They Live Movie Review

They Live Movie Review
Directed by John Carpenter
Written by Ray Nelson (short story) and John Carpenter (screenplay)
Release Date: 4 November 1988
Running Time: 93 Minutes
Editor’s Rating: 4 out of 4 OBEYs

The man in sunglasses slowly inched them past the bridge of his nose, eyeing me from over them. He took a deep breath, as if the next words out of his mouth would redefine everything I’ve ever come to know.

“You are living a dream. Everything you see, everything around you. TV, media, advertising, it’s all here to keep you sedated, keep you complacent. Keep you in your same old routine so the ones who really run the show can control you more easily.” It was like I saw the tin foil hat materialize out of nowhere as he spoke.

He paused, waiting for my reaction, taking this time to gnaw on the toothpick sticking out of his mouth like a butch woodchuck. I rolled my eyes and said “This is an idea that’s been batted around forever. What else do you have?”

“They’re aliens with weird zombie faces.”

I walked away.
This was a mistake.

He tackled me to the ground and kneed me in the groin several times while screaming for me to put his sunglasses on. If he wasn’t so fervently knee-punting my doodlebops I would have agreed immediately, but I was in for about five minutes of continuous nutcrackering before he finally calmed down. In a voice that was several octaves higher than I remember my voice being when I woke up that morning, I agreed to put them on.

What I saw changed everything.

They Live is awesome. It’s 80’s cheese wrapped up in a satire that’s so biting and free of nuance it’s almost hamfisted. That being the case, it becomes a ham and cheese fist. And you know what? It may be pretty traditional, you might even call it working-class, but that ham-and-cheese fist is one I’ll gladly nom upon. For it is delicious, bad for me, and most importantly, it is American.

This film is so full of campy dialogue and gimmicky action sequences that it feels like a prototype for every action video game I’ve ever played. And in a lot of cases, it really is. This film deserves a lot of respect in that right - it’s a romp of violence against a clearly defined enemy, one that helped inspire a lot of video game programmers and pop culture influencers in this generation when the time came for them to create their own heroes. And there’s no better hero here than Roddy Piper’s unnamed character, who upon finding a pair of magic glasses whose power is never really explained, discovers that the wealthy of the world are aliens attempting to wipe out the human race so they can take over the planet.

Piper’s performance, while alliterative, is semi-reflective of the man himself. It’s Rod playing the classic red-blooded American everyman, a guy who believes in a hard day’s work and a fair shake for everyone willing to do their share. So this game-rigging to destroy the world doesn’t sit too well with him, so in the traditional American style, he responds to this injustice with violence. Lots of it. Indiscriminate, unexplained violence.

This is really where this film gets interesting. The action in this flick is so oddly over-the-top and the dialogue during them so silly that it cannot be taken seriously. It’s parodying the films that already existed in this era, i.e. Commando and Cobra, giving us a literally nameless (Piper’s character’s name is listed as “Nada” in the credits and is never mentioned in the film) killing machine who can somehow destroy a satellite dish with a Derringer. It’s ridiculous to the point of hilarity, and it’s worth the watch just for that.

It’s also funny how Carpenter’s script impaling the excess and self-centrism of the 1980s actually feels right at home today. It’s not the most subtle, but it’s blunt as a tackhammer. They Live shows us exactly who the bad guys are, and holds no room for differing opinions. And yet, while that is a mark of bad script writing, in this case it works for the films it’s making fun of - there are good guys, there are bad guys. It’s black and white. Which are also the colors the world turns when Piper and his buddies put those glasses on.

Huh. I wonder if there’s something to that…

** I rented this film, and I was not compensated for this review. Rest in peace, Rod. Thanks for the memories.**

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