“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum.” ~ The Drifter
Made in 1988, They Live is one of John Carpenter’s underrated classics. When this film begins, there really isn’t much forewarning of the kind of sci-fi trip it’s going to become. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s just a story about a small-town man trying to make it in the big city. The main character is a drifter who, like the protagonist of Fight Club, is never named, and who ends up descending pretty quickly into the city’s slums, taking whatever odd jobs he can find and befriending the other locals living in poverty. The setting is firmly in the world of Eighties America.
At first there’s a few hints that not all is well in the world, as people huddled round chairs in the slums comment on inequality and the controlling government, as preachers in parks talk of fighting back against the true ‘masters of the world’ and are quickly subdued by the police. The drifter, though, stays detached from this struggle, until the discovery of a shipment of sunglasses in a cult church’s storeroom makes him question everything.
I won’t go into too much detail regarding what happens, as it’s best to watch it yourself, but the summation is thus: it’s a fight against the one percent in which the one percent are explicitly and undeniably alien. The horrific reality of their appearance echoes their controlling nature, and it’s all masked by visual trickery, hiding behind beauty and conformity.
The film is intended as a satire, but it’s entertaining to take it either way. Sci-fi as a metaphor for the very real ruling elite of the world today, or a real conspiracy replete with metaphysics and sentient non-human life forms, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Now, the way in which the horror unfolds, what to say about this without revealing anything too much? It’s an excellent play on the ‘hidden monster’ trope, that’s for sure, and while the monster design is antiquated to a modern audience, it is nonetheless unsettling.
The musical score, partially written by John Carpenter himself, is an odd mix of bluesy guitar and a thudding heartbeat of a bassline, and what’s so interesting about this is that it continues near-on incessantly for the majority of the film. This drone becomes a backbone for the entire film, and it does an effective job of pulling you into this terrifying, monotonous and bleak world.
I would give this film a solid 5 stars: not only is it a great sci-fi horror movie with a fantastic satirical message on governments, power and control, but it also has a moody soundtrack, memorable quotes, an immensely satisfying ending that deviates from the conventional American hero formula, and one of the longest and most realistic fight scenes in cinema.
So go ahead and give this cult classic a shot. One thing’s for sure – you’ll never look at advertising in the same way again. And keep your sunglasses on.
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