Due to the recent Blu Ray release of this film I felt compelled to review it regardless of how old it is. They Live is one of my all time favorite films. Not Top 10 favorite, but definitely within the Top 50. It’s not a good movie by any stretch, actually in many ways it’s pretty bad. However, it is an insanely fun movie about a different type of alien invasion that is filled with entertaining characters and some of the wittiest dialogue I’ve ever heard from a B-Movie of this type.
This is the story of Nada (Roddy Piper), a homeless man trying to find work in a world that is becoming increasingly segregated between the financial classes. He finds a place to stay at an outdoor homeless shelter, and in a nearby church he finds a box filled with sunglasses. These are no ordinary sunglasses as they allow their wearer to see the truth around them; aliens, disguised as humans, are slowly taking over the world via subliminal messages telling the population to “sleep” as they invade. The strange thing is that the aliens aren’t interested in war or death, they want money and power and will use up every natural resource on our planet to achieve their goals. Nada joins a resistance movement that plans to deactivate the aliens’ means of camouflage and expose their evil scheme.
It’s a pretty intelligent flick that riffs on Reaganomics and the decadence of the late 80s, and by today’s standards I’d say it’s quite prophetic in it’s depiction of class warfare. Writer/director John Carpenter really impressed me with this film, which on one hand could be taken as just a standard sci-fi actioner, and on the other some scathing social commentary. Carpenter has a knack for instilling some sort of deeper message in his films, which sometimes is obvious and others not so much. I think that’s why I tend to gravitate toward his films so much (I can’t get enough of The Thing’s cold war paranoia).
The performances are decent, par the course for a Carpenter movie. Roddy Piper, an energetic performer for the WWF back in the 80s, makes for an engaging leading man. He shows a natural charisma and likeability that works wonders to draw you in and bring his character to life. Another masterstroke was that he was given the opportunity to improvise most of his lines and quips which definitely have that wrestling smack-talk feel to them (“I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubble gum”). He’s also, obviously, a very physical dude and it shows in his multiple action scenes. Especially his infamous five minute fight with Keith David who, on the flip side, I feel is the emotional core of the film. His character is doing shit work so he can send money back to his wife and kid, so when he’s exposed to the alien invasion all he seems to think about is how it will affect his family. He gives a very convincing performance and the film benefits from it a great deal. Meg Foster basically acts with her freakishly bright blue eyes and that’s it. I’ve never really liked her as an actress and she does nothing to change my mind here. I understand that her zombie-esque performance is part of her character’s slavery to the system, but I found her boring to watch and her inevitable betrayal predictable.
Carpenter keeps things decently paced and gives the right amount of time to build his characters, as well as staging a few pretty cool action scenes. There’s nothing epically awesome going on due to the film’s meager budget, but it’s exciting and entertaining. His catchy blues infused score helps to kick things up a notch or two.
The budget is what I think is the film’s biggest detriment. Sets, costumes and props look cheap (one character uses a PK Meter from Ghostbusters as a communicator), the finale is a little underwhelming since we don’t get to see more of the invaders' inner workings and the alien make-up looks like it was designed in a day and isn’t very articulate in all the places it needs to be to make it convincing. To be honest the facial make-up looks like a bunch of glorified Halloween masks. Some of the FX still look decent, but are archaic by today’s standards.
When all is said and done I have to say that out of all of Carpenter’s filmography They Live is one of my absolute favorites (Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing and Prince of Darkness come first). It’s a great action flick that carries a pretty surprising amount of social commentary into the mix, and is all the better for it. If only Carpenter had made this film in today’s economic climate. He would have a field day ripping on all the bullshit going on and have a blast doing it.