They Live

They Live
July 24th 2023

John Carpenter, a noted western genre fan, famously modeled his sophomore feature film, Assault on Precinct 13 (1976), on Howard Hawks’s iconic oater Rio Bravo (1959). So it’s not surprising that he opens up his late-’80s sci-fi film They Live (1988) as many cowboy films have begun: with a down-on-his-luck drifter making his way through town set to a twangy score (composed by Carpenter and his frequent sonic collaborator Alan Howarth). Like all of Carpenter’s films to that point, They Live is a harmonious marriage of old and new, combining reliable classical genre conventions with contemporary special effects and politics.

Outside of the dusty Vampires (1998), set in the Southwestern U.S., They Live is the closest that Carpenter came to making a bonafide western, a genre that was all but dead in the 1980s following the disastrous, and legendary, flop of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980). If not for Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider (1985) and Christopher Cain’s Young Guns (1988), American moviegoers could have avoided altogether cowboys on the silver screen.

Though he never wears a ten-gallon hat, Roddy Piper’s Nada, the drifter at the start of Carpenter’s film, is a cowboy for the 1980s: a jobless vagrant with a strong work ethic, a chip on his shoulder, and a duffel bag full of his belongings. After making his way to Los Angeles to start over, he finds himself working on a construction crew with the hot-headed Frank (Keith David) before stumbling upon a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see subliminal messages as well as aliens masquerading as humans, melding Carpenter’s love of old-sci fi films with the western conventions that have carried the film up until this point.

They Live is an interesting outlier for Carpenter, not because it isn’t concerned at all with being scary—neither are Starman (1984) or Big Trouble In Little China (1986)—but because of how openly political it is. In making his gruff, surprisingly comedic, sci-fi western, Carpenter also managed to make one of the defining sociopolitical films of the Reagan era, full of anti-capitalist rhetoric and an inherent distrust of the mass media. In typical fashion, none of this is handled subtly, including the scene in which Nada forces Frank to wear the magic sunglasses: a knowingly ludicrous, five-minute-and-twenty-second fight scene that became famous enough to be parodied on South Park. The black-and-white images of bold consumerist slogans throughout the environment have been a palpable influence on street art, fashion, and popular culture at large for decades now.

Though it has yet to earn the instant name recognition of the franchise-spawning Halloween (1978) or the technically groundbreaking The Thing (1982), They Live feels like Carpenter’s most culturally pervasive film, its sounds and images deeply ingrained in the zeitgeist. It’s a western, an alien invasion film, a buddy comedy, a political thriller and—especially at its climax—a legitimate ’80s action movie, all in one. And, like a slew of other machismo-heavy ’80s genre films, it helped, at least a little bit, to influence Duke Nukem 3D.

They Live screens tonight, July 24, at Nitehawk Williamsburg in 35mm.