Directed by John Carpenter
Distributed by Scream Factory
John Carpenter’s They Live is predicated upon such a fantastic premise, and begins so perfectly, that it’s truly a shame when it never becomes the masterpiece it should’ve been. That’s not to imply that this isn’t a seminal slice of 1980s horror/sci-fi, but it is an uneven film, marred by some truly questionable script decisions and something of a rushed climax.
But before we get there, there’s the beginning. And it’s brilliant. A depiction of the Reaganomic fallout, where down-on-their-luck laborers have been reduced to living in a despondent, shantytown-esque dwelling somewhere in Los Angeles. These people have come to accept their proverbial lots in life, lulled into continued submission through societal distractions such as television programming and advertising. Onto this scene drifts Nada (Roddy Piper), an optimistic nomad whose stock in the American Dream hasn’t wavered. All he wants is his chance, and with a little patience and hard work, he’s sure he’ll get it.
This is fairly biting stuff from Carpenter, arguably his most political offering, with a first act tinged with more disillusion than you can shake a stick it. Best of all, it’s remained relevant throughout the years. So much so that it’s still quite a powerful message (and wake up call). Possibly more so in these economically and societally challenged times. As a counterpoint to Nada’s misplaced confidence in “the system”, we have Keith David’s Frank. A cynical worker drone, Frank’s disillusioned by the overwhelming plight and, having made a life out of what Nada assumes is the path to prosperity, understands that there’s nothing waiting at the end of the rainbow. It’s a dynamic that promises an ideological debate that, unfortunately, never happens as They Live instead chooses to settle into that of a tonally imbalanced sci-fi satire that sometimes works and sometimes does not.
Everyone knows the driving idea behind this one: Sunglasses that reveal the underlying messages hidden within advertising that’s literally sprawled across every square inch of our society. Travel billboards encouraging us to “marry & reproduce”, storefront windows telling us simply to “buy”. A harsh indictment of America’s meteoric consumer culture that has infiltrated our everyday way of life, its insidious underpinnings going completely unnoticed. Of course, that’s only half the game as Nada discovers a considerable amount of the population is comprised of sinister aliens, and they’re the one’s who’ve truly embraced this intergalactic “trickle down economics” way of living.
In a film that wears its message on its sleeve (a nice way of saying “none too subtly”), the film’s most brilliant moment comes in the guise of a metaphoric and obnoxiously prolonged fight scene, where Nada must physically beat Frank senseless in order to make him “see” the truth. So blind are we to these “realities” that we’ve blithely accepted our lots in life, making it all the harder to wake up. And that’s the point.
The ideas behind They Live are terrific and the aforementioned execution is clever. Scored by Carpenter himself (with Alan Howarth), you’re guaranteed a wonderfully atmospheric score that really enhances the feel. But the movie falters in its basic narrative structure, preventing it from hitting a total homerun. Nada’s transition, for example, from working class schlub to gleeful alien murderer is a bit bizarre, considering the early and eerie tonal establishment of the movie. It’s hardly seamless and it makes things feel a bit disjointed once our everyman begins waltzing around town blasting away invaders with an endless array of one-liners at his disposal. Ditto his third act concerns for the mysterious Holly (Meg Foster), a woman who does nothing beyond pushing him to a would-be demise. She later shows up at an anti-alien rally that is promptly dispersed by the police, which presumably renders her role in the story important, although there’s no further idea as to why Nada cares so much for her (a woman he hardly knows). It all leads toward a rather unsurprising “gotcha” moment at the climax that doesn’t work nearly as well as it should’ve.
But there’s a lot to love here. Piper and David are great, the aliens are fantastic creations (iconic and disconcerting designs) and, of course, that concept… One can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened had Carpenter (under the alias Frank Armitage) spent a bit more time on the script, developing the human aspect so these characters worked beyond their metaphorical functions. But criticisms aside, it remains a wholly entertaining movie – one that remains as relevant now as the day it was released. That’s not easy to do, and you’ve really got to tip your hat to John Carpenter on that, no matter how you feel about They Live’s politics.
Scream Factory brings They Live to special edition Blu-ray in a stunningly GORGEOUS 1080p HD transfer that masterfully preserves its filmic look throughout. Textures are, at times, staggering, with more detail visible on Roddy Piper’s face than I ever thought possible! Ditto the attention to detail in clothing, backgrounds and everything else. Colors will blow your mind, vibrant without looking overblown and with a completely natural sheen. I’ve read reports of minor edge enhancement on display, but I did not find any in either of my viewings. In fact, this one of the best catalogue discs I’ve seen recently, and it’s hard to imagine any fan feeling otherwise.
That goes for the audio specs, too. This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix makes Carpenter’s score a blast on Blu-ray. Dialogue is always front-and-center, while ambient sounds are positively aggressive. Really enjoyed this track, without any complaints.
Talking about the supplements, we’ve got a hearty little collection of extras that fans should devour without any strain. The audio commentary with Carpenter and Piper is lots of fun. Sure, maybe it’s not up to par with the wondrous Carpenter/Russell outings, but what is? This is light, but not without substance, and always fun and informative.
We also get an all-too-brief interview with JC titled Independent Thoughts: An Interview with Writer/Director John Carpenter. There’s some nice information in here regarding JC’s approach to the material and his inspiration for making it. All good things, but it felt like it was just getting interesting as it ended. It runs just north of ten minutes.
There’s a brisk chat with Meg Foster called Woman of Mystery, but at five minutes, we just don’t get to spend enough time with her. Having said that, it’s an engaging perspective and I’m happy it was included here.
Watch, Look, Listen: The Sights & Sounds of They Live is a conversation with DP Gary Kibbe, stunt coordinator Jeff Imada and co-composer Alan Howarth. Pretty informative and, again, offering some additional perspective on this sucker.
There’s an 11-minute chat with Keith David titled Man vs. Aliens and it’s a fun watch. David reflects on his career and collaborations with Carpenter. Great stuff, as David is always a pleasure.
Rounding out the set is an 8-minute EPK with the cast, an option to view the in-movie commercials and a stills gallery/trailers.
They Live has long deserved a full-fledged special edition, and thanks to Scream Factory we’ve got it. It remains a fast-paced and enjoyable slice of 80s sci-fi satire, although the screenplay is a dicey proposition at times. Regardless, it’s vintage Carpenter and makes its high definition bow with excellent A/V and strong extras. Don’t go back to sleep! Grab They Live and celebrate a time when original genre filmmaking like this could delight moviegoers nationwide. See that? The 80s weren’t so bad after all!
4 out of 5
3 1/2 out of 5