They Live (1988) Film Review

I think one of the things I hate most about films is when they seem to set-up these grand political ideas or social commentaries but never actually follow through with them. They Live directed by John Carpenter is absolutely one of those films that I was shocked to find that it had actually pretty great reviews online and is seemingly well received as a whole. John Nada (Roddy Piper) is an unemployed drifter who gets work in Los Angeles and becomes friends with another construction worker Frank Armitage (Keith David) and they both live in a local soup kitchen. Nada notices strange things going on with a church nearby and a helicopter flying above them in more than one instance. But the main strange thing happening is the TV signal being constantly interrupted with a warning about those in power. But suddenly the police come and bulldoze and attack the soup kitchen and leave the viewer confused but I guess…curious? I’m still not entirely sure that bulldozing an entire place without context was a smart choice right from the start but that’s a minor complaint compared to the rest of the film.

Nada escapes but he also stole a box of sunglasses from the church and he discovers that putting them on causes him to see many different things, for one thing, black and white cinematography is used for the POV shots of Nada and I actually quite enjoyed that artistic choice but beyond that, Nada sees what everything in the city is really telling him. The advertisements that are lies to make you purchase things change to the words “OBEY” or “CONFORM” and all the products around him instead show the words of “CONSUME” and all the sudden I was getting excited. I thought maybe this film was going to be great but everything pretty much falls apart within ten minutes. Nada also sees certain people with skeleton/alien-like faces and without any indication Nada just starts shooting the living hell outta them. And just wait a damn minute, isn’t there a problem with that? He hasn’t a damn clue what is actually going on but his first plan is just shoot the living hell out of everyone who is supposedly an alien but he actually has no idea? It’s absurd and ridiculous.

The movie then completely devolves into a generic 80s action flick instead of having anything smart to say politically. The characters are bland and two-dimensional and many of the actors are mediocre at best. We have plenty of bad one-liners that only get soft chuckles. We have scene after scene of admittedly well-directed action scenes but they become boring when they just come one after another. John Carpenter is (was because let’s be honest, has he made anything of merit in like the past 15 years or so?) a competent director and his movies have actually explored decent political or social ideas through Escape From New York (one of my favorite films of all time) or The Thing and the dude helped invent the slasher genre with Halloween. What happened here? This movie could have been incredibly smart. This movie could have said plenty of great things about the effects of advertisements on the human brain, the effects of television and how it can actually very much negatively effect people or influence their thinking in a bad way, and essentially could have made some very serious comments on how many people lack thinking for themselves or real independence.

I do admit that maybe the movie was ahead of its time especially considering this movie could easily be remade nowadays with the effect of the Internet on people, which goes far deeper than television with social media outlets. Oddly, I would love a remake of this film but with much deeper ideas and exploring the content it should have explored instead of boring me with action sequences that are a dime a dozen in Hollywood. I need less of this Hollywood with its action scenes and more important commentary on the state of the world and humans as a whole…that’s why I love films in first place. They Live is a film that could have been but failed to deliver on almost every level.


2/5 stars


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