Dir. by John Carpenter - 1 hr. 33 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
Magic sunglasses! Oh man, if you're making a low-budget-ish kind of movie, there's almost no better gimmick than magic sunglasses. I'm kind of upset that I had never seen "They Live" until last night, because it's a piece of glorious trash. There are aliens, "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, subliminal messages, a heavy critique of 80's consumerism... All the things that add up to a superlative trashy movie.
Nada (Piper) wanders into Los Angeles in search of a job. He manages to hook on as a day-laborer with a construction crew, where he meets Frank (Keith David). Frank brings him back to the shantytown he stays at, where he can stay and eat until he gets on his feet. But there's something hinky going on with the church across the street, and Nada can't resist prying. The church is a front for a group of people who have been hacking into local broadcasts and talking about conspiracy theories. Before he can say anything, a SWAT team rolls in, dozing the shantytown, chasing down the people from the church, and sending everyone fleeing in every direction. Nada returns the next day, and finds some magic sunglasses in a hidden compartment in the church. These glasses allow Nada to see things as they really are; advertising is boiled down to simple messages like "obey" and "submit," and that there are alien ghouls that walk among people unnoticed. A lot of them. Once they discover that Nada can tell them apart, he has to go on the run.
Director John Carpenter kind of specializes in great sci-fi ideas on a shoe-string budget (with both "Escape from New York" and "Starman" to his credit, among other films), and this one is a doozy, too. Part of the appeal is showing off unusual settings, and I can't remember too many films from the 1980s taking place in a homeless camp. And part of what you might think of when you think of that decade are yuppies. "They Live" is a direct critique of that lifestyle. One character even tells them that "we all sell out every day, might as well be on the winning team." Maybe the most pointed barb is, when Nada sees a fistful of money through his magic sunglasses, they read "this is your god." Although, I must point out, the idea that the alien ghouls are out solely to extract money from people also means that money is everyone's god. If it's worth enough to fight, defend, and die for, you also have placed money on a pedestal.
Roddy Piper is exactly the right guy for a movie like this, and him being in it is the main reason that I wanted to watch it. His wrestling persona is fairly jittery and hyperactive, so it was nice to see him play someone a little more composed than I was used to seeing. At the same time, only he could deliver lines like "I'm all out of bubblegum," and have it just feel right. Also, Nada's extended alley fistfight with Frank was a lot of fun. Piper managed to work several wrestling moves and even a couple of suplexes into the fight (belly-to-back and gutwrench, if you're keeping score at home), and the whole thing was drawn out and ridicuously awesome. And Nada has a way with women...
Seriously, if you're even half-way into trashy, high-concept/low-budget sci-fi stuff, there's no reason you shouldn't have already seen "They Live." I can't believe that it took me this long to finally see it. It's a ton of fun, quotable as all get out, and goes by really quickly. It's an 80's film in all the best ways. But most of all, it's just super-fun. There's no other way to put it.
3.5 / 5 - TV