"THEY LIVE, known generally as a 'cult' film, lends itself to obsession," Jonathan Lethem writes early in They Live, the first book in Soft Skull Press' new "Deep Focus" series of pop film writing. Lethem isn't lying: There are reasons why John Carpenter's low-budget sci-fi flick from 1988 still rears its mulleted head, whether it's hero Rowdy Roddy Piper's infamous quote ("I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I am all out of bubble gum.") or a half-remembered image of one of the film's cheap-looking "ghouls," the zombie-like aliens who've secretly taken over Earth.
While Lethem's perfectly aware—and appreciative—of They Live's shitty special effects and tone-deaf one-liners, he draws occasionally surprising—but not unapt—connections to Godard, Philip K. Dick, or John Ford.
Lethem's extended geek-out is most interesting when he focuses on Carpenter—who, by '88, was past his glory days of Escape from New York and The Thing. "Carpenter really doesn't care whether or not you get that he gets it," Lethem says of They Live's humor. "He'd far sooner be mistaken for an audience-laughing-at-you-not-with-you artist than slow the pace of the film, or wreck its tone, by underlining its jokes." Perhaps unexpectedly, Carpenter's They Live is weirdly great and knowingly witty; totally expectedly, so is Lethem's smart book. More than anything else, though, Lethem's They Live is obsessed—and it's the best sort of obsession, too. The contagious kind.