= Highest Rating
is John Carpenter's most overtly political film,
a sci-fi action thriller guaranteed to send card-carrying
Republicans into fits of apoplexy. The screenplay
(written by Carpenter under his "Frank Armitage"
alias) is a double-barreled blast at the rampant
greed and go-go consumerism of the Reagan era.
Sadly, its theme of media mind control and brainwashing
of the masses is even more urgently relevant today
than when the film was made nearly 20 years ago...
The collapse of journalism and the ascendancy
of corporate controlled, ideologically driven
"news" during the reign of King Dubya —
it's staggering that polls show a large number
of Americans still believe Saddam Hussein
had something to do with 9/11 —
demonstrate that with They
Live, Carpenter wasn't just prescient,
he was prophetic.
Professional wrestler turned actor (later
turned professional wrestler again) "Rowdy"
Roddy Piper stars as Nada, an unemployed drifter
scrounging for construction work in Los Angeles.
(The character's name is never spoken in the film
but that's how he's listed in the credits; "nada"
is Spanish for "nothing".) He winds up in a commune-like
shantytown with other homeless people, among them
a fellow manual laborer named Frank (The
Thing's Keith David) with whom he strikes
up a friendship. Here, in the most unlikely of
places, Nada accidentally stumbles upon a secret
of earth-shattering proportions.
The soup kitchen church that feeds the
squatters is the headquarters of a militant underground
resistance movement fighting the government. In
a back room, a small lab has been set up to manufacture
lenses for sunglasses as well as broadcasting
equipment to hack into a local cable TV channel.
Nada finds out who the real enemy is when,
after a brutal police raid demolishes the homeless
camp, he tries on a pair of sunglasses that were
missed in the sweep. The special shades reveal
the world to be very different than the
one he thought he grew up in... Creatures from
another planet have enslaved mankind without us
even being aware of it. A signal beamed by the
aliens around the world interferes with the brain
and makes humans see what they want them to see;
namely, that the skull-faced extraterrestrials
look like normal folks. Signage, newspapers, magazines
and television shows are all disguised subliminal
messages, commanding the Earth people to "obey",
"consume", and "submit". With
the help of human collaborators, the aliens actually
run everything. The ultimate free enterprisers,
these beings are exploiting the planet for pure
profit — and mankind, without knowing, provides
them with billions of worker drones.
Hunted by the police, thought crazy by
everyone (who can't see what he sees through the
signal-jamming glasses), Nada would seem doomed.
What can one Average Joe do to save the world
when the entire power structure is arrayed against
him? Make that two Average Joes... After
being shown the light, Frank teams up with Nada
to take on the alien conspiracy.
doesn't delve very deeply into its science fiction
elements, keeping them strictly on the surface.
The nuts and bolts of the alien takeover, how
it was discovered and the formation of the fledgling
resistance movement are almost entirely unexplained,
leaving it to the viewer to fill in these blanks
on their own. That our hero is a 'Joe Six-pack'
Everyman — not a
scientist, doctor, journalist or military/police
officer — is the
key to making this approach workable. Nada is
as befuddled by events as the audience, and in
scrambling to save his own hide while blowing
the lid off the alien conspiracy simply doesn't
have the time for penetrating questions. He and
buddy Frank literally act as our special
lenses, allowing us to see the hidden 'reality'
the movie conjures for us; by keeping detailed
explanations to a minimum Carpenter only puts
us more firmly in these characters' shoes.
is 'blue collar' science fiction with a
sense of humor, a scathing condemnation of laissez
faire capitalism and mindless American consumerism
told as tongue-in-cheek satire. In the hands of
John Carpenter and crew it's also a fast-moving,
well-mounted action film with production values
belying its relatively modest budget. Once the
set-up is established it chugs along at a pace
which leaves little time to contemplate any nagging
plot holes. Carpenter is imparting a less than
subtle message here, but not in so heavy-handed
a manner as to put you off your popcorn and beer
while enjoying the show.
Piper — certainly
no thespian — is
surprisingly likable and believable in the central
role of Nada. Had a well-known actor been cast
in the part, such as Carpenter favorite Kurt Russell,
the film may not have worked quite as well. Personally,
I think it would've been much more interesting
had Keith David's character held center stage
with Piper acting as sidekick... (David has genuine
screen presence and is good in everything he's
done over the years. It's too bad he never got
a starring vehicle such as this film.) In any
event, the bruising yet comedic six-minute brawl
between the two men —
Nada resorts to physical force to get a skeptical
Frank to put on the glasses —
is the action highlight of the film and appears
to have been shot without the use of stunt doubles.
Naturally, a couple of wrasslin' moves somehow
managed to work their way into the choreography.
(They Live fully
deserves the "Special Edition" DVD treatment
someday; it'd be fab to hear Carpenter, Piper
and David discuss the shooting of this sequence.)
is a very bare-bones disc, y'all; it doesn't
even include the theatrical trailer. Fortunately,
however, it utilizes a good-looking 2.35:1 anamorphic
widescreen transfer and a solid (if unremarkable)
Dolby Surround audio mix. A commentary by Carpenter,
Piper and David would've been most welcome, but
since this is a bargain-price DVD I really can't
complain too vociferously. The film is presented
in its correct aspect ratio —
that's the main thing. 5/02/05
A remastered collector's edition
of They Live was released
by Shout! Factory in November 2012, on both DVD