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John Carpenter's They Live (1988): A Movie Review

Updated on April 10, 2019
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The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


Former professional wrestling entertainment great, Roddy Rowdy Piper takes the lead role in this science fiction film.

John Carpenter's films remind me of the novels of Philip K. Dick. Dick is my favorite science fiction writer, and one of my favorite writers overall. This is because of what I refer to as the controlled wackiness of Dick's work.

What I mean by that is that, one the one hand, Dick's work always features what I would call a positively whimsical creativity (He gives himself permission to go all out, if you know what I mean); and on the other hand there is always the sense of tight control.

One always feels like the stories are under control, that the writer knows what he is doing at all times; and that the reader is always in good hands. Because of Dick's tight focus, he is able to fit a lot of story into relatively short spaces; you see, his novels typically run under 250 pages.

Two-hundred-fifty pages is rather short by today's standards for science fiction novels. Similarly, John Carpenter's films run on the short side by today's standards. In an interview with fellow director, Robert Rodriguez for the show The Director's Chair, on the El Rey Network --- Carpenter talked about the importance of a director always knowing where his film is ultimately going.

Anyway, the plot goes like this: Roddy Rowdy Piper plays a drifter who finds a pair of special sunglasses, that allow him to see the true nature of reality beneath the surface. Some of the things he sees are both disturbing and horrible.

Could it be that aliens from another world had quietly come to Earth and infiltrated themselves all over our society, particularly in important positions in entertainment, news media, and politics?

The answer, of course, is yes, because that is the plot.

This film is both conventional and unconventional.

In talking about the film's unconventionality, I have to mention the film Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.

I reviewed that film here on Hub Pages, as well. I called Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter an important film because of an unusual decision it made for the action-horror genre.

Horror films usually implicitly blame the supernatural monsters for the problems facing a particular group of people. The monsters come from the supernatural realm to terrorize people because:

  • An unfortunate family dared to move into a certain house
  • An unfortunate person dared to buy or steal a certain artifact without payment or due authorization
  • Ancient burial grounds were disturbed in some way
  • An evil object fell into the hands of a gullible person foolish enough to open it
  • And so on and so forth

The destruction of the monsters is always the be all and end all, the number one priority. Failure to do so always means that "all is lost."

This happens not to be the decision taken by Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter. In the end, the film actually prioritized the ending of slavery above the destruction of the vampires. You see, the film tells us that, had it not been for the institution of slavery, behind which the bloodsuckers could hide and organize, they could have never become so powerful --- in the same way that Hydra's power was magnified exponentially through its infiltration of SHIELD.

The message of the film, then, was something like: Yes, vampires feed on human blood, but what they really feed on is human evil.

And speaking of Captain America: Winter Soldier...

Those of you familiar with that film will recall that insight of diabolical genius that the Hydra organization came up with is this: In order for them to take power, the people would, ultimately, have to give it to them willingly.

What better way to do this than for the monsters to plant themselves deep within the heart of trusted institutions?

Yes, monsters may feed on the blood of humans, but they really and truly feed on human evil and authoritarian overreach.

So, "They Live" is unconventional in that it does not implicitly blame the monsters for all human problems. It is even suggested that the aliens have formed a symbiotic partnership with what the film calls "the human power elite."

"They Live" is conventional in that, at the end of the day, the exposure and eventual destruction of the monsters is prioritized as the be all and end all. This is understandable, of course, because slavery (in Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter) is simple and specific; the machinations of "the human power elite" are not.

One more thing

In that interview with Mr. Rodriguez, Carpenter talks about how important it is that a filmmaker not let the size of his ideas be constrained by the limitations of his budget.

Anyway, he makes that pay off with a beautiful shot of how the aliens move back and forth between their planet and Earth. It is a fantastic special effect, simple and powerful; it stands up very well to this day.

This is a good one: 7 out of 10.

Thank you for reading!


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