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They Live

Entry updated 3 April 2020. Tagged: Film.

Film (1988). Alive Films. Directed by John Carpenter. Written by Frank Armitage (pseudonym of Carpenter), based on "Eight O'Clock in the Morning" (November 1963 F&SF) by Ray Nelson. Cast includes Keith David, Meg Foster and Roddy Piper. 94 minutes. Colour.

After several not very successful films for major studios (Starman [1984], Christine [1983]), Carpenter went independent again for this, his best film for years and, though it did not do much in the marketplace, most popular with the critics. Based on a six-page Ray Nelson story about the USA being controlled by disguised Aliens (partly a satirical attack on Television), it expands its original cleverly, and is a model of taut, B-movie narrative skills. In a depression-ridden, conformist USA, Nada (Piper), a labourer who has just gained employment in Los Angeles (see California), is puzzled by intimations of something not quite right. He accidentally discovers a cache of Perception-altering sunglasses that, when worn, reveal Subliminal codes all over the City, urging submission to authority, and also finds that many wealthier-looking citizens are in fact skull-faced aliens, Secret Masters exploiting what to them is a Third-World colony. An excellent formula film, They Live is almost something more ambitious as well – but settles for action. [PN]

see also: Monster Movies; Paranoia.

further reading

  • Jonathan Lethem. They Live (Berkeley, California: Soft Skull Press/Counterpoint, 2010) [nonfiction: in the publisher's Deep Focus series: pb/Spacesick]
  • D Harlan Wilson. They Live (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014) [nonfiction: pb/photographic]


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