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Watch John Carpenter's satirical masterpiece They Live on Peacock
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John Carpenter’s They Live is among the very best cinematic satire, and fortunately, you can watch it now on NBCUniversal’s streaming service Peacock.
Good satire seems to be an increasingly rare artform at a time when misinformation exists alongside both real news and joke posts making fun of real news. You might log onto Facebook and see someone advocating for humans to eat chicken feed as the one true way to prevent chickenpox. Maybe someone’s having a laugh, or maybe you’ve stumbled upon another weird but entirely sincere corner of the internet. It’s getting harder and harder to tell.
But there’s plenty of amazing satire still out there. Sorry to Bother You, The Lobster, and Jojo Rabbit are just a few recent examples.
Reaching further back, Carpenter put out some incredible examples of the form, and They Live is among his most timeless. It’s not to be missed.
What is They Live about?
A drifter shows up in LA looking for work in the opening scenes of They Live. Taking refuge in a homeless encampment, he soon starts noticing some odd comings and goings at a nearby church. And he’s noticed a recurring broadcast hacking into the news too, warning people to be vigilant.
What exactly do they need to be vigilant about? A mysterious group is brainwashing people. They’re conning us into being complicit with a way of life that favors the rich and is quickly ruining the planet.
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The warnings prove true. After getting his hands on special glasses, our drifter can suddenly see through the lies. An alien race is blending in with people, and they’ve hidden subliminal messages everywhere. Magazine covers, ads, and store signs, when viewed through the glasses, suddenly reveal themselves to be orders: “Obey,” “Do not question authority,” “Stay asleep,” and the like.
Now he has to fight back and keep these aliens from fully taking over and ensuring we all go along with our own slow destruction.
A timeless portrait of America?
They Live has stood the test of time because it tackles the major problems of the day — nearly every day, it seems.
The problems the world faces in They Live are much the same as the problems of today. What does being complicit in 1988 mean? It means accepting our overreliance on fossil fuels and the depletion of the planet’s resources. It means letting civil rights and racial equality fall by the wayside. And it means buying into an ever-growing wealth gap.
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The film is so non-specific in its creation of a world in ruins that a fresh coat of paint — some hot young actors, a few nods to current events, and an updated aesthetic — would make it speak perfectly to the woes of 2021.
I’ll let you decide for yourself whether you think that’s a mark for the film or against society. I tend to think it’s a bit of both.
They Live reveals how little progress we've made since 1988.
Of course, those broad strokes have also made They Live a favorite among people who frankly miss its meaning entirely. Sadly, it’s been embraced by white supremacists and neo-nazis, a tiny but decidedly vocal part of its cult following. John Carpenter even felt compelled to put those unsavory associations in their proper place. In 2017, he clarified that his film’s intention was (obviously) never to point to some paranoid, antisemitic delusion of a Jewish conspiracy to control society from the shadows.
Satire does tend to invite horrendous misreadings though. The Fight Club fans who glorify the novel and movie’s protagonist are another great example.
John Carpenter was on a roll!
One remarkable thing about They Live is that it’s just one of about a dozen truly great films the director released in the span of a decade or so. John Carpenter was absolutely on fire throughout the 1980s.
After closing out the 70s with stone-cold classics like Assault on Precinct 13 and Halloween, he spent the next decade making some of the most memorable films of his career, with They Live finishing strong.
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This was a filmmaker at the top of his game, and it’s a shame he’s stepped almost entirely out of the limelight since.
Luckily, we can return to They Live and his other hits whenever we like.