Writer/Director: John Carpenter
Starring: "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Keith David
I recently watched John Carpenter's The Thing for the first time and was blown away by not only how fantastic it looked on Blu-ray, but the overall quality of the film itself. If you haven't seen it, add it to your queue - it comes with my highest stamp of approval. The suspense is incredible, the acting (especially from Kurt Russell, but also from a talented supporting cast) is top notch, and the story is excellent. The visual effects are very much of the time (the movie hit theaters in 1982), but the use of practical effects instead of an over-reliance on computer graphics allows The Thing to hold up much better today than it otherwise would.
Since Carpenter wrote and directed this film, I was expecting something similar to The Thing in terms of quality, but was surprised to find something completely different. Upon first glance, They Live looks like a typical B-movie: wrestler Roddy Piper in the lead role, Keith David as a sidekick, and a story about aliens disguised as humans in the 1980's. Carpenter makes some interesting choices as a director, but perhaps his most effective is convincing his actors to play it straight the entire time through. Of course, their stone-faced seriousness adds to the ridiculousness of the insanity of this movie and turns their dire situations into an intentional comic farce for the audience, which made me appreciate this film even more.
But just below the surface you'll find an admittedly heavy-handed satire on 80's culture and consumerism wrapped in the schlocky disguise of an action flick. The violence and one liners come second to the message: as Roddy Piper's character (who is given no name in the film, and consequently credited as "Nada") discovers when he puts on a special pair of sunglasses, every piece of advertising in the world serves as a platform for subliminal messaging of the most subversive order. "Obey," "Marry and Reproduce," and other slogans replace titillating images on billboards when viewed through the sunglasses, and money no longer features the heads of presidents but instead text that reads, "This is your God." Oh, and lest you think Piper's character views the world through proverbial rosy-colored glasses, it's the exact opposite: the world is reduced to black and white when looking through the lenses, a connection Carpenter hopes the audience will establish with the movie screen itself; he wants us to buy into his message so badly, he's willing to take the allegory to extreme levels to bash the message home. "I'm not like them," Carpenter seems to plead. "Let me show you how it really is."
It's unfortunate that he's a bit too zealous with these points because they truly are the only things he wants us to take from his movie. The story is laughably bad, a horror-comedy-action mashup of 50's science fiction and terrible 70's action films. The hero perpetually wears a long sleeved plaid shirt, has a mullet, and is an enlightened vagabond wandering the streets looking for work. He stumbles across a society of homeless people who live near a church, where he discovers a rebel force trying to alert the world to the presence of aliens and "wake them up" like something out of The Matrix. Did I mention he can see the aliens' true identities when he's wearing the glasses? Yeah, it's THAT kind of movie. The aliens look like us, but they're all successful bankers, lawyers, entertainment professionals, and people of authority. Through the glasses, though, their faces look scaly and prehistoric - clearly plastic masks that the costume department didn't feel the need to enhance in any way.
I won't get into the details - you really should just sit down and watch this movie, since it's only 93 minutes long and I'd venture to say it's something you'll never forget - but there are some moments in here that had me beside myself with laughter (that's still a phrase, right?). Random explosions that come during the middle of quiet sentences, people being defenestrated in the Hollywood Hills, alien communication devices that are literally the exact same prop as Egon's PKE meter from Ghostbusters, extraneous love interests, and a brilliant fight sequence that I will embed below for your viewing pleasure.
Amazing, right? I thought so. If you dug that, then I'm sure you'll get a kick out of the rest of the movie. I think this one is an underrated satire from Carpenter that's not even approaching his best work, but isn't nearly as bad as people would have you believe. The acting is atrocious, but it's so incredibly audacious that it's mesmerizing to watch. If you're a fan of ridiculously cheesy action films that might be featured on MST3K, then give this one a shot. Until next time...