John Carpenter: The Collection: They Live Review
"Brother, life's a bitch and she's back in heat!" John Nada (Roddy Piper) is down on his luck. He's newly arrived in town without either a place to stay or work. All he owns he carries on his back and in his wallet. Going from job market to job market, he eventually comes upon a building site, where he asks if they have need of anyone to work on the site. He's told that it's a union job but rather than walk away, he asks to see the foreman. Soon, he's signed on as a labourer and, with the help of TK (Keith David), figures his way about the job and at a campsite where he can at least pitch his tent and get a hot meal.
Nada begins to notice some strange things around the site. The church next door has a choir service that seems to run late into the night but Nada only sees the same five or six faces enter and leave the building. Meanwhile, the television broadcasts, which are dominated by advertising and glossy news broadcasts, seem to be interrupted by an unknown hacker who breaks into the television signal to talk of society being taken over and of its people being brainwashed. To find out what's going on, Nada breaks into the church but does so shortly before a police raid. He escapes with nothing but a pair of cheap sunglasses but is, unlike some of others inside, still alive. But putting them on, Nada notices that the billboards are changed. Where once they advertised brand new products, they now read OBEY and BUY. So too do the magazines. Most shocking of all are people who look normal without the sunglasses but appear deformed with them. Armed, dangerous and more than a little disturbed by what he's seeing, Nada sets out to discover what's happening. "I'm here to kick ass and chew bubble-gum...and I'm all out of bubble-gum!"
"Hey, try these on!" So begins a part of They Live that is still spoken about through smiles, laughs and the fond memories that come from watching two grown men beat one another senseless in a staged and wholly pointless fight. It lasts for a whole five minutes-and-fifteen-seconds. That's longer than some short films, which introduce characters, tell a story and come to a conclusion. All this is is a fistfight in which in which Roddy Piper tries to convince Keith David to try on a pair of sunglasses so he can see the world as it really is. And that doesn't sound like much, at least not if you're at all familiar with the feints and dodges of fights in the movies, but this is bloody brilliant.
Rather than simply pop these sunglasses on, Piper and David begin a bout of street fighting that would put the average bout of professional wrestling to shame. Even as Piper chokes David, screaming, "Put 'em on! Put 'em on!" into his ear, he still refuses, curiosity absolutely refusing to get the better of him. In one of the about-turns as to who has the advantage, David actually has the sunglasses in his hand but throws them onto Piper's chest as he lies beaten and bruised. The longer it goes on, the funnier it is - and it is genuinely funny - until 'Rowdy' Roddy Piper takes down Keith David and puts the sunglasses on him himself. Eventually, he sees and, bruised, beaten and looking very sore, they retire to a hotel to figure out what to do now they know aliens are alive and well on Earth. It's not the only reason that Carpenter is a great director but it's part of the reason. Other directors have, of course, put fistfights in their movies before - stuntmen wouldn't be so gainfully employed if they didn't - but Carpenter goes massively over the top, much as Hal Needham did with car smashes in Smokey And The Bandit. It may not be as great a fight as the best bout of brawling in the movies, which remains the Wayne-MacLagen bust-up of The Quiet Man, but it isn't far off it.
"Mamma don't like tattle-tales!" That comes as Nada blows away one of the ghouls who pass as human in this film and demonstrates one of the ways in which an audience might leave the film unsure of how to take it. There is, after all, usually a note of seriousness about John Carpenter. They Live is no exception but there's also the feeling that Carpenter is making a point in all of this, that we're blindly walking into a consumer-driven culture that will see us sell out our humanity in exchange for the latest diet fad, brand of cosmetics or glossy magazine. That's very naive, though, particularly when he plays many of these fake advertisements out on a television that seems to be the only form of entertainment on an otherwise miserable-looking campsite. I suspect I would watch the exact same set were I in a similar situation to the bums in They Live and would be equally annoyed if some hacker interrupted the signal. Keeping things simple ensures that Carpenter's film doesn't get flabby but, at the same time, it is hopelessly simple-minded in its politics.
One assumes that this political commentary doesn't extend to the aliens-in-disguise malarkey, not unless Carpenter has been reading the books of David Icke, which he may have done. Or it may have been the other way around, with Icke crying, "You see! You see!" on watching this. But it all adds up to a mish-mash of a film, one that has individual moments of greatness, such as the fistfight, some of the dialogue and the central premise of aliens laid bare with a special pair of sunglasses but which really doesn't compare well to Carpenter's early films. Indeed, it's hard to believe, while looking at much of They Live, that this is the same man who made The Thing. The pity about Carpenter's career is how often one would return to that thought over the next two decades.
They Live isn't one of Carpenter's best-looking films, with it taking place on anonymous city streets, a building site, bits of waste ground and bland apartments and office blocks, the kind of locations that Stephen J Cannell put to good use in The A-Team but which are an ill fit to a motion picture. Still, it's only fair to They Live to say that this comes from comparing it to the likes of The Thing and The Fog, both of which are visually outstanding. Most films look very dull when put against these two but even falling out amongst Big Trouble In Little China, Prince Of Darkness and In The Mouth Of Madness, there's precious little to get excited about here.
All that said, They Live comes in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio on a dual-layer DVD and looks reasonable if not at all startling. The picture is alright but the print looks as though its lost colour with this release, detail seems to have been reduced and there's a plain ordinariness to the image that suggests whoever mastered this release did so wearing Nada's sunglasses. There are not, though, many faults with the print, which is in good enough condition to make do. There is a choice of audio tracks, given the viewer the option of DD2.0 or a DD5.1 remix. The former sounds slightly better, being less artificial, but there's really very little in it. Finally, there are no subtitles.
Commentary: John Carpenter and Roddy Piper are together on this track and while it's no Carpenter/Russell two-hander, it's not bad. Piper has a good memory of the shoot - better, the director admits, than he does - but they clearly struck something of a chord on this film. The two clearly share some views on authority and law and order and are well suited to one another for the reasons of this commentary but where Russell would give his director a little more room in which to talk, Piper, in a manner befitting a wrestler, tends to charge into what takes his fancy. It's not a bad track and the two of them clearly like one another but it's not one that you'll be returning to.
Making Of... (8m10s): With some, but not much, on-the-set footage, this short feature would be better billed as an interview with John Carpenter, who does a much better job of talking about the making of the film than does the narration. There are also interviews with Roddy Piper, Keith David and Meg Foster but these last only a minute (or less) each. The making of the fight scene gets more screen time than any of the actors, which probably says more about They Live than does this entire review.
Finally, there are Profiles for John Carpenter (2m47s), Roddy Piper (2m11s) and Meg Foster (2m24s), all of which seem to be a continuation of the interviews in the Making Of (or a repeat thereof), as well as a Theatrical Trailer.