by Jon S.
At first glance, the Los Angeles that scrolls past the downtrodden drifter played by Roddy Piper in They Live, John Carpenter’s 1988 satire-masquerading-as-horror-sci-fi, is a fairly routine one: sun-drenched, sprawling, alternately pretty and grimy. However, that all changes when he finds a pair of special sunglasses that makes him see L.A. (and the world at large) for what it apparently is: a black-and-white-tinted playground for aliens who have infiltrated the highest corridors of power, both corporate and government, and are silently pulling the strings of the clueless masses through subliminal messages.
They Live is part of Scarecrow’s April Crosscut of Protest! flicks, exploring movies in which immovable objects meet opposing forces – resulting in lots of mayhem. And, boy, does it ever rain mayhem in They Live. It all starts when Nada, our drifter who looks a lot like a certain famous WWF wrestler, hits El Lay and discovers times are tough for those not born with a silver spoon (or even a bronze one) in their mouth. He eventually lands a construction job and makes the acquaintance of Frank Armitage (David Keith). Unfortunately, Nada turns out to be too sharp for his own good and notices some odd goings-on in a chuch adjacent to the homeless camp he and Frank live in. Even more unfortunately, so do the LAPD.
Before you know it, the authorities raze both the camp and the church. But not before Nada discovers a hidden compartment in the church where he find boxes and boxes of… sunglasses. As you can probably already guess, these aren’t your usual Ray-Bans. It isn’t long before Nada is seeing everything around him in a new light – and that’s both good and bad. It’s good because now he knows every fourth or fifth person around him is really an alien with a face that looks like a cross between the Grim Reaper and Fire Marshall Bill. It’s bad because said aliens eventually pick up on the fact that Nada knows all about them. Uh oh.
This all leads to Nada’s discovery of an underground faction of rebels who are attempting to blow the aliens’ cover and show the rest of the world what’s what. However, if you think the upwardly-mobile aliens are going to just sit back and let their comfy arrangement go to pieces at the hands of some pesky working-class humans without a fight, well, then you obviously underestimate how vicious 80’s yuppies can be. Particularly when their BMWs, Armani suits, and vast supplies of Perrier are threatened. I don’t have to tell you that fireworks ensue.
They Live is probably one of John Carpenter sharpest films, maintaining a somewhat whimsical tone pretty much until the end, but still driving its point home with ruthless efficiency. He could’ve easily given it the same serious, doom-laden atmosphere he gave his previous effort from the year prior, the underrated Prince of Darkness, but the effect would have not been quite the same. They Live succeeds because of how it effectively uses dark humor to deliver its commentary on the materialistic 80’s, Reaganomics, the rise of Yuppie Culture, and the ever-growing divide between the haves and have-nots.
Carpenter is aided by a solid trio of leads. The late WWF wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper acquits himself well in his big-screen debut, turning the luckless Nada into a very sympathetic figure. The camera loves Piper and he holds his own quite well with his more experienced co-stars. Carpenter veteran David Keith is his usual decent, no-nonsense self as Frank. He’s the perfect foil for Piper, especially in a now-famous fight scene in a downtown L.A. alley that goes to hilarious lengths. Meg Foster is ostensible heroine Holly Thompson, a conflicted TV exec who gets pulled into the fray. Frankly, Foster’s role is not much more than an extended cameo but she’s such a stunning feline presence that she makes the role feel bigger than it actually is.
When you get down to it, though, They Live succeeds not just because it is an entertaining, well-acted horror/sci-fi flick. It resonates because it is also an incisive commentary on society, class differences, and human nature, delivering a criticism on the distortion of the Golden Rule with unerring precision: those who have all the gold may get to make all the rules – but does that make it right?
In closing, we’d like to dedicate this review to the late, great Rowdy Roddy Piper (4/17/54 – 7/31/15) who was called away to the Big Wrestling Ring In The Sky way too soon. Hope you’re chewing bubblegum and giving them hell up there.
John S. is a Scarecrow volunteer who loves James Bond, Jason Bourne, Italian Gialli, Argento, Hitchcock, Ridley Scott, Sandra Bullock in The Proposal, Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, Theo James in anything, Steve Zahn in everything, Halloween (movie & holiday), South Park (cartoon & neighborhood), and Scarecrow Video – not necessarily in that order.