Loosely based on the 1963 short story, “Eight O’clock in the Morning” by Ray Nelson, John Carpenter’s now classic 1988 sci-fi action romp, They Live, was the filmmaker’s response to the greed-obsessed culture of the “me decade” and the policies of the Reagan administration. While somewhat sobering back in the 80s, watching it now, in a time when the world is in the throes of a full-on financial meltdown, and the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots seems more expansive than ever, They Live not only seems eerily prescient in retrospect, but also more evocative today than it was nearly three decades ago.
The film centers around a drifter (played by wrestling legend, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, who, despite never revealing his character’s name in the film, is called Nada in the film’s closing credits, most likely alluding to the George Nada character in Nelson’s story) who makes his way to Los Angeles in search of a day’s wages and a place to rest his weary head. He finds both when he’s hired as a laborer at a construction site, where he meets Frank (Keith David) – a Detroit native working to support his wife and kids back home - who leads him to a tent village on the outskirts of the city where dozens of other down-on-their-luck folks reside. This makeshift community is fed and supported by a group of volunteers overseen by Gilbert (Carpenter regular, Peter Jason), whose role in the suspicious goings-on in the neighboring church immediately raises Nada’s suspicions, prompting him to sneak into the church during choir practice. Nada quickly discovers that this rundown house of worship is actually a front for a laboratory, sunglasses factory, and a rudimentary broadcasting station. None of it makes any sense to him, but, before he can investigate further, both the church and the camp are overrun by riot police, with many of its inhabitants beaten mercilessly and arrested, while the rest flee into the night.
Nada returns to the plowed-over remains of the camp the next day, and, once again, sneaks into the church, where he happens upon a hidden cache of the sunglasses that the police missed during their search. Nada rummages through a box of said glasses, but, when the box doesn’t offer any clues, he decides to hide it in an alley way, dropping a pair as stashes the box in a trash can. When Nada puts the glasses on, however, he’s shocked to discover that these lenses reveal not only a hidden world in which subliminal messages are displayed on every sign, billboard, and magazine cover, but the true faces of alien beings responsible that live among us.
They Live is a film that, for me, actually gets better with age. Initially, I wasn’t a huge fan of the film when I saw it as a teenager as the sociopolitical messages were completely lost on me and the film’s overly macho dialogue and groan-inducing one-liners, albeit delivered with tongue firmly in cheek, just struck me as a by-product of the era’s fixation with testosterone-fueled action cinema – something I found totally out of place in a Carpenter film. Of course, revisiting the film on VHS a few years later, I found myself enjoying the hell out of it, but it wasn’t until this latest viewing that I actually found myself…well…sort of scared by They Live! Not scared in the traditional sense, of course, but more related to the fear and anxiety that’s plagued us for since the dawn of this young millennium. The fear of losing not only our jobs, our homes, and our way of life, but of destroying the very planet we inhabit due to the greed and shortsightedness of corporate interests bent on strip mining the Earth and fleecing its inhabitants until there’s nothing left to take. In Carpenter’s film, the invading species works hand-in-hand with humans willing to both sacrifice their planet and sellout their kind for a “taste of the good life”, but our reality is even more horrifying in that there is no extraterrestrial overlord (that I know of, at least) pulling the strings but, rather, a single percentage point of our all-too-human populous steering us toward our fate through coercion, disinformation, and the power of currency.
It’s no coincidence that Scream Factory picked Tuesday, November 6th 2012 as the release date for their new Collector’s Edition Blu-ray release of They Live. It’s obvious that they, too, see the parallels between Carpenter’s film and our current situation, and, while it’s equally obvious that the release date makes for a creative press release and ad campaign, I can’t think of a more fitting genre release for the occasion.
The film comes to Blu-ray sporting a very attractive 2.35:1 1080p that, while occasionally soft, looks pretty darn clean and vibrant. I didn’t notice the over processing I’ve seen other reviewers refer to (excess DNR, fringing, etc), but I did notice a lack of detail in some close-ups that I guess could be attributed to noise reduction. It didn’t bother me, however, as it was nowhere near the “clayface” disasters I’ve seen in some remasters, and, to be fair, it’s only in a couple of the darker scenes where it really stood out. It’s not Scream Factory’s best transfer thus far, but it’s of much better quality than any other incarnation of the film I’ve seen, and is complimented by an expressive and robust 5.1 DTS HD Master audio track.
The release really shines when it comes to the excellent special features a collection of goodies, the majority of which are new and presented in HD. First up, we get a rousing new commentary track featuring Piper and Carpenter that’s chock full of insights and anecdotes. The two go into great detail about the production of the film, Piper’s many improvised contributions to the dialogue, the legendary fight scene between Piper and David, and much more.
Also included are a collection of short interview segments, the most exciting of which features a Carpenter in which his notoriously rebellious nature is on full display. The director touches upon all manner of subjects, from casting the film and dealing with Alive Films to his political leanings. While the interview may be on the short side (10:07), Carpenter gets a hell of a lot off of his chest, here, and those unfamiliar with the director’s “no bullshit” nature may be taken aback by his frankness! We also get interviews with Meg Foster, and Keith David, the latter of which offers even more insight into the very real beatdown he and Piper delivered to one another in the aforementioned ten minute fight scene!
A pair of behind-the-scenes featurettes include Watch, Look, Listen: the Sights and Sounds of They Live, which intersperses some footage from the making of the film with interviews with stun coordinator, Jeff Imada, DP, Gary B. Kibbe, and Carpenter’s soundtrack collaborator, Alan Howarth. The other featurette is a classic 1988 EPK titled The Making of They Live. Presented in standard definition, the quality is a bit dodgy, but it’s a gas to see this vintage piece.
Speaking of “vintage”, Scream Factory has also managed to dig up clips from the many commercials that air during the film. Once again, these are presented in SD and have certainly seen better days, but this brief collection of “never before seen footage’s” inclusion goes a long way toward showing Scream Factory’s dedication to bringing us the most comprehensive collection of extras they can muster.
Rounding out the goodies are a stills gallery (HD), a collection of TV spots (SD), and the theatrical trailers for this film, as well as Halloween II and Halloween III (HD).
As with all of Scream Factory’s Collector’s Edition releases, They Live comes with a reversible cover; the front featuring a new painted design by The Dude Designs, and, for purists, the film’s original poster art.
Scream Factory continues to impress with its Collector’s Edition releases, as They Live gets the royal treatment on Blu-ray, with a quality transfer and excellent collection of bonus features that make this a must-own. Highest recommendations!