What’s up, Contenders? Terry Malloy here reporting live from the Waterfront.
“Brother, life’s a bitch. And she’s back in heat.” – John Nada, THEY LIVE
I can pretty safely say that John Carpenter is my favorite director. I’ve seen all of his major feature films, through thick and thin. I can’t defend them all, but nobody matches Carpenter in the 1980s. Every single pairing between Carpenter and Kurt Russell is hugely re-watchable. His style and voice match up perfectly with my tastes. That said, in spite of being a HUGE Carpenter fan, his action and sci-fi films have always been more my speed than his horror entries. And THEY LIVE, in my opinion, is the last full on slice of greatness in Carpenter’s filmography. Although, who knows, maybe he has another one left in him!
I first saw THEY LIVE as a pretty young man, and my introduction to the film came through hearing about the infamous 6-minute fight scene between Roddy Piper and Keith David.
At that point I saw the movie as a bizarre story starring a wrestler-turned-actor finding a pair of magic sunglasses and discovering an evil plot by aliens living among us. It was practically comedy to me, complete with great one-liners and a bizarre premise. I wanted to show it to friends because I loved it, but also because it was just SO out there.
But over the years I realized that all of the up front, in your face elements of the movie were simply Carpenter’s way of telling a marketable story that exposed his own anger at the economic policies of Ronald Reagan and the state of the country at that particular time. THEY LIVE is primarily a message movie, and as a not-so-bright young man, I kind of missed that. I was hugely entertained from the first watch, but today the film cuts a little deeper, with more of a satirical bite and some moments of almost chilling prophetic voice.
From a message perspective, the aliens that are revealed to be occupying the earth have already taken over. They are our ruling class and we are their cattle. While they live high on the hog here on earth, they slip us subliminal messages to keep us in line and to allow their total takeover to reach its completion.
Carpenter’s dissatisfaction with the trickle down theory of economics is quite clear to anyone who wants to see it.
Let’s be right up front: THEY LIVE works best when weighing both approaches to the film equally. You need to have a good time at the movies, or the message probably won’t sink in. But the message can’t beat you over the head, or else you’ll just roll your eyes. I think THEY LIVE is kind of a fascinating hybrid of great genre elements and effective issue-based story telling. If all you ever see is a big lunk of a wrestler, chewing bubble gum and kicking ass, you’ll still have a blast with this movie. But you may have trouble if all you are looking for is biting social commentary and can’t get past the genre elements.
“Rowdy” Roddy Piper’s role in the film is still one of much debate among fans. Some say that if Carpenter had gone with a “real” actor, THEY LIVE would’ve had less of a “stunt casting” feel to it and maybe would have aged more gracefully.
And I hear that argument. Piper didn’t necessarily go on to become a major headlining action film star. But I would argue that, while Piper clearly offers some flat lines of dialog, he brings a lot to the film that simply wouldn’t be there with another actor. Piper brings a rough and tumble, blue-collar feel to the story, which is exactly why Carpenter cast him. So no Roddy Piper, no epic alleyway fight sequence. Not to mention the hysterical one-liners that only a pro-wrestler can really pull off. If a serious actor had offered up the infamous bubble gum quote, there is no way it would have resonated the way it did with Piper saying it.
“I have come here to chew bubble gum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum...”
And I’m sure the political messages of the film are, to some, either points of contention, or a little too overt. For me, the messages of the film actually give me goosebumps to this day. I love the “message” elements of the movie as much, if not more than, the overt action. Watching this blu-ray allowed me to still frame each magazine and newspaper headline in order to see what hidden messages the occupying aliens were feeding to the unwitting masses. A lot of time and effort clearly went into building the world that only “wearers of the sunglasses” can see. “DO NOT QUESTION AUTHORITY”, “Buy”, “Marry and Reproduce”, “Obey”, “Sleep”. It seems to me that the social commentary of THEY LIVE can actually applies to far more than just a response to Reagan-era policies.
Anywhere where the strong are attempting to suppress the weak; in any society where propaganda is the norm and truth is kept under wraps; all who would pull the wool over the eyes of the masses should beware the wrath of Rowdy Roddy Piper!
I had the opportunity to watch this Blu on a friends home theater system, and all of us who watched it felt it was of spectacular quality. Roddy Piper’s mullet and Meg Foster’s hypnotic green eyes have never looked so good. Shout Factory has done an excellent job with the image quality of THEY LIVE and I can’t imagine the movie every having looked better.
On top of that, you’ve got a pretty deluxe package all around. Even starting with the package itself, Shout Factory commissioned some amazing throwback cover art for the box, and, in a stroke of genius, slapped a “Buy” stick on the front. Touches like that go a long way for fans like me who want their home video ownership to be something special.
The disc has a bunch of fun extras, including a lively commentary track with Carpenter and Piper palling around. You’ve also got some great interviews and BTS stuff with Carpenter, Meg Foster, and Keith David.
What all of this boils down to, is that THEY LIVE has arrived, on glorious Blu-ray, treated with the love it deserves. For fans of genre cinema, it doesn’t get much better than this.
And I’m Out.
Terry Malloy AKA Ed Travis