They Live [1988]: A Biting Satire On Modern Society

A biting satire on modern society that actually makes more sense today than it did at its time of release, John Carpenter’s They Live is a cleverly envisioned, intricately layered & rivetingly told sci-fi horror that was far ahead of its time, and its critical take on the power of commercialism & influence of advertising on the masses is only growing more relevant with time.

The story follows a drifter who arrives in Los Angeles looking for work and stumbles upon a pair of sunglasses that allows him to see everything around him for what they really are. As he learns that the subliminal messages in mass media are part of a hidden agenda by aliens masquerading as human beings to keep the human civilization subdued, he tries to reveal the truth to the world.

Written & directed by John Carpenter (best known for Halloween & The Thing), They Live takes its time to establish its bleak atmosphere, and only escalates once all the pieces on the board are set. Keeping a firm grip on the pacing & build up, the director paints a grim portrait of what mankind is reduced to but it is the film’s close proximity with our current scenario that makes it compelling on so many levels.

Carpenter doesn’t hold back in illustrating the corrupting power of mass media and captures the omnipresent subliminal commands behind every advertising banner for what they are. Greyscale photography is utilized to illustrate the truth while colored segments represent the world that’s completely oblivious to the reality it’s living in. Carpenter’s score here may not rank amongst his finest compositions but it still works.

Coming to the performances, the cast is led by noted WWF icon “Rowdy” Roddy Piper and features Keith David & Meg Foster in supporting roles. Piper is surprisingly low-key here, compared to his volatile in-ring persona, and chips in with a measured input that aptly articulates his character’s emotions & confusion. David delivers a sturdy performance that stands neck to neck with Piper’s, while Foster’s work has an enigmatic quality to it.

High On Films in collaboration with Avanté

On an overall scale, They Live is a brilliantly directed, deftly scripted, exquisitely witted, skilfully photographed, expertly edited, splendidly performed & finely scored example of its genre(s) that paints an unsettling portrait of the world we live in, and is another underrated gem from Carpenter that’s well deserving of its cult following. Smart, subversive & stimulating, this political satire has aged like wine and will continue to resonate strongly & more deeply as the years roll on.


They Live Links: IMDb, Wikipedia.

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