November 19, 2013

Movie Review: They Live (1988)

“ I'm givin' you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eatin' that trashcan.” – Frank Nada (Roddy Piper)

Director: John Carpenter

Writers: Ray Nelson and John Carpenter

Producers: Andre Blay, Shep Gordon, Larry Franco and Sandy King

Studio: Universal

Major Stars: Roddy Piper, Keith David, Peter Jason, Meg Foster

If Robocop was a biting critique of the mentality of the 1980s (and that film is coming up next on this list), then They Live qualifies as a scathing all-out assault. John Carpenter’s pulp masterpiece (derived from Ray Nelson’s short-story Eight O'Clock in the Morning) is entertaining as hell while laying waste to the ‘greed’ mentality of that time period.

I saw this when it first came out in the theaters at the age of 16. I’ve seen it plenty of times since then and it is still one of my personal favorites. John Nada (Piper) is a homeless laborer who stumbles upon a crate of sunglasses in an empty church. The glasses allow him to see that the wealthy and powerful among us are aliens, using subliminal messaging in everything (from money to billboards to televisions) to keep humanity docile while they slowly foul our environment to suit their needs.

Of course, Nada will not take this sitting down. He gets his friend Frank (David) to help him take down a TV antennae that is broadcasting the signal that keeps the aliens and their subliminal messaging camouflaged. But not before a lot of entertaining fights, one-lines and gun battles take place.

It’s not hard to get Carpenter’s message in this movie. The wealthy elite appear as decaying aliens, willing to exploit everyone else for their own gain without a care for the consequences. He’s not leaving any room for reinterpretation here. What keeps the movie from being preachy (besides the fact that Carpenter is right in a lot of ways) is that he couches the message in a fun, entertaining package.

You don’t think of professional wrestlers as good actors (although Dwayne Johnson has done a good job of altering that perception), but Piper is perfect in the role of Nada. He brings a lot of energy to the role and he delivers those fantastic one-liners with obvious enthusiasm. I don’t think a more established actor would’ve taken to the role as well. And Keith David is great as his (at first, very reluctant) compatriot Frank.

I would be remiss not to mention the fight sequence in They Live between Nada and Frank. Quick setup. Nada has wasted two cop-aliens. He wants Frank to put on the glasses and see the truth. Frank only knows Nada killed two cops and wants nothing to do with him. Nada doesn’t take no for an answer. And so commences the greatest back-alley brawl of all-time, with Nada trying to force Frank to wear the glasses and see the light. It has everything, including an uncountable number of punches received and thrown, Frank slamming a knee into Nada's groin about 14,000 times in a row, a belly-to-back suplex by Nada on Frank, and a hilarious exchange where Nada almost brains Frank with a 2x4, and then apologizes (!) for it while they are fighting.

Depending on who you ask, the fight runs from anywhere between 5 ½ minutes to 7 ½ minutes. It’s pretty kickass.

There are a couple of drawbacks to the film. It is rather brief (93 minutes) so you don’t get a lot of background to the story and it seems a bit rushed at times. For example, a homeless guy goes from being picked up by the alien/cops to becoming a clean-cut, tuxedoed collaborator in about a half-hour.

And the special effects are a little dated. The film was made 20 years ago on a tight budget ($3 million) and it shows. Not much you can do about that.

But what makes up for those drawbacks is that Carpenter’s attack on consumerism, the 80s mindset and the greed/non-compassion of the wealthy elite is still valid today, probably more so. For example, we’re faced with environmental issues brought on in part by an addiction to oil. When President Obama was running in 2008, he said one way to cut gas consumption was to keep your car tuned up and your tires inflated. And he was right. The GOP’s response was to mock that idea and insist on off-shore drilling, a move more likely to line the pockets of oil companies and foul the oceans than improve our lives. And then you have the complete rejection of the consequences of global climate change by the Right, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence. Why? Because it would raise taxes and inconvenience oil companies. They Live may be a pulp film, but it’s a pulp film with a message that has held up for 20 years.

So where to put this on the list? I think right above Outland works for me. The advantage in budget and scenery Outland has over They Live is obvious. But They Live is so much fun to watch. I’d rather see this film in circulation on television than Independence Day, that’s for sure.

If you don’t have They Live on DVD, go get it. It’s a great sci-fi pulp ride with a strong message behind it. One of Carpenter’s better movies.


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