see the truth the rest of us barbarians can’t see.

  • Hadrian999

    I swear Kieth David has to be one of the most prolific black actors…..scratch that, one of the most prolific actors period

    • marshall

      agreed about the prolific part…he is one of my favorite actors of all time.

      • Hadrian999

        I looked him up on IMDB, I don’t know when he sleeps between his film work and video game work

        • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

          He’s a great character actor – which is the best kind. He’s got a great voice to boot!

  • http://singedrac.livejournal.com Singe

    A couple months ago I ordered a custom “THIS IS YOUR GOD” stamp and some UV-reactive ink, and since then I’ve been stamping this on all my money. :)

    • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

      This is AMAZING

      • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

        Where’d you get your stamp/UV ink?

        • http://singedrac.livejournal.com Singe

          I ordered my stamp from rubberstampchamp.com . You have to specify font and size and all sorts of things. I can’t recall all the specifications but I got a ‘1″ x 5″ Hand Stamp’

          The UV ink I bought from Amazon. It’s “opticz blacklight reactive blue invisible ink”

          • http://joenolan.com/blog Joe Nolan

            Awesome, Singe! I love the creativity here. Thanks for the info and suggestions!

        • http://singedrac.livejournal.com Singe

          Whups, looks like my comment didn’t go through. Got the UV ink from amazon (you can see the brand in one of the photos) and got the stamp as a custom thing from rubberstampchamp dot com.

    • http://registradus.tumblr.com/ Marcus

      GENIUS

  • http://registradus.tumblr.com/ Marcus

    so many classic moments in this film. very influential.

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