I have always been a big fan of anything John Carpenter. Be it Big Trouble in Little China, The Thing, Escape From New York, hell, even In the Mouth of Madness was umm, interesting but watchable. But in the halls of everything JC (John Carpenter, not Jesus Christ) this is one of his more fun fares and is a definite quirky sci-fi 80’s staple.
They Live, riding high on the “aliens walking amongst us” sub-genre that made others like Alien Nation and V so popular in the 80’s, is really an enjoyable romp. The one shining jewel in this masterfully low-budget film is that it starred Rowdy Roddy Piper…yup, you read that right. A WWF Superstar acting in John Carpenter’s sci-fi social commentary? Boy I bet the stars aligned for this one. Now, in what can only be described as the decade where truly “anything goes” this film existed and I don’t believe could have been made at any other point in time. Yet looking back I think this does stand up fairly well…although my nostalgia may be getting the better of me.
To help clear my mind of all the Oscar buzz and hype, I watched this over the weekend along with a few other nostalgia ridden films that moonlight as “cult-classics”. They Live topped off the order and was followed by Army of Darkness, Cobra, and The Running Man where each proceeding film took me further down the ultra cheezy memory lane. Although, looking back They Live is probably one that held up the best and I think that’s because it really does say something about our society.
Let me try to make one statement though, which is, if you haven’t seen this film, this may be a tough sell. Only fans of this or those of you who grew up in the 80’s will be able to appreciate this and see it as more than just 80’s channel-surfing disposable (and forgettable) entertainment. Although, and on a personal note here, I see this film as one of the best sci-fi interpretations of exaggerated social commentary. The concept is engaging enough to grab your attention and is insanely interesting and thought-provoking. While this doesn’t have the impact that District 9 has as a political statement, I still think this film explores a very intriguing idea.
So now that I got that out-of-the-way, let’s move on to the more brainless and fun side of the film (which I should have gotten to in the beginning). This film’s success is (aside from it being a John Carpenter film) solely because of the obscure casting decision for the lead role. Probably the wildest (and least talented) lead in any John Carpenter film, Rowdy Roddy Piper looked to be an incarnation of Jack Burton (What, was Kurt Russell busy?)ich is another reason I love this movie. Now to be a hero in a JC film you need two exemplary hero traits…basically a hard head and a thick neck. Pretty sure this movie only found interest with avid John Carpenter fans when kids like me snuck into the theater with our older cousins/brothers or when we rummaged through their VHS libraries of 80’s action gold. The toned down Roddy made for an interesting casting choice so say the least but much like other odd films from the 80’s, after all this time fans become endeared to him.
Now, what is a John Carpenter movie without the action? And what kind of action can you expect when you have Rowdy Roddy Piper in the lead roles?? Hmm…don’t know if I’ve ever had an easier question. Obligatory WWF inspired fighting of course!! The alley fight scene (which I still heavily enjoy) went on for just over six minutes…and just like watching a WWF match on TV, you’ll know that it went on 5 minutes longer that it needed. And they didn’t spare the WWF dramatics either. Someone tell me how, Keith David, who was just “suplexed” on the concrete parking lot, is still alive, let alone conscious.
There was so much back and forth in that scene that you almost expected to see someone hand down a metal chair from a second story window. Also, it should get you thinking that they were missing plot or dialog so they needed to milk the fight scene to make the film long enough. Either that or they were pandering to WWF fans and relied on them solely for box office sales. But who am I kidding, I loved every minute of it back then and still do today!
So with the human race nearly unknowingly enslaved by aliens hiding among us but controlling everything, it is up to Rowdy to uncover this all. And how does any 80’s hero do it? Right…by stumbling on it accidentally. Humans who know about the alien race have been trying to hack into TV signals and wake up the human race to the rouse. The only way that someone can tell a human from an alien is with “special sunglasses”…and what kind dominated the 80s? The one, the only, Ray Ban. (Can anyone say “anti-trust case”?) But while this does seem goofy, it really is pretty damn cool as it shows that everything we do and see everyday is subliminal mind control to keep the aliens in power. This just gets better and better, trust me.
The whole film is a wild ride but my favorite thing about any John Carpenter films is that they never really tie anything up. They always hint at and allude to a grander adventure right around the corner. I absolutely love how this movie plays like an epic but just shows you one small but important portion of it. There’s just so much going on that it would be impossible (and even more far-fetched than the plot) to have Rowdy save the world. To me the brilliance of the story was knowing the bounds and sticking within them. The ending was actually the best part of the movie because it left it all so open and in a very Twilight Zone way, where it (should have anyway) let your mind wander and think about “what happens next?”
All in all, I really don’t want to give too much away in this recommendation but those of you curious in the least should be moderately entertained. Hopefully you’ll get some laughs, be it at the effects, Piper’s rocking mullet or one of the best lines of the 80’s (spoken when Rowdy is in the bank). If you do give it a whirl,please keep in mind,this is an 80’s movie, so have your grain of salt ready:P
G-S-T Ruling: 3.5/5
G-S-T Seal of Approval: GRANTED