They Live (1988)
By: Mr Intolerance on November 2, 2007  |  Comments  |  Bookmark and Share
Universal (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0. French, Spanish, English (FHI) Subtitles. 95 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: John Carpenter
Starring: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Meg Foster
Writer: Frank Armitage
Country: USA
Nada (ex-WWF wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper – woo-hoo!!!), a lonely hobo, drifts into Los Angeles looking for work. He rapidly finds out that it's a cold harsh land out there. As he works for a construction site, and lives in a homeless commune, he becomes aware of something weird – a kind of conspiracy.

We get the American Dream gone horribly wrong – Nada "follows the rules", as he puts it, but is still a homeless bum. Frank (played by the chronically under-used Keith David, from The Thing), his construction-site friend, is kicking against the pricks and looking out for number one, but getting nowhere – representing, in a moral sense, the US's laissez-faire foreign policy for the early part of the 20th century. The Dream itself has been subsumed by aliens who are dwelling secretly amongst us, keeping us "asleep, keep (ing) us selfish, keep (ing us) sedated". My brackets, obviously. An indictment against modern US consumerist society? Certainly, and a pretty searing one, too, through the conformist characters presented to us.

The aliens have us totally bent over, and are shoving their horrible alien cocks up our unresisting collective arses. But Nada is one arsehole that fights back (I think I shall drop this rather tasteless metaphor…), after he sees the peaceful community he lives with get one hell of an arse-stomping by the police (the majority of whom are aliens). He finds a bunch of rather mysterious sunglasses developed by the Resistance to these alien bastards, which allow you to see who the aliens are, and see through their subliminal mind-controlling methods, especially evident via billboard advertising. The Resistance also try to break through the aliens' signal on television (an obvious tool for sedating late 80s America), but to no avail.

When Nada gets the glasses and can see what's what, his knee-jerk reactions are pure Carpenter-style hysteria (at one point he walks into a bank with side-arms and states, "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass…and I'm all out of bubblegum," which is a scene of pure comedy gold, before letting rip), before he wises up and starts thinking clearly, being taken on by the Resistance as part of a hit squad – but only after a roaringly funny alley fight-sequence between David and Piper, which goes for over ten minutes and features some of Carpenter's best, and funniest, tough guy dialogue. If you can watch this scene without rolling around on your sofa in hysterics, you're a better man than me.

Piper's actually (and surprisingly, for a wrestler) not too bad an action actor – I get the impression (purely from watching this, and I'm possibly wrong) that Carpenter was maybe grooming him to take over from Kurt Russell as his leading man for action films – he has the ring of the every-man about him, as many of Russell's characters did. And he has the mullet, too…

This film has enough bad-ass tough guy catchphrases to fill a phone-book, a la Big Trouble In Little China (a particular fave of mine being when one alien is contacting home base, Nada aims a shotgun at it and flatly states: "Momma don't like tattletales" – for someone brought up on Schwarzenegger's films the first time 'round (yes, I'm that old), this was comedy gold).

Nada's initial reactions to the aliens are pretty darn funny: "You know, you look like your head fell in the cheese-dip back in 1957", or when watching a female alien groom herself, "That's like pouring perfume on a pig", but the seriousness of the situation becomes markedly more severe as the film goes on, with some excellent Carpenter directed fire-fights. Say what you will about his direction and his later films generally (although his Masters of Horror season one episode Cigarette Burns shows that original, brilliant spark of pure incendiary genius), this guy knows how to shoot an action scene, which is well.

And Nada's predicament until he falls in with the resistance is also unenviable – after he tries explaining the situation to bad girl/good girl/bad girl-again Holly, she states her problem with the whole situation, which is, "Okay, you're fighting the forces of evil that none of us can see without sunglasses" – put that way, would you think he was head-mental, or what? And he just can't convince anyone to look through those damn glasses…

Which leads us neatly back to fight in the alley scene – Nada to Frank: "Either put on these glasses, or start eating that trash-can." This is one of the longest, funniest, loudest and best fist-fights you will ever see. It just goes on and on and on – and the punches and kicks are so damn fuckin' loud… I find it ironic that Frank calls Nada a dirty mother-fucker for trying to punch him in the nuts, before repeatedly slamming his knee into Nada's in the same scene. Regardless, great fight scene. Piper's expertise as a wrestler obviously helped out here.

From here on in, you're on your own. No more spoilers – just watch it. As an aliens versus the world movie – it works. As a picture of a dystopian future, or even present - it works. As Carpenter spraying bile all over consumerist, materialistic America - it works best. This should be put on a pedestal alongside the 70s re-make of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers. I can't believe how little fanfare this film gets, especially seeing as how good it is, if at times a little lightweight, and the fact that it comes from one of the genre greats. Watch it right now and love it.
The anamorphic 2.35:1 picture looks pretty fuckin' good – and Carpenter knows how to use the widescreen format.
Ditto the audio – we ony get the origial 2.0 track, and sounds good to the likes of me. The bluesy Roadhouse- style soundtrack (well, to me) kind of dates it though. Carpenter should have stayed to the electro scores.
Extra Features
This is where this package falls down. It's practically bare-bones, with a couple of recommendations (not even trailers, for fuck's sake) for a couple of other Carpenter films: The Thing, and his re-make of Village of the Damned. Practically worthless.
The Verdict
Fun, and lots of it. An unheralded Carpenter meisterwerk. Not his best, by any stretch of the imagination, but as social commentary, this reminded me of The Twilight Zone (the TV show, dummies) mixed in with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, just with better action sequences. A fun-packed film, and tremendously entertaining – don't go in expecting the kind of deep social messages I've mentioned above, just watch it and enjoy it – you won't be disappointed. A 4 star movie on a 1 star disc.
Movie Score
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