They Live (1988)

John Carpenter

Roddy Piper - John Nada
Keith David - Frank
Meg Foster - Holy Thompson
John Lawrence - Bearded Man
Peter Jason - Gilbert

Genre - Science Fiction/Action

Running Time - 97 Minutes

Score - 3.5 Howls Outta 4

Everytime I look at certain celebrities, I wonder if I'm wearing special sunglasses that allow me to see them for who they are. Honestly, Michael Jackson - that cute little black kid from The Jackson 5 - doesn't really look like an anorexic white woman, does he? What about Joan Rivers? How come her face doesn't move? That's not natural. And no one can be as annoying as Heidi and Spencer, right? RIGHT!!?? You mean The Hills really does exist? NOOOOOOOOOOOOO...

I wish I didn't run out of bubblegum because I would be kicking ass like Roddy Piper does in THEY LIVE. Greedy corporations, corrupt politicians, and annoying celebrities would all feel my foot up their asses if I had any say. With one-liners, a stark political social commentary, and Rowdy Roddy Piper without his trademark quilt, THEY LIVE is one of director John Carpenter's more popular and better films. Let's see why wearing sunglasses is more than just for protecting your eyes from the sun's harmful rays and looking cool.

A drifter (Roddy Piper) wanders around town looking for employment. Unfortunately, the government won't help him with that. He continues to drift around and manages to get hired at a construction site. He meets up with Frank (Keith David), who he becomes friends with and follows to some sort of shelter for those struggling with the current bureaucracy. The drifter begins snooping around, noticing weird things coming from a church nearby, including a bearded guy (John Lawrence) who interrupts programs on TV to talk about a certain "society" and a choir that's pre-recorded. They all happen to wear sunglasses for some reason as well. Soon enough, the church and shelter gets raided by cops, destroying everything in the vacinity.

The drifter goes back into the church a day after, finding a box of sunglasses. Wondering what's the deal, he puts them on and starts seeing normal billboards and magazines preaching words such as "Obey", "Reproduce", and "Watch TV". He also begins to see normal looking human beings as alien creatures. Once realizing that the rich and powerful are really an alien race that's using human beings as puppets and beating the crap out of Frank to make him believe as well, the two join a human resistance group to take down these aliens.

If there was a vote for the Top Five John Carpenter films, THEY LIVE would probably be on it somewhere. While it didn't do great at the box office, probably due to the fact that people didn't want to watch a film that was trying to teach people something about the rotting society at the time [and still happening today], THEY LIVE has managed to gain a cult following. Why? Because it's smart. Because it's sorta funny and weird. And because it's entertaining to watch.

The story [based on a Ray Nelson short called "8 o'Clock In The Morning"], written by John Carpenter under the pseudonym Frank Armitage, is an action film at its heart, but its soul is to blast the Reaganomics at the time. Carpenter was obviously disgusted by the fact that the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer. The whole commercialism of the 1980s, where large corporations wanted people to buy buy buy as they sell out, rubbed Carpenter the wrong way. So he satirically used the idea of having evil and greedy aliens portray the ones with power and money, while normal humans were their willing puppets. I'll be honest - it doesn't totally work on every level because I'm sure not many people understood it when the film was released. Hell even today, some people just see THEY LIVE as a campy action film, letting the commentary go right over their head. Sure, the film is campy and action-packed, but there's a serious message Carpenter is trying to address here. He's telling people that we need to open our eyes and not allow the government and corporations control our lives by obeying everything they tell us to do and buying whatever they're selling. The first half establishes this commentary extremely well since it's built up slow and allows the viewer to know the characters and what's going on.

The second half is the more action packed section of the film, where the commentary does begin to drown out to the mainstream fare. It's still a very good last half, but the momentum the first half built up pretty much dies as the film becomes more generic and ends up in the "let's entertain audiences with lots of guns and ugly aliens". And I gotta be honest - sometimes you can tell the last half of THEY LIVE was a bit stretched out to fill a running time because it begins to drag at certain points where things are introduced but never really established properly to make us care. But the ending is one of Carpenter's best, as it is perfectly fitting and satisfying. So Carpenter did know what he was doing here. He just had a bit of a rough road during the final moments to get there.

The character development for other than John Nada [who's never called by that name or any name in the film, by the way] and Frank barely exists. But the film doesn't really need it, since both main characters carry the film really well. Both characters are really two sides of the same coin. Nada is the more active personality, always trying to figure out what's going on and willing to do something about it when he does. He doesn't care about the consequences as long as some kind of change is made. Frank is the more passive personality, knowing something's up but willing to walk away from it because he's afraid that the consequences will compromise his safe and comfortable life. We can relate to these two characters and find them extremely likeable. The fact that the two actors [Roddy Piper and Keith David] have great chemistry with each other also helps.

I don't think any review for THEY LIVE can be complete without mentioning one of the most iconic fight sequences ever shot on film. Yes my friends, I'm talking about the 8-minute-long Piper vs. David brawl in the alleyway over a pair of sunglasses. For those who have not seen this brawl for it all, it may sound silly that two grown men punch, elbow, kick, and knee each other just so Nada can force Frank to wear the sunglasses to believe him for almost ten minutes. But this is one of the best fight moments ever captured on cinema. It starts out serious, but after the first two minutes, you just start laughing wondering when will it end. It's probably why so many people love THEY LIVE [yours truly included] and when South Park does it shot-for-shot during Timmy's and Jimmy's Cripple Fight, you know it's something special. It's awesome.

John Carpenter does some fine ass directing with THEY LIVE. The film has a lot of atmosphere. The use of black and white with the sunglasses is nicely done [low-budget, but cool alien special effects add a nostalgic touch]. The dark sets towards the end create a lot of mood. I also loved how the action sequences were shot. All of them were extremely well paced and energetic. I actually had an issue with that for ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK, but it seems Carpenter learned something seven years later. You couldn't really tell this was massively low-budget for its time. Carpenter used the budget in the right way, letting his imagination do the talking for him. Very nice job here.

The acting isn't the greatest but it doesn't have to be. I mean, no one is gonna expect a film starring Rowdy Roddy Piper in the main role to be an Academy-Award winning masterpiece. But Piper is actually a decent actor and is very charismatic as John Nada. He's much more comfortable chewing on one-liners and kicking ass, but even in the most subtle moments, Piper displays a level of sympathy through his body language. Really nice job. Keith David is even better as Frank. He doesn't play the stereotypical sidekick. This dude will kick your ass and won't follow anyone unless he has just cause. Like I said before, David and Piper had great chemistry with each other. The film wouldn't have worked without these two. And the only other actor of note is the beautiful Meg Foster [and her cat eyes] as Holly Thompson. She doesn't have a big role but her cold personality actually gives the character more depth than she deserves. Foster is also extremely sexy, I must add. Cold-hearted bitches are hot!


- "The venom of snakes is under the lips." Why a preacher is doing a sermon on one of Jenna Jameson's movies is beyond me. But I'd like to study under that religion!

- There's a shelter for the homeless with food, a bed, and showers. Shit, the homeless own better plates and silverware than I do! What the fuck!?

- The Golden Rule is that "he who has the gold has the power". Triple H is a huge fan of this film.

- When the Bearded Man was warning people about "them" during TV static, the viewers got headaches. If this happened during According To Jim, my head would probably feel a lot better.

- Don't kidnap a woman and piss her off. She'll smash a bottle on your head and throw you out the window. Just be glad you weren't smashed with a coconut. That just makes the situation more personal.

- Frank knee'd Nada in the groin like four times in a row during their brawl. I find the black version of The Nutcracker to be much more entertaining than the cracker version.

- Expensive watches are really two-way radios for aliens to maintain their grip on power by eliminating those who know their true goal. That explains how Diddy has managed to conquer the world by sitting on his ass all day by making stupid reality shows. I knew there had to be a reason.

Satire, action, aliens, camp, one-liners, and Roddy Piper not wearing his trademark quilt - THEY LIVE pretty much has it all. It's not perfect and not as smart in its execution, but THEY LIVE is a fun entertaining film that 80s and John Carpenter lovers must see. If you want to see a good film starring an ex-WWF/E wrestling not named Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, THEY LIVE is your best bet. Now put on those sunglasses and kick some alien ass!

Gimme those Reese's Pieces, E.T.! BAM!!!

1 comment:

  1. Hmmm...The Rock. I know remakes always suck, but the prospect of him in Roddy's role sounds pretty damn sweet.

    Love this movie. So glad you mentioned (and went into detail) about the brawl. The SP tribute is awesome, but I like the mashup of both on YouTube. You can really appreciate just how shot-for-shot it is.


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