They Live DVD Review

Written by Harvey Click

DVD released by Universal Studios


Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Ray Nelson (short story "Eight O'Clock in the Morning") and John Carpenter (screenplay)
1988, Region 1 (NTSC), 95 minutes, Rated R
DVD released on September 23rd, 2003

Roddy Piper as Nada
Keith David as Frank
Meg Foster as Holly



John Carpenter’s movies are all over the grade scale from A (The Thing) to D (Ghosts of Mars), and unfortunately They Live isn’t anywhere near the top of the class. It’s based on a story by Ray Nelson, but its premise is also strikingly reminiscent of “Faith of Our Fathers,” a story that Philip K. Dick published in 1966. In Dick’s story a man takes a drug which allows him to see that the supreme leader of the world is in fact a grotesque, malevolent alien, while in Carpenter’s movie a man dons a pair of sunglasses which allow him to see that many “people” in power are in fact grotesque, malevolent aliens. Dick’s story follows its premise through many startling twists and turns to explore the nature of man, “reality,” and God, while Carpenter’s movie follows its premise through many predictable meanders to preach a trite and heavy-handed political sermon.


This sermon has already been hammered into our skulls long before our hapless everyman hero (named Nada and played by pro wrestler Roddy Piper) finally gets around to donning his shades, but then even his dim brain begins to perceive the “truth” that the evil aliens (whose faces resemble Halloween masks too cheap for even Michael Myers to wear) are controlling the rest of us poor slobs with subliminal commands hidden on TV screens, billboards, and the pages of magazines and newspapers, commands such as Obey, Consume, Avoid Independent Thought, and Vote Republican. Okay, I made up the final one, but you get the picture. In case you don’t, Carpenter makes it even more obvious with every plodding step of the plot (if one can call it that) and even with a series of lectures. Yes, I said lectures, a series of short but interminably tedious lectures by a gray-bearded bore who bears an appalling resemblance to an especially tiresome sociology professor whose classes I once suffered through. For the benefit of those particularly dense students dozing in the back of the class, Professor Carpenter spells out his point by saying that the aliens are “free enterprisers” who are exploiting earth “like a third world country.”

Are you taking notes? Remember, there will be a pop quiz tomorrow on the evils of capitalism.


Since Carpenter allows his satirical sermon to overwhelm suspense, character development, humor, horror, pathos, and all other dramatic considerations, perhaps it’s appropriate to critique the sermon instead of the story. For starters, one may wonder why these evil alien capitalists are so determined to keep us impoverished, since they also want us to Consume. After all, it’s kind of hard to keep the insidious consumption ball rolling when you ain’t got a farthing to fart on. One may also wonder why these dastardly capitalist aliens waste so much effort ordering the hoi polloi to consume too much and think too little, since these traits seem to come quite naturally to the majority of humans.

More importantly, one may wonder if a sermon deserves to be called satirical when it’s merely trotting out the same party line that’s preached every day in 90% of American universities, newspapers, magazines, and TV news shows. Just listen to NPR or read the NYT, and you certainly won’t need special sunglasses to see the same conventional message there that Carpenter tries to pass off here as cutting satire.


They Live isn’t entirely bad. It’s a John Carpenter movie after all, so eventually there are some buildings exploding, guns blasting, and other noisy attempts to make it appear that something is happening, but they come too late and when they come they seem to belong in a different movie. It’s as if the humorless gray-bearded sociology professor decides to show a Keystone Cops short subject after his lengthy lecture to fill out the last 20 minutes of class. Even the most dyspeptic viewers will probably enjoy the comically prolonged fist fight that ensues when Nada tries to get his buddy to try on the Captain Marvel secret-decoder sunglasses, but it’s rather sad when a back-alley brawl is the most memorable moment in a 95 minute sci-fi “thriller.” Roddy Piper manages to remember his lines, and Meg Foster is given only a few minutes on screen, which is a very good thing indeed.


Now that I’m in a praising mood I wish I could say that the score is good, but it’s not. John Carpenter, perhaps to save money, likes to write his own scripts and compose his own music, but it's interesting that in his best movie (The Thing) he did neither. The score of They Live is his worst, a repetitive scrap of watery keyboard noodling so insipid that, compared to it, the most vapid New Age music sounds like Gustav Mahler. Its brain-numbing banality makes me wonder if Carpenter was trying to hypnotize his viewers into a kind of stupor so they’d be more receptive to his sermon—but that would make him rather like his evil aliens, wouldn’t it?


Video and Audio:

Though there are rumors that this is an exact copy of the earlier Image DVD, the 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer looks clean and crisp with sharp colors, so I have no complaints.

I don’t have a surround-sound system, but the Dolby surround sounds clear and oomphy through my stereo speakers.

Special Features:

Nada, just like the character’s name.


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