The general feeling about this film is that it could have been so much better rather than just a bit of daft fun with delusions of grandeur! Like the outstanding 'Thing' movie, it features a strong sci-fi/horror premise. Aliens are amongst us, killing the planet with pollution and waste to make the atmosphere more like theirs, and rewarding those humans who co-operate with both them and the system with better jobs and more money. Those aliens are in control of the global economic and political structures. They Live features little witticisms such as "The golden rule. He who has the gold makes the rules," and you'll find yourself agreeing with a lot of the dialogue and reasoning in the first 30 minutes or so of the picture. Later on, the dialogue becomes stuff like "I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum!"
If you find yourself wholeheartedly agreeing with all of the rest of the picture, you're either a big wrestling fan or perhaps you still enjoy watching The A-Team? Well, no, I'm doing the film an injustice, it's nowhere near that bad. Maybe V would have been a fairer comparison. The first half of the film starts slowly with a very pleasing build-up and then it kicks in with a real bang. You think you're going to watch one of the greatest overlooked science fiction movies of all time. And then you find out that John Carpenter just wanted to direct a wrestling match! It's good fun but it could have been much more impressive.
In fairness, the budget was only $4 million so John tries his best to put in reasonable amounts of sci-fi but the film would have been better with a lot more scope, and many more substantial effect sequences spattered throughout considering the sheer outrageousness of the film's sole premise. Carpenter delivers reasonably well with what he's got though, so I'm probably being somewhat unfair. And even Roddy Piper delivers well here.
The film is a combination of three things. A mind blowing sci-fi situation, an action movie, and a generous helping of pleasing left-wing messages from John Carpenter. JC wrote the script under the pseudonym of Frank Armitage and he has stated that at the time he wanted to speak out against what he saw as the extremities of, and his personal dissatisfaction with the Reagan-era in the US.
Roddy Piper had his role specifically written for him by JC (who'd met him before due to his long-time enjoyment of wrestling). And Piper gives a reasonably impressive performance here with his portrayal of an honest down and out plunged into the most extraordinary of circumstances. He plays John Nada. Apparently the word 'nada' means nothing or so the commentary tells me. It also mentions it in a Variety film review where they state "pretentiously named Nada," which I find rather amusing. Piper stars with Thing veteran Keith David and the two of them make a pleasing partnership.
Anyway, the film was adapted (err, rather heavily I presume!) from a short story by Ray Nelson called 'Eight O'Clock In The Morning.' The disc's entertaining commentary track mentions that in that original story, the lead character was woken up by a hypnotist with the word 'awake,' and then he found himself able to see the previously hidden aliens. John's version has his character being able to see the creatures after he finds a pair of treated sunglasses left behind by a small group of in-the-know human vigilantes. Probably due to the cost factor I assume, because we only see impressive but short snippets of what the planet really looks like. We see quite a bit of the alien's faces every now and again which never fails to entertain. The alien make-ups look great!
The sequence around 30 minutes in when Piper first dons the sunglasses is easily the highlight of the picture. Like Piper we initially see in black and white, and we notice that there are previously unseen subliminal messages all around us. On magazines, shop signs and billboard posters. Messages such as "Marry and reproduce," Watch tv," "Do not question," "Consume" or my fave, "This is your god" written on the dollar notes.
At the risk of making myself seem ignorant or out of order, I shall tell you that my absolute favourite bit is when that alien bank worker really gets it during Piper's alien kill frenzy! You know the bit, in black and white, where we see the only bit of gore in the film?! That blood-splatter against the wall when Piper fires his shotgun. Strange, eh? I would never describe myself as a gore hound but that small part made the film much more exciting.
A pity that the rest of the gunfire doesn't impress as much. Although we do see some nice squib action (?) in another sequence when the Babylon/old bill/rozzers/aliens (delete as applicable) storm one of meetings of the "terrorists." Oh yeah, the film features a brawl between Piper and David that lasts a lot longer than I'd personally like. That's when the film seems to change. It gets kinda silly but in a VERY entertaining way! And it then comes across more as a mindless action film with lots of machine gun fire, abandoning most of its political and sci-fi influences. Remember when the two heroes enter that banquet in dirty jeans and shirt when everyone else is in tuxedos? And no-one asks them who they are? (ahem).
I'd only seen this film in full-frame before and it looks so much better in this widescreen ratio and it's been given an anamorphic print. The daylight scenes certainly impress but the night-time sequences let the print down somewhat with some graining evident. A pity but I can live with that.
Your disc offers:
-Full widescreen ratio (anamorphic)
-2.0 sound in English, German, or Spanish
-Making-of (Only 7 and a half minutes, bah!)
-Commentary track with John Carpenter and Roddy Piper
-Fun/amusing menu screens
It seems a bit strange not to have a trailer or TV spots included together with those other extras but the very entertaining commentary track between nice guys Piper and Carpenter does make up for it. I just recall hearing that the trailer (or one of the TV spots) featured some exclusive They Live footage of alien politicians debating when the film was released in the run-up to certain elections in the US and I would have liked to have finally seen it. It's even mentioned on that commentary. Never mind.
The disc is very user friendly. It asks which language you want before it loads up, meaning that even the menu screens were in English for me. It's a shame that it doesn't receive 5.1 sound but it's still great to finally see this film in it's original 2.35:1 ratio.
I'm really glad I picked up this movie but let my review serve against the warnings of alcohol. You see, I’d had a few when I bought it and I was convinced that it had more special features than I've mentioned here. In fairness though, I should explain that I've never tried to read German before either. Well this region 2 copy from German distributor, Kinowelt, gets a shaky thumbs up from me, ditto for the film itself.
Like Ghosts Of Mars, They Live is not John's finest moment (although both of those films are full of pleasing left-wing messages) but it looks much better in widescreen and it makes a nice addition to your Carpenter DVD collection. I'm certainly glad to have picked it up, although at times it does seem a bit too much like a buddy action pic than I would like.
Mind you it's probably worth picking up just for that classic "Hey, what's wrong baby?" moment at the end. Sorry but I still think that's funny!