director John Carpenter
The mordant satire of John Carpenter’s 1988 movie They Live is evident most avidly if you happen to simply Google “they live artwork” or “they live poster“. I’d been thinking about the image I’d seen by Mitch O’Connell, his They Live/Trump, but it’s evident that artists on any side of the political spectrum can don the shades and see alien ghouls behind any political figure.
While it’s now a cult favorite, I’ll have to be honest and say that when I saw it in the theaters in 1988, I didn’t totally dig it. I didn’t dig it in part because I didn’t like Roddy Piper (or professional wrestling) at the time. The now legendary wrestling-style fight sequence between Piper and co-star Keith David, the absurd length of it, it seemed comic but not entirely intentional. And as far as kicking ass and bubblegum, some zingers get more amusing on repeat than on first delivery. Just ask Baby over in the corner there.
They Live seems to have come at a turning point in Carpenter’s career, leaving behind the fecund 1970’s and 1980’s and heading over into mediocrity and a pointed lack of invention. Maybe it was the disappointment of They Live that engendered that in some part.
But They Live now lives much more than in 1988. It’s go-to Capitalist critique imagery is glib but utterly apt. Would that political awakening were as easy as sliding on sunglasses to see behind the veneer of culture and society.
I’ve come around to Piper. I thought at the time I first saw it that the film’s lack of dialogue was perhaps due to concerns of his performance. Who knows? The long moments that are dialogue-free wind up being quite effective. The silliness of the alien ghouls works as cartoonish short-hand and has become iconic.
It may not be an entirely great film, but it has elements of greatness, and those elements elevate the picture and are the fodder for cultural references to the film ever since.