Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||John Carpenter|
|Produced by||Larry Franco|
|Screenplay by||John Carpenter (as Frank Armitage)|
|Based on||"Eight O'Clock in the Morning"|
by Ray Nelson
|Cinematography||Gary B. Kibbe|
|Distributed by||Universal Pictures|
|Box office||$13 million|
They Live is a 1988 American science fiction film written and directed by John Carpenter, and based on the 1963 short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" by Ray Nelson. It follows an unnamed drifter[nb 1] played by Roddy Piper, who discovers that the ruling class are aliens concealing their appearance and manipulating people to spend money, breed, and accept the status quo with subliminal messages in mass media.
The film was a minor success at the time of its release, debuting #1 at the North American box office. It originally received negative reviews from critics, who criticized its social commentary, writing and acting. However, like other films of Carpenter, it later enjoyed a cult following and eventually became recognized as a largely underrated work and one of the best films of the 1980s. The film has also entered popular culture, and notably had a lasting impact on street art (particularly that of Shepard Fairey), while its near six-minute alley brawl between the protagonists makes appearances on all-time lists for best fight scenes.
Drifter "Nada" finds construction work in Los Angeles and befriends fellow construction worker Frank Armitage, who leads him to a shanty town soup kitchen. A bearded man with glasses who appears constantly in a disruptive television signal and a preacher both warn of conspiracies, and Nada discovers a nearby church is a front for scientific equipment. A fellow drifter regularly complains of the signal intervention. After the church is raided and the shantytown bulldozed by the police, Nada retrieves a box of sunglasses from the church's wall, wearing one pair and hiding the rest in an alley dumpster. The sunglasses reveal a hidden reality: the media and advertising hide omnipresent subliminal stimuli to obey, consume, reproduce, and conform, thus explaining humankind's passive attitudes towards progress and obsession with the banal, while many of the elite are actually grotesque aliens that look like dead corpses.
When Nada confronts an alien woman, she alerts others via a wristwatch communicator. Two alien police confront Nada, but he kills them and goes on a shooting spree with their guns, killing aliens in a nearby bank while one uses its wristwatch to vanish; Nada spares a human police officer. Nada escapes, taking Cable 54 assistant director Holly Thompson hostage. She rejects his claims and knocks him through the window of her luxurious hill-top home before calling the police; Nada escapes, but loses his sunglasses in the fall.
Now a fugitive, Nada returns to the alley and retrieves the box of sunglasses from a garbage truck. Frank meets Nada to give him his paycheck. Frank also disbelieves Nada, but Nada forces a pair of sunglasses onto his face after an extended street fight. Accepting what he has now seen, Frank goes into hiding with Nada. They learn of a secret meeting for anti-alien activists, where they are given contact lenses to replace the sunglasses. The aliens control Earth as they have other planets in the past; they deplete each planet's resources and destroy its environment before moving on to others. If the source of the aliens' broadcast signal can be destroyed, all of humanity will see the hidden reality. Holly arrives to join the cause, apologizing to Nada. The meeting is raided by police, who kill several anti-alien activists; Nada and Frank use a stolen alien wristwatch to escape through a portal, entering the aliens' secret command center.
Nada and Frank discover a banquet celebration of aliens and human collaborators. A collaborator approaches them, who is revealed as the drifter who formerly complained of the signal. He gives them a tour of the facility, assuming they are also collaborators. Nada and Frank exit into the basement of Cable 54, the source of the signal. They fight their way against armed guards through the building to the roof where the alien transmitter is disguised as a satellite dish. They encounter Holly, who joins them but then murders Frank; she is a collaborator. Nada kills Holly and destroys the transmitter, but is fatally wounded by aliens in a helicopter. With the signal destroyed, humans all over the world discover the aliens in their midst.
- Roddy Piper as Nada
- Keith David as Frank Armitage
- Meg Foster as Holly Thompson
- Raymond St. Jacques as Street Preacher
- George Buck Flower as Drifter/Collaborator
- Peter Jason as Gilbert
- Sy Richardson as Black Revolutionary
- Susan Blanchard as Ingenue
- Norman Alden as Construction Foreman
The idea for They Live came from a short story called "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" by Ray Nelson, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in November 1963, involving an alien invasion in the tradition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which Nelson, along with artist Bill Wray, adapted into a story called "Nada", published in the Alien Encounters comics anthology in April 1986. John Carpenter describes Nelson's story as "... a D.O.A.-type of story, in which a man is put in a trance by a stage hypnotist. When he awakens, he realizes that the entire human race has been hypnotized, and that alien creatures are controlling humanity. He has only until eight o'clock in the morning to solve the problem." Carpenter acquired the film rights to both the comic book and short story and wrote the screenplay, using Nelson's story as a basis for the film's structure.
The more political elements of the film are derived from Carpenter's growing distaste with the ever-increasing commercialization of 1980s popular culture and politics, particularly the influence of Reaganomics, the economic policies promoted by U.S. President Ronald Reagan. He remarked, "I began watching TV again. I quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something... It's all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money." To this end, Carpenter thought of sunglasses as being the tool to seeing the truth, which "is seen in black and white. It's as if the aliens have colorized us. That means, of course, that Ted Turner is really a monster from outer space." (Turner had received some bad press in the 1980s for colorizing classic black-and-white movies.) The director commented on the alien threat in an interview: "They want to own all our businesses. A Universal executive asked me, 'Where's the threat in that? We all sell out every day.' I ended up using that line in the film." The aliens were deliberately made to look like ghouls, according to Carpenter, who said, "The creatures are corrupting us, so they, themselves, are corruptions of human beings."
Because the screenplay was the product of so many sources—a short story, a comic book, and input from cast and crew—Carpenter decided to use the pseudonym "Frank Armitage", an allusion to one of the filmmaker's favorite writers, H. P. Lovecraft (Henry Armitage is a character in Lovecraft's The Dunwich Horror). Carpenter has always felt a close kinship with Lovecraft's worldview and according to the director, "Lovecraft wrote about the hidden world, the 'world underneath'. His stories were about gods who are repressed, who were once on Earth and are now coming back. The world underneath has a great deal to do with They Live."
For the crucial role of Nada the filmmaker cast professional wrestler Roddy Piper, whom he met at WrestleMania III earlier in 1987. For Carpenter it was an easy choice: "Unlike most Hollywood actors, Roddy has life written all over him." Carpenter was impressed with Keith David's performance in The Thing and needed someone "who wouldn't be a traditional sidekick, but could hold his own." To this end, Carpenter wrote the role of Frank specifically for Keith David.
They Live was shot in eight weeks during March and April 1988, principally on location in downtown L.A., with a budget only slightly greater than $3 million. One of the highlights of the film is a five-and-a-half minute alley fight between David and Piper over a pair of the special sunglasses. Carpenter recalls that the fight took three weeks to rehearse: "It was an incredibly brutal and funny fight, along the lines of the slugfest between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen in The Quiet Man."
The film opened on November 4, 1988, and debuted at #1 at the North American box office grossing $4.8 million during its opening weekend. The film spent two weeks in the top ten. The film had a total domestic gross of $13,008,928. Carpenter is on record as attributing the film's initial commercial failure to the hypothesis that those "who go to the movies in vast numbers these days don't want to be enlightened". The film's original release date, advertised in promotional material as October 21, 1988, was pushed back two weeks to avoid direct competition with Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (coincidentally, a sequel to a Carpenter film).
On November 6, 2012, Shout! Factory released a Collector's Edition of the film on both DVD and Blu-ray.
Rotten Tomatoes gave the film an approval rating of 85% based on 59 reviews; the average rating is 7.2/10. The website's critical consensus reads: "A politically subversive blend of horror and sci fi, They Live is an underrated genre film from John Carpenter." Metacritic gave the film a weighted average rating of 52 out of 100, based on 10 reviews, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
In his review for the Chicago Reader, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, "Carpenter's wit and storytelling craft make this fun and watchable, although the script takes a number of unfortunate shortcuts, and the possibilities inherent in the movie's central conceit are explored only cursorily." Jay Carr, writing for The Boston Globe, said "[O]nce Carpenter delivers his throwback-to-the-'50s visuals, complete with plump little B-movie flying saucers, and makes his point that the rich are fascist fiends, They Live starts running low on imagination and inventiveness", but felt that "as sci-fi horror comedy, They Live, with its wake-up call to the world, is in a class with Terminator and RoboCop, even though its hero doesn't sport bionic biceps". AllMovie contributor Paul Brenner gave the film three and a half out of five stars.
In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, "Since Mr. Carpenter seems to be trying to make a real point here, the flatness of They Live is doubly disappointing. So is its crazy inconsistency, since the film stops trying to abide even by its own game plan after a while." Richard Harrington wrote in The Washington Post, "it's just John Carpenter as usual, trying to dig deep with a toy shovel. The plot for They Live is full of black holes, the acting is wretched, the effects are second-rate. In fact, the whole thing is so preposterous it makes V look like Masterpiece Theatre." Rick Groen, in The Globe and Mail, wrote, "the movie never gets beyond the pop Orwell premise. The social commentary wipes clean with a dry towelette – it's not intrusive and not pedantic, just lighter-than-air."
The 2012 documentary film The Pervert's Guide to Ideology presented by Slovene philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek starts with an analysis of the film They Live: Žižek uses the main trope of the film, the wearing of the special sun-glasses reveals the truth of that which is perceived, to explain his definition of ideology. Žižek states:
They Live is definitely one of the forgotten masterpieces of the Hollywood Left. … The sunglasses function like a critique of ideology. They allow you to see the real message beneath all the propaganda, glitz, posters and so on. … When you put the sunglasses on you see the dictatorship in democracy, the invisible order which sustains your apparent freedom.
Rotten Tomatoes ranked the fight scene between Roddy Piper's character, Nada, and Keith David's character, Frank Armitage, seventh on their list of "The 20 Greatest Fights [sic] Scenes Ever". The fight scene influenced The Wrestler, whose director, Darren Aronofsky, interpreted the scene as a spoof. Shepard Fairey credits the film as a major source of inspiration, sharing a similar logo to his "Andre the Giant Has a Posse" campaign. "They Live was…the basis for my use of the word 'obey'," Fairey said. "The movie has a very strong message about the power of commercialism and the way that people are manipulated by advertising."
Jonathan Lethem called They Live one of his "favorite movies of the eighties, hands down". He said, "It's a great movie...Look at what it does to people, look at how it emboldens and provokes...It's disturbing and ridiculous and outrageous and uncomfortable, but I think it's the kind of great movie that doesn't really need defense, it just needs to be given the air." Lethem wrote a book-length homage to the movie for the Soft Skull Press Deep Focus series.
In Fall 2010, there was development on a remake of Carpenter's 1988 film They Live, with him in a producer role. In 2011, Matt Reeves signed on to direct and write the screenplay. Since then, there have been no new announcements: the movie is in development hell.
Awards and honors
|Fantasporto International Fantasy Film Award||Best Film||John Carpenter||Nominated|
|Saturn Award||Best Science Fiction Film||They Live||Nominated|
|Best Music||John Carpenter and Alan Howarth||Nominated|
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- EW Staff (August 27, 2008). "The Cult 25: The Essential Left-Field Movie Hits Since '83". Entertainment Weekly. Time. Retrieved August 16, 2016.
- Ryan, Tim (April 17, 2008). "Total Recall: The 20 Greatest Fights Scenes Ever". Rotten Tomatoes. Fandango Media. Retrieved December 14, 2016.
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- Kreps, Daniel (November 17, 2017). "See Green Day's 'They Live'-Inspired 'Back in the USA' Video". Rolling Stone. Retrieved December 13, 2017.
- "Biennale Cinema 2018, Venice Classics". labiennale.org. Retrieved 22 July 2018.
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