Taking a Second Look at John Carpenter’s 1988 They Live


Remember how the design and F/X work in Elysium was so much more persuasive than its populist morals?

Medium and message are more congruent in John Carpenter’s wonderful 1988 sci-fi agitprop They Live, which cost a thrifty $3 million and, frankly, looks it. The picture stars one Roderick George Toombs — better known to pro-wrestling devotees as “Rowdy” Roddy Piper — as a strapping, backstory-free drifter who boxcars into Los Angeles seeking work.

As with Keanu Reeves in the similar The Matrix, Piper’s limited range is a feature, not a bug. (Could Daniel Day-Lewis improve upon Piper’s line reading when tasked to tell a well-dressed older woman, “You know, you look like your head fell in the cheese dip back in 1957”?)

A homeless camp that welcomes him in turns out to be a base for the resistance against — oh, hey, didn’t you know? — Earth’s capitalist alien occupiers, revealed when you wear the right sunglasses as bulbous-eyed ghouls, like live-action Matt Groening drawings.

These Wayfarers block “the signal” that hides the aliens’ appearance and reveal the sans-serif orders encoded on every billboard and magazine cover: “OBEY”; “MARRY AND REPRODUCE.”

There’s something winning about the fairy-tale simplicity of Carpenter’s allegory — compared to this, RoboCop is Candide. Its action scenes are unmemorable, with the exception of a gonzo brawl between Piper and Keith David; They Live is, to scramble its most famous line, better at chewing bubblegum than kicking ass.